On Writing “Katy Perry Is Crooning and Won’t Stop Just Because I Did”
October 11, 2018 § 4 Comments
by Shuly Xóchitl Cawood
I grew up in Yellow Springs, a village in Ohio, and I return to it several times throughout the year to see my parents and to be in a place I still love and that most feels like home to me. I live in a city now, not a very big one—population 65,000—but large compared to the town in which I grew up with a population of under 4,000.
You want to know what it’s like to grow up in that small of a town? One Saturday afternoon, many years ago, our German Shepherd, named Sable, jumped our picket fence and ran to the school grounds a block away, as there was a festival happening there, and my sister and I, likely early teens at the time, had gone to it. Because Yellow Springs is a small town, the news traveled fast to us. People recognized her as our dog, but they didn’t just tell us, “Your dog is loose.” We were told, “Sable’s on the hayride.” (And yes, she was.)
My high school graduating class had 69 students (and we had a big class), so at YSHS we didn’t just know everyone in our grade: we knew everyone a year below and a year above, and most of the students from two years below and two years above, and on and on. We only had so many people to know, and this made the business of knowing easier. Even today, I am always struck by the number of people I know and who know me when I go anywhere in Yellow Springs, even though I have not lived there for twenty years.
The piece, “Katy Perry Is Crooning and Won’t Stop Just Because I Did,” is about one day in my small town, a day when I was there a few months ago. On the morning of that day, while out and about in Yellow Springs, I talked to a villager (a person I have known for decades) who told me of the unexpected death of a man earlier that same morning, someone who is a few years younger than I am. This villager told me about the death of the person not just because it was sad and jarring—his being under fifty and, from outward appearances, in seemingly good health—but also because there was an assumption I would know him. And I did.
These are the kinds of assumptions you can make, though, in a small town. Later that same day, while I was taking a walk, I ran into the brother of the man who died. Only in a small town can you hear terrible news about a person and then a few hours later happen to run into the family bearing the weight of that news. Only in a small town can you also know the brother, even if you have not lived there for twenty years.
In my small town, I didn’t feel right about not saying anything, not stopping to offer my condolences to the brother. Perhaps I would have felt or acted differently had I been somewhere else. Perhaps the news might not have seemed as sad and awful had I not known who they were, had the news been that of complete strangers.
I realize I have used the words know, known, knowing so many times in trying to tell you how all of this began.
I started writing down snippets that night (more a listing of details) and then wrote the piece fully while in a coffee shop in downtown Yellow Springs. I was finishing up a full-length poetry manuscript the week of my visit, so this piece’s first incarnation was as a poem. The poem became an essay only after I decided to submit it to Brevity. I write very prose-like poems anyway, so all I needed to do was take out the line breaks. Oh, and I also had to change one detail—I had taken some creative license with the placement of the car since poems don’t have to adhere to the truth, but for this to be a creative nonfiction essay, the car needed to be where it actually was in “real life,” as they say.
I miss living in a small town. I miss my village. I miss knowing so many people and being known the way I am known there—not because I am famous but because I grew up there and have a history there, a history I am still building, even though I don’t live there anymore.
Shuly Xóchitl Cawood is the author of the memoir, The Going and Goodbye (Platypus Press). She has an MFA from Queens University, and her writing has been published in The Rumpus, Zone 3, Santa Clara Review, New Madrid Journal, and Cider Press Review, among others.