Live Through This

Surviving a Small Town

It’s not as bad as you think, we swear!

Illustration by Cynthia

When I say that I grew up in the most boring town in America, I mean it. There is exactly one thing that makes Westerville, Ohio, unique, and that is that it has no unique qualities whatsoever. It was a small town—you always ran into at least two or three relatives at the grocery store—but not small enough to be quaint or charming. It was Midwestern, but not Midwestern enough for us all to have super-cool accents like Frances McDormand in Fargo. It wasn’t close to any big cities, but it wasn’t in the country, either. The country would have been much cooler than what I ended up with; out there, you could farm, and get in touch with the rhythms of nature, and what-have-you. Maybe you could get a pony. In Westerville, we had no ponies. We just had the most boring town in America, slapped onto the side of the most boring city in America, which is Columbus. All of the stores were chain stores; all of the restaurants were chain restaurants; the only all-ages “punk” shows were at the local megachurch, and those were just some dudes who had grown goatees and gotten tribal tattoos so that it sounded less boring when they told us to obey our parents.

Westerville, basically, was Hell. A slow, boring, Jean-Paul Sartre Hell, where you are just locked in the same room, with the same people, for eternity, with nothing to do, ever. Don’t believe me? Think I’m exaggerating? Let’s take a tour!

WELCOME TO SCENIC WESTERVILLE!

WELCOME TO SCENIC OTHER PART OF WESTERVILLE! It is across the street!

CREEPY GERMAN DEVIL CHILDREN READING FROM THE NECRONOMICON! Whoops, they cast the “Permanent Boredom” spell! Now they are mere brass figures, trapped forever, unable to move…OUT OF WESTERVILLE!

Let’s talk to Lou Reed about this, shall we?

And yet, I survived. I even got to leave, eventually. Lou is correct that there’s only one good use for a small town, or at least for my small town: you do know that you want to get out. But I used to feel very self-conscious about where I came from. Whenever I spent time around people with cooler upbringings—people who’d always lived in big cities, or who had grown up on vegan hippie communes, or just hipsters who had to live in the most fashionable neighborhoods at all times and who made a big point of only hanging out with the Right Sort of People—I felt like a big, boring, bland nobody. I wished I’d had an interesting life. I wished I’d been from anywhere but Westerville.

But that was before I figured certain things out. Yes, it can feel really good to get out of your small town. But before you do that, you have to live there. And there are actually benefits to that experience. If and when you leave, you are going to find that you are, strangely, far more interesting than many people with “interesting” life stories. Because here is the first thing you learn to do, living in the middle of nowhere:

1. Develop Unique Tastes. For a while, it is probably going to feel as if you are alone in the world. If everyone else is into the high school football team, and you are into Lou Reed, or 20th century poetry, or (let’s just say) feminist theory, well: odds are, given the small population size, that you are not going to find many other people who share your interests. And it is certainly going to be hard to find a way to act on them.

This isn’t an experience that’s reserved for people who have “weird taste,” or even vaguely unusual taste. As it turns out, the biggest bands also skip the smallest towns. Nobody is getting Kanye West to play the sticks; his album with Jay-Z is called Watch the Throne, not Watch the Delightful Service at Applebee’s. If you have a small movie theater—one town I lived in briefly only showed two movies at a time, and they were both “art movies”; we took an hour-long drive to see Ocean’s Eleven at a mall—then you probably miss a lot. It’s easier to get clothes and books in a small town now, thanks to the internet; you don’t have to rely on a single far-away mall, or the tiny local bookstore. (Yes, it’s charming and independent in theory, but less so when you see that the only display table is reserved for Harry Potter. And has been since 1997.) But it’s still hard to meet new people who can tell you about what’s happening, in terms of clothes and books. In fact, it’s hard to meet new people, generally. If you ever feel like you’re in a social rut, in your small town, well: I hope you like that rut. Because you have already met everybody, and everybody has already met you, and you are pretty much stuck with them.

But, as it turns out, a bit of isolation is a good thing. People who grow up with the option of joining whole subcultures dedicated to their tastes always have to deal with the question of whether they’d still have the same tastes if they didn’t have those same subcultures. I’m not saying they’re poseurs—they’re not; you’re not; I love you all; etc.—but they are people who have grown up learning about this stuff from others, and have consequently learned not only what to like, but how to like it.

