As A Writer, Does It Matter Where You Live?

18 comments

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. 

But, really?

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? 

Image of New Yorked (Ash McKenna)
Author: Rob Hart
Price: $12.35
Publisher: Polis Books (2015)
Binding: Paperback, 304 pages
Rob Hart

Column by Rob Hart

Rob Hart is the class director at LitReactor, as well as the publisher at MysteriousPress.com. He's the author of New Yorked, nominated for the Anthony Award for Best First Novel, as well as City of Rose and South Village. Short stories have appeared in publications like Shotgun Honey, Thuglit, Needle, Joyland, All Due Respect, and Helix Literary Magazine. Non-fiction has appeared at Salon, The Daily Beast, Birth.Movies.Death, The Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and Nailed. He lives in New York City. Find him online at www.robwhart.com

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Comments

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer July 18, 2012 - 12:19pm

I am from a very small rural town in Iowa. It was very influencial to my writing. Definitely, the dark tone and gritty settings come from living in a poverty-stricken area that is to cling on to many things as a source of identity rather than rely on the material things they will never own.

On the other hand, I now live in a college town in Kansas.

I'm torn on this subject. I don't believe you need to live in New York or LA to be a writer. However, I also believe that my progression as a writer was helped by moving to a more culturally-driven area where I could associate with writers and other artists. There aren't any workshops back home. There aren't any writer's group. The only book club I am aware of is bible study. The libraries are small and sparse. There are no coventions. The only courses are at the local community college.

With the internet, I your chances as a writer in a smaller area are better, but there is something to be said about having the resource available to advance your writing more quickly.

Jake's picture
Jake from Omaha, Nebraska is reading Invisible Monsters Remix July 18, 2012 - 12:23pm

I'm glad this is being brought up. I think it's naive to believe that one's mindset won't be altered by a change in environment, but who's to say that's a good or bad thing? As a midwesterner (woohoo for the Omaha mention!), I don't feel that I'm at a disadvantage, even if I am curious as to what a life in NY or Portland or somewhere "cooler" feels like. Every place is going to provide us with a different batch of experiences that inevitably show up in our writing. Those differences are a good thing.

.'s picture
. July 18, 2012 - 12:38pm

Location plays a big role in influence. 
Living in Bullitt County (20 minutes from Louisville) you see a lot of messed up small town whatever. Corrupt politics, drug use, etc. Although that is everywhere, it makes a difference when it is in small towns because everyone knows each other. 
Donald Ray Pollock's novels come to mind. 

Great article Rob.

Tony Koval's picture
Tony Koval from Jesustown, Bible Belt, Texas, USA is reading more and more and more July 18, 2012 - 1:02pm

I think the idea behind 'moving to New York' is that new experience gives you new things to write about. You can look at pictures of New York all day, read all about it, study the maps, but you won't know it, fundamentally, until you've actually reached out and touched it.

I think visiting different places sucks you into a tourist trap, unless you purposely go walk around every-day spots to observe, but living different places adds authenticity to your work. If you've done it, or seen it done, then you can draw your own observations instead of digesting then vomiting somebody else's.

Walden's picture
Walden from Modesto, CA is reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle July 18, 2012 - 2:11pm

This article brings to mind the movie Orange County.

cshultz81's picture
cshultz81 from Oklahoma is reading Best Horror of the Year Volume 8 July 18, 2012 - 3:40pm

The advice Rob got from the author he admired is true. You should only live in places that will make you happy. If Brooklyn will make you happy, live there; If Kansas City will make you happy, live there, and not in Brooklyn.

I do believe if you're unhappy, or if you feel out-of-place and bored with the city you live in, you're writing will suffer, because environment can change your outlook. I currently live in Oklahoma City, which is my birthplace. I've lived in this state for the majority of my life, but honestly, I don't like it here. There's simply not enough culture and too much rampant right-wing bullshit for my taste. This climate doesn't stop me from writing, but I don't have any local opportunities like writer's groups or bookstores featuring guest authors, nor a plentitude of art galleries, independent movie theatres, record stores, coffee shops, or any of the things I like to do/see. 

Funnily enough, I am planning to move to Brooklyn next year (sorry Rob, another ex-pat to crowd you), but not because I think its some kind of writer's mecca, it's just where my girlfriend and I need to be right now. We could be moving back to Austin, or to L.A., or to San Francisco, or any city that would provide the kind of life we want. In the end, it doesn't matter. 

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated July 18, 2012 - 4:08pm

It might be neat/helpful to be part of a community, but I doubt that it really makes or breaks the writer. And I hear anyplace that has more then one writer's group with members who make a living/profitable hobby out it called a literary Mecca, so I'm a bit skeptical.

Vinny Mannering's picture
Vinny Mannering from Boston, MA. USA is reading On Fiction Writing July 18, 2012 - 4:35pm

The only thing moving to Brooklyn would make me more of is "homicidal." 

Being a born-and-raised Bostonian, like a lot of kids who grew up in big cities (especially cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh with deep blue-collar roots) I loathe these trustafarians that have made Brooklyn their Holy Land. I read diehipster on a regular basis, and I've never even been to Brooklyn. The idea that you can take mommy and daddy's credit cards, move somewhere and suddenly you're an artist is offensive to me on every single possible level.

/rant

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated July 18, 2012 - 5:27pm

I'm from Detroit orginally and I figure it is stupid, but best of luck.

