My Own Kind of Beautiful: How Geography Affects the Writing Process

By Oregon's Mt. Hood Territory - Public Domain

It’s most noticeable in Texan writers, the way the words are clipped and short, dry like hard dirt. LA breeds its own type of feeling. All the words mean something else, and they’re played for flash, hiding something, almost like double speak. NYC writing is busy and alive. New Orleans, Oxford, Las Vegas, Northern California, Portland, all of these spots have their own identity, and all of these spots seem to produce writers that feel like that city.

It’s self-evident to me that where you come from affects the way you write and the things you write about. But psychogeography is only half of it. The urban space and the beauty of the architecture and your ability to navigate that is important, of course, but what about the non-urban spaces? What if you live in the desert? What if you live alone in a cabin in the woods? What if you live in your mother’s basement (but it’s actually like a “cool” basement with a water heater and everything)?

The implications become slightly frightening. If you never leave your home, can your writing ever grow? On the flipside, if you do move, will you lose something intrinsic about the way you write? Is there an ideal personality/geography mashup?

When I moved to Oregon I went on a lot of hikes. I remember the first one I ever took, in Forest Park. It was early morning. I had thrown up whiskey overnight. I walked out of my friend’s apartment complex and followed him up a trail to a clearing. Fifty feet up, a steel bridge loomed like a creature from Shadow of the Colossus. Further on a small dam flushed out my mental sinuses. Further on a felled tree over the small valley was coated in a moss so green I didn’t have anything to say but “that is the greenest green I’ve ever seen.” Further up the path a waterfall. Further up the path “the witch’s cabin,” the site of the first public hanging in Oregon’s history, where a pissed-off dad paid for the crime of shotgunning his daughter’s boyfriend’s head off. If only he’d been alive today, he could have just taken a picture of himself menacing the boyfriend with a shotgun, and posted the pic to social media.

The surrounding hills were covered in dense green and the streams trickled by, and on the walk back to the short buildings housing cute businesses selling donuts and coffee and beer, I fell in love.

The implications become slightly frightening. If you never leave your home, can your writing ever grow?

Then there’s the beach. The Pacific Northwest coast is a holy place. Cannon Beach, the Haystack Rock, walking down through the sand and looking out at the grey waters and the clouds gathering, the rock out there looming, and soon you can see white dots of seagulls perched on it, and then it’s real and huge before you, small creatures playing in the shallows where you’ve taken your shoes off and let the cold consume you.

And there’s also Astoria, a kind of beautiful Innsmouth with fish people and small dive bars but also San Francisco-style steep hills with houses painted the most gorgeous shades of blue, where I saw a man walking along the side of the road carrying half a mauled sturgeon over his shoulder.

Once, Rios and I took a drive down the coast to Northern California, to Crescent City, a Jurassic Park place with thick trees and views from cliffs out to setting sun ocean horizons.

Don’t forget Mt. Hood always in the background, everywhere I walk, the Paramount mountain in that it’s about as real to me, always an illustration before something fun.

Yet, despite all that, I’m not sure I’m quite ready to write novels about this area, yet. A place has to sink into your bones before it can become grist for the mill. Or maybe…hm... That’s not exactly what I’m trying to say. I think that for some folks, myself included amongst them, I have to feel at home before I can get comfortable writing anything at all.

I’m moving soon, back to El Paso, Texas. I think it’s a great city, even though most El Pasoans I’ve met will tell you that it sucks ass. It’s beautiful. There are rolling hills and Juarez seated just to the south and large dark roads through the desert at night. Sunsets like nobody’s business, crowded-ass Walmarts, and this one bend in the road where my tire blew out twelve years ago, me a long-haired 18-year-old doofus singing “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the climax of it turning into a shrill scream as my Lincoln Town Car skidded across three lanes to come to a stop on the side of the road.

My dad was in the military, so I grew up all over. My mom and dad split when I was in the sixth grade, and he happened to be stationed at Ft. Sill, so Mom stayed in Lawton and I “grew up” there. I’ve always been a small sun dial under a big blue sky. The grass looks best to me when it’s brown. I don’t romanticize that town, but the buildings are small and squat and don’t seem to like you very much. At this point I don’t care much if buildings like me or not. I’d just as much prefer them to disappear into the background.

That’s what I need, I think. I’m a Southern writer, a Texas writer or an Oklahoma writer. I need big, wide spaces for my brain to think, for the character of the folks around me or the taste of food to make any sense. I’m sure there are things people get out of living in a cramped, busy area like New York. I’m sure there are things Inuits get out of the icy tundra. And I’m sure there are things people get out of the woods here in Oregon outside of the surface beauty. People who are native to this area can probably talk to the trees in a way that I haven’t learned yet. Or maybe I’m just cagey with who I choose to talk to.

It’s strange that incredible beauty can be so uninspiring. But here I am.

I wish I was clever enough to study this kind of thing, to figure out if there’s a relation. I’m not, I’m afraid. But to everyone out there thinking “man, if I could just make it to New York, or LA, or [insert city here],” you might be a little misguided. The internet is a real thing now. We want to know about the places you come from. I know I do.

What I do know is that I haven’t felt as comfortable picking words out of the air and putting them down since I moved here. I wrote one novel, but it was about Oklahoma. After that, the muse went quiet for a bit. I wonder if she ever settled in.

I had to get out of Oklahoma for a little bit. I’m glad that I did. I made great friends here, and it was nice to live in a truly beautiful place. But there’s not much sense in marrying a beautiful woman if you’ve got nothing in common. I’m headed back for my own type of beautiful, the kind with lots of dirt and coyotes.

I wonder if that landscape will welcome me back, or make me prove that I missed her. I’m interested to see if the words will come easier.

J. David Osborne

Column by J. David Osborne

JDO is the author of Black Gum, Low Down Death Right Easy, and The Snake Handler, which he co-wrote with Cody Goodfellow. He hosts the weekly podcast The JDO Show, and runs Broken River Books, the publisher of books like Peckerwood, Gravesend, and Zero Saints. He lives in El Paso, TX with his wife and their dog.

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Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On July 28, 2017 - 7:36am

Beautiful post, sir. I'm from Los Angeles, born-and-bred, but I rarely write about it because I think it would be dull coming from me--stripped of all mystique and wonder. I wonder that if a place gets into your bones enough, does it eventually become stripped of wonder, and you find that its inhabitants are essentially the same humans with the same wants and needs? Maybe we only need so much emersion in a new place before it becomes counterproductive in a writing sense?


DeAnna's picture
DeAnna December 15, 2017 - 3:50am

I can relate. It's all in the wonder and that wonder is the fuel. Sometimes I don't know until I start writing. Does the story or the memory want to be friends and chat with me or not? I just don't know.