You, on the other hand, are free. No one is going to tell you what to like, or how to like it, or even where to find it. So you figure out how to rely on your own judgment. This is what’s referred to as “taste,” for the record. You’re developing yours—by finding what you like, thinking about why you like it, and standing by that even when people disagree with you.

2. Get Research Skills. The Youth of America have a unique and wonderful blessing, compared with previous generations. That blessing is called Tumblr. When you want to find out about things, you’ve got a billion people talking about what they think is cool, and sometimes posting snippets of it online for your enjoyment.

In my day, we had no Tumblr. What we had was called Factsheet 5, and it was a directory of every more-or-less prominent zine in America. (Also, articles with headlines like, “WILL THE INTERNET REPLACE ZINES? Ha Ha, Never,” and “Factsheet 5: Ten or Fifteen Years From Now, Teenagers Will Definitely Know What This Magazine Is.”) I spent weekends poring through Factsheet 5 with a highlighter, marking zines that sounded interesting, and figuring out how I could get my allowance to cover as many of them as possible.

You guys: this was so much better than Tumblr. Granted, I’m old and cranky. But having to find cool stuff the hard way taught me so much. Aside from that whole “making your own judgments” thing we covered earlier, it taught me things like: Every piece of art has a history, and a context. If an artist that you enjoy mentions having liked something, even just in passing, track down whatever it is they mentioned. Learn the names of people who are in bands you like, and then look to see if any of those people have been in other bands; if you enjoy a nonfiction book, read its bibliography. Track down those related books, and related bands, until you have a whole world of stuff to enjoy, not just isolated pieces. And get a library card. Seriously, this is the dorkiest advice I will ever give you, but: get a dang library card. You would be shocked at how much easier it makes things. My library had an AV section stocked by someone who was really into ’80s and early-’90s indie-ish stuff; I found out what Sonic Youth and Pavement were by just checking out a few CDs with interesting covers every week. That’s how I found out who David Lynch was, too. Oh, and if you are into clothes, let me tell you a secret: That crappy Salvation Army nearby? It’s actually better than 88% of the “vintage” stores in large cities. You can get a dress for $10 that would cost at least $50 elsewhere, and there is far more interesting stuff to find, because it hasn’t been picked over, because no one knows how great it is but you.

Weirdly, it works this way socially, too. It’s a cliché to say that small-town Midwesterners are “nice.” I don’t think we are; we can be as sexist, racist, homophobic, or just plain mean as anyone else. But we are tactful. In smaller towns, people will treat you like a huge jerk, but they usually won’t call you a huge jerk. And this is because we know that if we give in to our natural urges and call you a stupid buttmunch, we are going to see you again. We are going to see you every time we go to the grocery store, and it is always going to be awkward, and even if we think we have gotten away from you it will eventually turn out that we are dating your second cousin, so guess who is coming to our wedding, because it’s you. Now: I did not like being unable to call people jerks. So I moved to New York, where I can be a misanthropic judgeypants without reservation until the day I die, peacefully alone, surrounded by cats, as nature intended. But I will not deny that I made closer and more tolerant friendships in Ohio than I have almost anywhere else. Because the same thing applies: If your town has a very limited number of people, you can’t just avoid people because they have unusual taste in music, or slightly different politics, or seem kind of weird. You have to learn what there is to like, about their personal weirdness. And since there’s nothing going on in town, and you can’t just stand next to each other at a concert, you actually have to talk to each other.

Sure, on one hand, there is nothing cool going on in your town, no one cool to hang out with, and nothing to do. On the other hand: are you kidding me? There’s decades and decades’ worth of cool stuff out there, publicly available, and cheap or even free. There are some of the most unique people you’ll ever meet–and you have nothing but time in which to get to know each other. You just have to know how to look. And by the time you find other people who share your interest, they will be shocked by your keen eye and depth of knowledge.

Your only problem, really, is that the new cool stuff isn’t happening in your town. Which brings us to:

3. Get Creative. Oh, there are no cool bands in your town? Nobody is playing shows? You wish you were able to go somewhere, and hear live music, specifically catered to your own tastes, whenever you want? I’m sorry. I couldn’t hear you, over the sound of you NOT LEARNING HOW TO PLAY GUITAR.

