As A Writer, Does It Matter Where You Live?
A few weeks ago The Economist wrote an article so ridiculous I'm still wondering if it's real: The news that Martin Amis had just spent $2.5 million on a brownstone in Brooklyn's Cobble Hill neighborhood turned into a cream session over how Brooklyn was the new literary frontier.
Let's ignore the essay Colson Whitehead wrote in 2008 (four years ago!) for The New York Times, eviscerating this idea of Brooklyn as a literary Mecca:
Google "Brooklyn writer” and you’ll get, Did you mean: the future of literature as we know it?
Let's also ignore the fact that The Economist actually wrote and published the following paragraph:
It's hard to picture Martin Amis negotiating the TV rights to one of his novels with a Brooklyn mom on a play-date. But now that he has lived there long enough to pick up some of the local culture, perhaps we'll soon see an update of his classic 1984 novel "Money" in which he turns the menace of "Frank the Phone" into "Betty the Stroller Mom" who threatens to run him over with her Bugaboo Donkey Twin.
OK? Let's ignore all that.
Instead, let's focus on the thesis statement of this (dumb, dumb) article. That Brooklyn is a magical land of clacking typewriters, where authors wrap themselves in scarves and amble down to the local public house for discussions on Proust.
I meet people from around the country who get starry-eyed at the mention of Williamsburg. You can go to Park Slope and pull ten people off the street, at random, and I will give you every cent in my bank account if just one of them is a native New Yorker. There's a mystique to Brooklyn (and New York City in general): That it's not just a great place to live, but it'll make you better and more interesting. Especially at writing.
Location, location, location
Years ago I wrote to an author I admire and asked for writing advice. I got back an illuminating, itemized list. It's tacked on my wall, ten years later. Here's one of those items:
You can write no matter where you live. [Anyone who] tells you they need to move to New York or San Francisco or Seattle or Tokyo or London to pursue writing is going to fail, because no place ever makes you a writer. Live where you wish because of the amenities and culture that draw you there, but know that it has nothing to do with your writing. People fall in love, have children, fall out of love, have loved ones die, lose jobs and have all manner of victories in suburban middle America. Learn to see that.
Like every native New Yorker, I kind of hate it here. It's loud and crowded and expensive and sometimes I'm tired of it. And like every native New Yorker, I've flirted with living someplace else. The grass is always greener in another city, right? We don't even have grass here!
At the same time, I'm inspired by where I live. The book I'm writing, it's based in New York, deeply and proudly. I want to write about the New York I experienced--specifically, the one from my early 20s. It's one that I've never really seen portrayed before. At least, not well.
So, in large part, I'm inspired by the place that I'm in. But that doesn't mean I can't be a writer if I don't live in New York City, right?
I could write in Paris, or New Mexico, or Tokyo. But it makes me wonder if the writing would be as visceral. If it would mean as much, because I identify with New York City on such a deep level. The real test will be when I write something not based in New York City (which, given the slate of projects I'm working on, might not be for a while). Though I would love to do some rural noir.
Honestly, I'm a little scared of writing about someplace else. Just like I'm not sure that I could accurately render a female narrative voice, I'm not sure I could accurately portray what it's like to live in Duluth or Omaha.
So, it's kind of funny. Being a lifelong New Yorker, I feel like I've got some great stories to tell about this place, but I wonder if that's hampered my ability to tell stories in other settings.
How about you?
I told you a little bit about me and where I live and what that's meant for my writing. Now tell us about you and yours.
What inspires you about the place that you live? What do you get out of it, that no place in the world can give you?
Do you feel the same sort of restrictions I feel, about being boxed in by where you live?
And do you think the simple act of living someplace (like Brooklyn) could actually make you a better writer?
To leave a comment