By Michelle Janssens Keller, contributing editor

The landscape of our youth defines us, or so I’ve heard at many a writing workshop. We write to know ourselves better, to understand the world, and yet we write from within a long-ago-defined space. Can we ever escape the indelible landscape? 

I am a rural girl, raised in the glaciated hills of northern Michigan. When writing now, I gravitate to water images. This pull, something I can’t control, is most certainly caused by all those years spent floating in fresh water lakes. Or I write of snow, piles of it packing me in as a child, offering me a thrilling silence, an escape. Even now, living in Chicago, the first big blanket of snow feels like a break, like I’m free to stop my daily To-Dos, like the city and all its ambient noise quiets under a spell. So, this is me. Water and snow, hills rolling, these words compulsively popping up in my work again and again. From this space, I view the world. From my rural childhood, I write the city. 

I’m raising daughters in Chicago, much to my surprise. It isn’t what I would have imagined so many years ago when life was something I thought I could plot out. Kids grow up fast, and so, here they are: city kids. They too see snow and water as constants in their landscape, except the water is a city border, its access is an urban beach with dogs running in packs, and immigrants cooking all types of meat on tiny, portable, smoking grills, and a crew of lifeguards posed alert on top of white, wooden watchtowers, their whistles blowing and flags snapping at the sign of rip tides or e-coli plumes. 

My kids search for and collect sea glass, and their urban lakeshore offers up shards of every color. I’m aware the glass comes from broken bottles tossed without thought, and some of them are too fresh and sharp to keep. (We drop those in the city trash bins heaping in the parking lot.) Still, the worn-down ones are beautiful gems plucked from a mystical sea, urban trash reborn into a child’s collection/imagination. In my childhood, I loved the same Great Lakes water, but I mostly dug out stones, not glass, from Lake Michigan’s unpopulated, northern sand. I collected them, too, pocketed those stones for safekeeping. 

The images we collect in childhood surface in our writing. Childhood memories are notoriously murky—facts are debatable, details refuted, impressions dictate—so it makes sense to me that image and object prevail. There’s a truth glimmering in the sea glass. Something solid and proven in the stone. All these pocketed pieces add up to make the landscape real, whole, true. A city kid might remember the cultivated willow tree bent over a ball field in the park across the street and think: Chicago. The skyline’s distinct angles and sheen may play no part in this memory, but that child will someday see, smell, touch the bowing branch of another willow and be transported back to her specific city. 

How do you see the world? What defines the space from which you gaze? I’m in love with the contrasts. How one place brushes up against the other and offers new perspective. How juxtaposing images can reveal an emotional truth. Maybe our formative landscapes never really let us go. Maybe this is a good thing because within these spaces we mine meaning, image, a distinct point of view. 

In the Slag Glass City we want to know how you write the urban world. Bring us your landscapes, your reborn trash, your compulsive words. Empty your pockets of those collected objects and build us an essay. Write us a city.

Michelle Janssens-Keller

Michelle Janssens Keller is a contributing editor for Slag Glass CityShe holds an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University, where she also served as assistant CNF editor for Water~Stone Review. A past recipient of the Bear River Writer’s Merit Scholarship from the University of Michigan, her work has appeared in CONSEQUENCE Magazine, Woodwork Magazine, Raven Chronicles, and The Art SourceMichelle writes from the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago, where she lives with her artist husband and two water-loving daughters. 


SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 4  · September 2018

Image header by anjanettew