Seriously. If you want new, cool art in your life, you have three options. One, you can stand around, with a bored look on your face and wait for some cool new art to fall out of the sky. Two, you can locate a supply—which is frequently hard, if you live in a small town with few resources. Or, three, you can create the supply. You can take these amazing qualities of yours that we’ve been talking about—the taste that comes from having to cultivate and rely on your own judgment, the knowledge that comes from having nothing better to do than look, hard, for stuff to like—and you can create what is literally the newest, coolest piece of art you can personally imagine.

I know, I know: You don’t know how to play guitar yet. Or write short stories, or start a blog, or paint, or direct short films, or sew your own clothes, or take photos. Maybe you’ve tried that stuff, and it was really hard, and you did a bad job. You know, I had a friend with the exact same problem, once. Her name was “Literally Everyone Who Has Ever Been Good at Anything, Ever, JEEZ.”

It’s fine to have a rough start. That’s how you learn. Look at Mr. Reed, up there. He was the front man for the Velvet Underground, became a beloved proto-punk icon, and perfected that flat, talk-singy, “I’m so bored and alienated that I can barely force myself through this stupid song I wrote” tone that the Strokes eventually ripped off, and that every hipster boy attempts to affect in conversation. He’s a very accomplished guy, that Lou Reed. And here’s how punk rock he was as a 16-year-old. Who’s ready for a rousing saxophone solo??? You are!

So, yes. It might take you some time to learn your trade. You will probably be bad at first. You will create a few things you’re not proud of. And no matter how good you are, the art you create as a teenager will be very different from the art you create as an adult. And that’s fine. The only way a bad artist ever became a better artist was by making more art. Classes, feedback from your friends, editors, and all of that: they’re nice. But you are never, ever going to get better at something you don’t actually do. And the good news is, if you enjoy creating art, living in a boring small town gives you lots of time to practice. It’s not like there’s anything else going on tonight, right?

So, let’s take a look at you! And all of these awesome skills you picked up, living in a terminally uncool small town. First of all, you learned to be an individual, with individual tastes—and to analyze and defend your tastes. Seems like it might be useful in conversation! Then, you learned how to dig up new, cool stuff—even stuff that’s relatively obscure—so it seems like you probably know a lot. Another fun quality to have, in a friend or companion! And then, finally, out of sheer desperation, you learned to practice an art form your own damn self. Which is relatively rare. And, given that you’ve done nothing but practice since forever, you’re probably pretty darn good at it by now.

Yes, Small Town Girl: Hang your head in shame. For lo, due to your not having grown up on a hippie commune and/or in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, you have turned yourself into that least interesting of all things: a unique, articulate, knowledgeable person with great taste who can spot cool things before they’re popular, and is also a talented artist. DAMN! Who’s going to want to hang out with you now? ♦

47 Comments

  • RockHatesMiriam December 2nd, 2011 3:29 PM

    This is just perfection…I live in a very small town where everyone looks, dresses, talks and acts the same. BUT ISOLATION IS CREATIVITY!! I feel smug whenever I start listening to a cool band waaaaaay before everyone else… Also, the parts of big cities that are supposed to be ‘cool’ are normally over commercialised or touristy anyway…

    Another amazing article that most of us can relate to, thanks Rookie! <3

    http://rockhatesmiriam.blogspot.com

  • Luci December 2nd, 2011 3:31 PM

    *prints out article and frames on bedroom wall*

  • Anna F. December 2nd, 2011 3:38 PM

    Getting a library card is the best piece of advice I could give anybody. My library was my WORLD in high school. I used to go after school and read all the archived New Yorkers, and take out movies I had never heard of but with interesting covers (that’s how I got into French New Wave). When “How Sassy Changed My Life” came out, I had never even heard of the magazine but picked up the book because it was on display in the “recommended reads” section.
    Then, several years later, I got a tumblr and found out all this stuff was “trendy.” These were the things that made me nerdy in eleventh grade, and suddenly I would be interrogated with “Do you REALLY like that stuff, or are you just pretending?” Which is another nice thing about discovering things offline – it’s a more intimate process, and you don’t have to defend your tastes to your tumblr dashboard.

