Listening for the voice of Michigan

If you spend enough time on Facebook, you’ve undoubtedly seen a list, article or picture describing “Things You Only Understand If You’re From Michigan” or a similar sentiment.  Lists like these identify that Michiganders seek a way to establish their culture and portray the beauty and struggle of life in the Great Lakes state.

Dustin M. Hoffman, visiting professor of creative writing, writes short stories to publish in literary magazines to explore these themes.

“From the age of 15 to around 27, I was painting houses,” Hoffman said.  “The voices of those guys I’ve worked with I’m always trying to capture.”

Hoffman has written extensively about life in the working class, from exploring the subtleties of carpentry in “Building Walls,”published in Puerto del Sol,  to a child reminiscing about his working grandfather’s life in “Grandpa Dies,” published in Quarterly West.

“There’s this thing: ‘people from Michigan don’t have accents’,” Hoffman said. “If you go down south, they pick you out.  I was always jealous of those interesting dialects, but something that really is the voice of Michigan are the working-class voices that have their own kind of rhythm and idiomatic expressions. Especially in my later years in construction, I was listening to these guys and their own kind of poetry.”

As a builder, Hoffman built upper-class homes that were easily accessible to middle-class families due to the housing boom of the mid-2000s.  During this time, he began to see some essential Michigan attitudes about nature.

“The subdivision, to me, is a very Michigan landscape,” Hoffman said.  “Or, more, subdivisions right next to corn fields and forests.  It’s so surreal to see these houses that all look the same next to these beautiful, overgrown forests that we’re so used to in Michigan that we take it for granted.  That surreal landscape has been very interesting to me.”

Hoffman feels the natural beauty that juxtaposes these homes is an essential part of Michigan’s character.

“It’s a very Michigan thing for us to not appreciate things like that until it’s taken away from us,” Hoffman said.  “We’ve always lived in a very surreal landscape with the Great Lakes around us.  We’re so rich in land and landscape.”

Looking back, Hoffman recognizes the formative power of a Michigan upbringing.

“To me, it always seemed like I was in a small town that I wanted to get out of and go to the big city,” Hoffman said.  “Only now am I starting to appreciate that stuff.”

Hoffman is excited to be teaching at Albion and looking forward to balancing his time between teaching and writing.

“Teaching reminds me to appreciate things that sort of fall away, like the basics,” Hoffman said. “To be in the moment with my students while they’re drafting – the anxiety they have,  I have it too.  When you’re writing, too, you can speak more honestly and sincerely to your students.”

Hoffman’s intimate understanding of what Michigan means and his capability to portray the intricacies of  life on the Great Lakes adds a touch of Michigan to Albion’s diverse faculty.

Photo courtesy of Dustin M. Hoffman

About Spencer White 57 Articles
Spencer White is a senior from Commerce, Michigan. He's dedicated to squeezing every last bit of journalism he can out of Albion College.

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