Christina Re's picture
Christina Re from the United States is reading Your Screenplay Sucks! July 18, 2012 - 7:58pm

I have moved at least ten times in my life, living on three different continents.  I've lived in downtown Las Vegas, a farm village in Germany, and I've spent lots of time writing on my laptop in airport terminals.  My favorite, most productive writing stints have had several things in common:

1.) Feedback from fellow writers.  Even if I'm not showing my work to friends, talking to them about our collective work gets me excited about writing.  Most of my "writer friends" live in California, so this is usually done via the internet. (LitReactor, right?)

2.) Stability and time. When I want to really knock out some quality stuff I need a place to focus.  If I've recently moved and am still trying to renovate the new place, locate a decent grocer, and answer inquisitive phone calls from friends and family this is more difficult to do.

I'd argue you can write from anywhere, as long as your own personal writing needs are met.  If I wasn't required to move often I'm not sure this hype would seduce me to uproot.

Kimber's picture
Kimber from Atlanta July 19, 2012 - 8:57am

You can be a writer anywhere, but whether or not our locations limit the kinds of things we write is an interesting question. You'll write a different type of thing if you grew up in a poor Midwestern town than you would if you grew up in NYC, different again if you grew up in the Old South or on a ranch in the Australian outback.

If Flannery O'Connor had lived in Williamsburg, would she have written the same stories? No way. Would she have written different stories? Probably, but she might've started in indie band instead. Location impacts us as writers in the same way that our personal experiences do.

Thank God we're not all living in Brooklyn, writing stories about living in Brooklyn, because how boring would reading be if literature were that homogenous?

I have lived in Chicago, tiny dirt-poor Midwestern towns, tornado-stricken Oklahoma, Sydney, and all over the South. Every one of those places shaped me as a writer and, I think, made it possible for me to successfully write stories set in those kind of places. I like the variety that has brought to my stories, but Rob has a different advantage, which is that he has stayed in one place enough to have a real depth of understanding of it.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated July 19, 2012 - 9:08am

@Kimber - How long do you think you have to stay at a place to understand it?

Jane Wiseman's picture
Jane Wiseman from Danville Virginia is reading News of the World, by Paulette Jiles July 19, 2012 - 9:32am

I think this completely depends on the writer. In my case, I need a sense of rootedness and stability to write, and for most of my life, I haven't had either. So for the 10 yrs I lived in St. Louis, and in fairly stable circumstances, I could write--and what made it even better was participating in two really helpful (i.e. good readers who didn't pull their punches) writing groups. As soon as I moved for another 10 years to Minnesota, it all fell apart, I think because my life was too chaotic there (long-distance commute, crummy time-consuming jobs, failing marriage, etc..). Now I'm back in my hometown, a smallish town in southern VA that I had left at 18, vowing never to return. Strangely, I can now write again. I attribute this to stability and serenity. I doubt if I'd be able to write in a place like NY. My one stint in the bustling northeast (five years in Philadelphia) was totally consumed by nightmare commutes, a sense of going to war every single time I had to go to the grocery store or p.o., and hostile northeasterners everywhere. Ok, my feeling about that last is totally colored by an agonizingly long marriage to an especially hostile northeasterner.. Hey, some of my best friends are northeasterners!! Let's just say I need a sense of place and stability like some writers need their lucky hats, and leave it at that.

Jo's picture
Jo July 19, 2012 - 10:12am

I live in rural Wiltshire, in England - and I travel all over the world. I write wherever I am - how pretentious to think you can only write if you live in places full of wealth writerly people!

Kimber's picture
Kimber from Atlanta July 19, 2012 - 10:41am

@Dwayne I don't think there's a solid answer to that question. I don't think going somewhere for a two-week vacation does the trick, but I also don't think you need to stay for a decade. It sort of depends on how immersed in local culture you get too, not just how long you're in a place. If you lock yourself in your apartment and never interact with locals, it'll take you way longer to get to know a place. If you live somewhere your whole life, you sort of understand the inner-workings--the gossip, the politics, the changes over time, that sort of thing--in a way that someone who has been there for a couple of years can't. Not sure, really.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated July 19, 2012 - 12:11pm

You know I sort of think the opposite, that going to a new places gives you a better view then someone who grew up in the middle of it. Like climbing up a hill and going back down, the best view is in the middle; if you aren't there long enough you can't see what's up ahead but if you stay too long you're blind the past.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading Tons of LGBT nonfiction so he can judge a literary contest July 28, 2012 - 7:35am

I am from a small town north of the Pitts.  I'd never be able to write there because I'd have killed myself years ago.

Samantha Nicole's picture
Samantha Nicole November 11, 2014 - 5:19pm

Great article! 

 

I am Cali born and raised, and finishing up my degree at a Cal State near LA. Being here my whole life, and going to college in the city- I can honestly say i've never been more excited to relocate. I'm thinking up north or out of state, but mostly out of state. Oregon, Colorado, Michigan, Vermont, Massachusetts. Any state I can ditch the city for more of a nature scene will make me happy. 

In terms of writing, I have found sucess. I have found sucess here, and I realize with the internet, being published can happen anywhere. I believe you should be in a place you feel like you belong, and really love. That's what i'm on the search for. I think I can find sucess anywhere, but my real job might change as writing is something I do on the side right now. 

 

I hope this helps! Great article.