  • Laia December 2nd, 2011 3:41 PM

    This is soo so true and it feels like I almost could’ve written it (except at least Puerto Rico is not SUPER boring, but the whole interest thing is SPOT ON).

    Also cool Lou back then is def not the same Lou making crazy records with Metallica today which is a BUMMER.

  • yourenotfunny December 2nd, 2011 3:47 PM

    Yes…. I can so relate to SO many things in this article. Ugh. Idk about the small-town thrift stores being better, though, ‘cuz all the ones around here suck.

  • FashionHauties December 2nd, 2011 4:09 PM

    This is really good. I live in a really small town and I try to be as unique as possible and I LOVE to use things other than the computer to find stuff out! This is great! :)
    - Abby ( fashionhauties.blogspot.com )

  • WitchesRave December 2nd, 2011 5:54 PM

    Personally, I think it’s worse to grow up in the Suburbs of a city than in a small town, atleast small towns have culture…

  • Sugar December 2nd, 2011 6:07 PM

    haha.. Fargo is NOT in the Midwest.

  • broguishrogue December 2nd, 2011 6:10 PM

    really really great. REALLY.

  • Bren December 2nd, 2011 7:23 PM

    I´m from a small town, but am currently in Mexico and I feel that it´s helped me figure out what I like even more. All of my friends in Oklahoma are in bands, or take pictures, etc. and I don´t really know what I like and sometimes they´ll tease me about things I like, before I really get into them and being in a strange country with my grandparents has kind of been a nice break from everyone´s opinions. I´m caught up on a bunch of shows, my iTunes has never been more diverse, I´ve met nice people. I´m in the city and I still have that small town mentality. It´s great.

  • Kathryn December 2nd, 2011 8:07 PM

    This is perfect. I am so excited about this.
    I live in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Most everyone dresses the same, listens to the same music, talks the same, etc.
    this totally motivated me. THANK YOU!

  • kalika_ma December 2nd, 2011 8:08 PM

    I’m from a SMALL town (200 people at best). I’d call it a Hamlet but we have a church so I can’t. Everyone knew everyone’s everything. We were the first family to be publicly divorced. It was horrific. The community and church disowned us. It felt like the Salem Witch Trials.

  • MaggieMae December 2nd, 2011 9:00 PM

    so ironic, I lived in Pickerington, Ohio until the 7th grade. Only like 30 miles away or so. Great story!

  • Veganpop December 2nd, 2011 9:46 PM

    This may sound like a banal question but how does one go about teaching themselves how to play guitar? I’ve no idea how but I’d like to.

    • Anna F. December 2nd, 2011 11:23 PM

      honestly, i got a book from the library (I KNOW.) Some music stores also let you rent instruments if you can’t afford one right away.

      • Tavi December 3rd, 2011 9:54 AM

        here’s a thing on how to buy one..
        http://rookiemag.com/2011/09/for-those-about-to-rock/
        i honestly started learning by googling tabs and chords for songs i wanted to learn. and then googling the chords to find out how to shape my hands and everything. after doing it a lot you just remember the chords and everything.

    • saranev December 4th, 2011 11:24 PM

      I googled “guitar tabs” and “learn guitar chords” and did the same thing Tavi did — looked for songs I wanted to learn and just strummed the basic chords to muddle through some of my favorite songs!

  • Laia December 2nd, 2011 10:30 PM

    Veganpop: there’s tons of great stuff online! you can find all the chords and even really easy to read guitar tabs on your favorite song. Do you like Nirvana or Hole? Cause those songs are really easy to play and will make you feel AWESOME!

    (I guess any general punk/punk influenced music is a good place to start tho…)

  • PessimisticTeen December 2nd, 2011 10:34 PM

    This is creepy, I live and Dublin Ohio (neighbors!). I hate it. Thank you so much :-)

  • NMHfan December 3rd, 2011 12:12 AM

    Being from Westerville, you’ve clearly not tried to go anywhere and/or don’t have a license. Columbus is an awesome city–it’s completely drivable, there’s great high-end and boutique shopping (including Westerville), tons of colleges, amazing bars, restaurants, dives. There’s music at the Newport almost every night. Great local bands. Not to mention it’s one of the #1 ranked cities for gay people. There’s an art gallery hop every month.

