During my weekend in NYC, I was anointed an honorary New Yorker. Cool for me as I love the city and now when I return I can say, “Yep, I’m heading home.” I kept thinking of belonging to a place and writing from that place and remembered the words of Mary Clearman Blew in a class I took, “Some stories must be set in a certain place or they can’t happen.” Surely no New York, no Gatsby.
I think of the great narratives and the cities or countrysides they emerged from from the Ringing Plains of Troy to The Bonfire of the Vanities. Poetry, always close to my heart, like Auden’s “September 1, 1939” or Richard Hugo’s “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” are grounded in place so hard that you can feel the grit in the words. They also have a time period they arose out. What of the times and places I write about and how is that important? Hugo’s after the boom, Auden at the outset of a terrible war, Homer during the final year of a terrible war, and Wolfe’s rise of the boom. The thematic concerns of the writer arise out of theses places and become interwoven into fabric by the details the writer chooses to focus on. Theme can be set anywhere, but the time and place of what we write must be rendered believable and not just as a travel vingette. We must draw the reader and make them a citizen of that place and do so without sounding didactic.
It is an interesting accident that the writers I used in this post are not of the place the narratives unfold. They are outsiders who have come to tell a story of a place. At first blush I as an honorary New Yorker can only write my experience of the city, but with the right research any of us can write about any place we choose and it can take place during any time. I have always recoiled at the criticism from some that if a writer wasn’t born and raised in a particular place, then he or she has no business writing about it, such as I’ve heard about E. Annie Proulx in Wyoming. Once you show up somewhere, you’re a part of it no matter how short the time. Ah time again.
Ernest Hemingway said something to the effect that writer must be so well researched that the one detail used assures the reader that the author is an expert. The great thing about a liberal arts degree is develpoing the tools to become a relative expert on anything. I won’t say the best stories must be set in a particular place. Surely some stories can be set anywhere and still be successful. “Brokeback Mountain” in Colorado say or The Heart of Darkness up the Amazon. How would those stories be changed if they were set in a different place? Maybe I should look at some of my stories and ask the same question.
I’m over my word limit, next time Part II. Displace