Uncategorized | August 26, 2011

Like Rob, I’ve been thinking lately about the influence of place on my writing. My main requirement of the space immediately around me is only that it’s really quiet for hours and hours on end. I’ve had fits and spurts of that kind of quiet this summer. In the past few months I’ve traveled far more than I usually do, making trips to Australia, Norway, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Atlanta, GA. Since the end of May, I’ve spent only two continuous two-week stretches in my apartment (with lots of shorter “visits” interspersed). It’s been a great summer, if exhausting—and while it has perhaps been less immediately productive than a more sedentary summer would have been, it has certainly given me a lot to think about during the next eight months, during which I’ll be once more firmly rooted in Flint.

Since a portion of these trips were made to places where I’ve lived (Williamstown and Boston, MA; my parents’ place in Northern Michigan; and, if we stretch things a bit, my ancestral homes in Wisconsin and Norway), I’ve been thinking in particular about how those places enter into my writing. I’m fairly sure that my identity as a “Michigan writer” played a part in my getting a job here in Michigan, and it’s true that most of the stories I’ve published take place here; the novel that I’m finishing is set here, too. But truth be told, I haven’t yet done any substantial writing while I’ve lived in Michigan. In those first 18 years, there were a lot of half-finished stories and over-blown creative writing assignments. Then came years in Massachusetts, New York, and Missouri—places where I went to school, grew up a little, and wrote more seriously. In the year since I’ve been back in the Great Lakes State, I’ve produced some new stuff, but nothing to suggest that coming back was inspirational. Does this mean I’m not really a Michigan writer?

The problem for me is that I can’t write about a place while I’m there. Setting is for me an abstraction of the real; I write stories set a hundred-odd years ago, or hundreds of miles from where I am. This remove feels necessary to my process of forging fictional space. If the place itself is close at hand, peering through my windows, I feel too beholden to the literal to write with any energy or conviction. This was my shortcoming, too, when as a kid I’d take summer art classes. I loved to draw and my technique was okay, but the best you could have said of my work was that it was accurate. My still-lifes were too still. Then as now, it’s only when the model is out of sight that I feel freed up to invent.

There’s a photo album in the lobby of my hometown library filled with lost photographs—snapshots, wedding proofs, senior portraits and much more—all discovered between the pages of library books. When I write at that library, I always begin with a perusal of the album. I’ve never seen anyone I know there, just as I’ve never seen anyone I know on a found photography website (though there are always quick flashes of almost-recognition). But familiar faces are not what I’m looking for. Instead, the challenge I pose myself after looking at these lost photographs is to see how many of them I can still describe after I’ve found a carrel and set up my computer. Which colors, faces, odd details remain? That’s what place in fiction is to me: dominated by strange features, scaffolded off of something half-remembered, inhabited through the writing of it.

The summer of travel has left me full of New England, fjords, koalas and cows. It’s only by keeping my distance, pursuing my own unsystematic research tactics, that I might get anywhere in writing about such things. My next great Michigan epic will have to wait until I have some distance from the place, if I ever again do. Though it may violate some unwritten term in my contract, I have a feeling that this Michigan writer will become less so, the longer she stays here. Meanwhile, here’s my favorite found photography website, if you’d like to approximate the album exercise for yourself.