    If you can’t drive, take the public transportation. It’s there. It’s available. Take it to the Short North or Clintonville. Go to Magnolia Thunderpussy (record shop) or Rag-o-Rama (vintage shop).

    And let’s be clear, Westerville isn’t a town. It’s a suburb. It takes 20 minutes to drive to Short North / downtown Columbus.

    Way to completely misrepresent.

  • Buzz December 3rd, 2011 12:36 AM

    Sugar, Francis McDormand’s character from the film Fargo is from the Midwest (Minneapolis).

  • Microbyte1 December 3rd, 2011 12:43 AM

    i seriously feel better about living in a small town now, thank you :)

  • DarlingDelirious December 3rd, 2011 1:36 AM

    I’m from a small town in Minnesota and I’m home schooled, because I just don’t relate to anyone in the public school. It’s really easy to feel isolated and depressed here, but it makes me feel a lot better just knowing I’m not the only one stuck in a cruddy town. Thanks for this!

  • KayKay December 3rd, 2011 4:53 AM

    The town I live in is so small and boring we don’t have a park with a statue of devil-like children.
    The only vaguely interesting places are my hair dresser who’s always super nice, a tiny kebap restaurant that reeks of cigarette smoke and this cute interior decoration shop called Living & More.
    As for getting creative, I sing (Yes, I actually take lessons. I don’t just belt out the chorus to whatever song comes on the radio. Just kidding, we don’t even have a radio), I read and I knit. Plus, I have the internet and friends.
    I agree, living in a small town has its advantages :)

  • Narita December 3rd, 2011 5:45 AM

    Ohhhhhhh this is just great! I’d live on a stupid/boring/everything in negative terms island near the Netherlands and it’s horrible because the people are horrible, for as far any people live here. BUT THIS. THIS IS JUST GREAT.

  • Isobel December 3rd, 2011 6:23 AM

    This is ace. Trying to set up a band night in my town with a friend just because of our stupid town. We are wedged right betwen two cities, which is great sometimes, but rubbish when you wish you were walking distance to something cool. The closest thing to cool we have are a few good charity shops. I’m excited to do it though because I know there’s a lot of kids like us here with nowhere to go to hear the music they like. Also, NMHfan, are you from the tourist board?

  • ruby December 3rd, 2011 9:08 AM

    I can sympathise, as I live in the english countryside (though i wouldn’t say i was in touch with the rhythms of nature..) and feel very far away from everything!
    There’s not a lot of culture or things happening, but still, it is sort of ‘quaint’ here!

  • Rachael December 3rd, 2011 11:03 AM

    Hello, neighbor(ish)! I grew up in a tiny farming town in the vicinity of Youngstown, Ohio and went to college in Ada. I’m living in a city now and I’d actually really like to return to the country. There’s nothing like complete isolation to build great friendships.

  • mynameiseve December 3rd, 2011 1:06 PM

    okay so here’s the deal. I have lived my 17 years of existence is Manhattan and it’s been great BUT (and that’s a big but, and i feel like i might sound super unappreciative for it)…BUT at times I feel like I wish I lived in a small town in the middle of nowhere. I read a poem once by EB White that said the 3 types of people in NY are the commuters who never see it, the people who’ve grown up here and never appreciate it, and the people who’ve worked their asses off to get here and can truly take advantage of the city. I feel like I don’t know how awesome it might be to live in a big city, and at times I feel oppressed by the level of super creative and artsy people around me. I’m a senior in high school and am mostly applying to small liberal arts colleges in teeny towns in places like Minnesota and Iowa and Maine because I want a change, and everyone I know who comes from a small town background seems so much more interesting and real and most importantly seems to truly know who they are, which is unbelievably refreshing.

    • jessejames December 5th, 2011 10:39 PM

      Are you applying to Bowdoin? I am and I’m SO excited (if I get in).

  • diana94 December 3rd, 2011 1:30 PM

    Bren what city in Mexico are you living at??

    i used to live in bellbrook, OH a Dayton suburb :)

    • Bren December 5th, 2011 7:26 PM

      I’m in Mexico City, which I already posted as a comment, but it makes more sense if I reply.

  • Addy December 3rd, 2011 1:47 PM

    Well now I feel bad about growing up in Chicago.

  • Juniper December 4th, 2011 11:26 AM

    I reeeealy loved this. But I feel kinda jealous of your small town. My small town has a population of about 300, one gas station, and there’s no stop lights for 50 miles.

  • Tracy December 4th, 2011 4:35 PM

    This was a great read. I live in a small town in East Kentucky and completely relate to this. The isolation of a rural area has allowed me to have plenty of free time to discover the things I enjoy in life.

  • Bren December 4th, 2011 10:57 PM

    Diana, I’m in Mexico City!

  • Pocket Cow December 5th, 2011 10:21 AM

    My town has no movie theatre, a swimming pool consistently filled with angry old people and registered pedophiles, and 5 liquor stores. The best places in town tend to be the thrift stores and the second-hand book/music store that will order in whatever vinyl you want.

  • Cruicked December 5th, 2011 11:49 AM

    My small town sounds nothing at all like Westerville. Westerville sounds good in comparison to where I live. I wish there were chain stores and cool, arty cinemas.

  • JennaF December 5th, 2011 1:04 PM

    Dylan and Nomi, did you have a lot of unstructured time with other kids when you were growing up? I think that part is more important than whether you’re related to those kids. I’m an only child, and people always are surprised that I am (which I find mildly annoying!). “You don’t SEEM like an only child,” they say. And I had a lot of that unstructured time. Kids act differently when adults aren’t watching.

  • JennaF December 5th, 2011 1:11 PM

    Wth? An old comment showed up as a new one. Trying again:

    NMHfan, I had the same reaction! I wonder if Sady grew up in Westerville a while ago? Columbus is awesome now anyway. Random example:

    “Columbus, Ohio Named Gay Destination Of The Year”

    http://www.ontopmag.com/article.aspx?id=10159

    Excerpt:

    Columbus fended off Baku, Azerbaijan, Cartagena, Colombia, Floriandopolis, Brazil, Istanbul, Turkey and St. Petersburg, Russia to take home the coveted travel title.

    [...]

    “Yes, Baku, Cartagena … Columbus. But really! It’s a major and thriving college town, a center to big-time business like Abercrombie & Fitch, it’s got a rollicking bar scene, and a burgeoningly hipsteriffic arts and cultural community. Seriously, it’s delivering a lot of innovative and welcoming perks that make for a killer weekend. Hello, Columbus!”

  • jessejames December 5th, 2011 10:38 PM

    I live on a tiny island in Maine… and this pretty much sums everything up. Every few months the church holds this huge rummage sale and there are all these old ladies hosting it and you jut find the BEST STUFF!

  • diana94 December 6th, 2011 4:00 PM

    thats cool Bren you live in the almost safe part! i live in the north and how do you like my lovely country???

  • hannahabbe December 6th, 2011 6:25 PM

    This is my life. Small towns well, um, suck.

  • aa December 23rd, 2011 4:05 PM

    I enjoyed the article but have to second NMHfan that you have misrepresented more than a bit – Columbus is a great city, FAR from the ‘most boring city’ in the US… I grew up in UA and had a very similar experience and hated the suburb, but Columbus is great… and it’s oh so close!

  • q April 22nd, 2012 10:22 PM

    Girl, you clearly didn’t take advantage of your city! I’m from Powell, Ohio, about 20 minutes from Westerville and downtown Columbus, and my grandparents live in Westerville. Now that I’m in college, I’ve realized just how much more Columbus has to offer than most of the cities my friends are from do. Gallery Hop and the Short North are completely awesome. There’s always something going on at Ohio State. There are great record stores, like Magnolia Thunderpussy and Used Kids Records, and fun vintage stores, too. Yes, Westerville itself is boring, but it’s a suburb, not a small town, and Columbus has a lot to offer if you’re willing to take a 15 minute drive. :)

  • avi June 13th, 2013 8:04 AM

    love your taste in music:) I live in a small town but it’s 30 mins on the bus from a big city… yeah, I like my town

  • punintentional June 15th, 2013 2:24 PM

    I live in a tiny town thats a frickin $15 ferry ride away from anything. life is painnnn