Why I don’t like to write about where I live: a study in contradictions

I can’t remember exactly who told me that the heath in Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native was a character. I wish I could remember, because I’d like to thank that person. Landscape as character has stuck with me since I first read that novel in tenth grade. And since then, I’ve gone looking for other such landacters or charscapes, if you will, in everything I read.

My memory of Egdon Heath, as it was named in Return of the Native, is as a wild, wind-swept, rain-pelted, snow-encrusted, greedy place—a hungry thing that shrunk and grew with the seasons, and against which the tragedies of the human characters played out. It’s been quite a while since I read Return of the Native, and so my memory of its characters is a bit cloudy. Yet, when I think of that novel—and the heath in particular—I am hit with strong images, with a sense of things, rather than specific, or even accurate, plot points. For example, as I was thinking about this post, I was sure that Eustacia, one of the main human characters, had died as a result of exposure on the heath. After flipping through my book, I realized that my memory had misled me (spoiler alert): she had, in fact, thrown herself into a nearby river and drowned. My point is that what I recall of the heath has more to do with its personality traits—bleak, vindictive, unrelenting—rather than actual plot points.  My memory of Egdon Heath is fuzzy around the edges, and not quite specific.

When I think about landscape in my own writing, I notice that the landscape that I currently exist in is not the one I want to write about. I have many theories for this, and they contradict: there’s a war between clarity and obscurity. Maybe I feel like I’m too close to the current landscape to see it clearly; a true assessment of its characteristics wouldn’t be possible. It’s like the inability to point out a new lover’s flaws—you are too close and too in love to see them. Or maybe I see my current landscape as mundane, old hat, boring snoring. I’m living in it and with it, and what is there to say? It’s bland and lacks character because I see it every day.  Or maybe I just want some distance so I can love the old landscape again, so I can give it its rightful (or at least fairer) characteristics.

I think avoiding the current landscape for the past ones has something to do with the way that I remember Egdon Heath. Living in/with a landscape is perhaps too precise, too fact-driven. Reflecting on a past landscape is more imagistic, sensory, feelings-based. As with any memory of things past, I revise, reshape. Sometimes I remember things worse than they were, or better. The terrible relationship becomes a funny story, where my own ridiculous decisions are played up as comedy, as opposed to focusing on the 12,000 times I sat in my room and cried.

I like remembering the small, seaside town of Aberystwyth, Wales where I lived for a year, as a windy, damp, moody place, with tiny streets, quintessentially British architecture, and idyllic countryside dotted with old churches and graveyards. I don’t like remembering the specificity of the damp (my clothes dotted with mold, the stubbornness of my coal fireplace to light), or the remoteness of the town that frequently drove me to boredom. Or rather, it’s not that I don’t want to remember those things, but that I didn’t want to write about them when I was in it. I wanted to wait, until I could see all of it a bit more hazily, until I could give it some context and gain some perspective (or maybe at least until I could reach in my closet for a dress that wasn’t mold-wracked). But perspective in this case, for me, meaning less clarity. Or does it? What kind of perspective does distance and time give to something? If I return to Egdon Heath and the way I remembered it, I could say, on one hand, that I have a terrible memory and that I’m just wrong about the heath; on the other hand, I could say, my impression of the heath is true, my hazy memory of it is what matters.

And as far as Aberystwyth goes, now, I can use the town in my writing based on my broad strokes of memory—I can create mood and temperament more dramatically, perhaps, because of the distance from the actual place. I can create Aberystwyth, the character, with its seaside arcade, its ruined castle, its university, and Constitution Hill, that looked out over Cardigan Bay. I can make it moody and dreary, with unwelcoming bus drivers who resent my inability to speak Welsh. Or I can make it cheerful, with the sun shining, the seaside promenade bustling with walkers, the wind mild, and the waves rolling peacefully inward. I can create these two, seemingly contradictory characters, because really, Aberystwyth was both, and I can see that better or worse, now.

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4 thoughts on “Why I don’t like to write about where I live: a study in contradictions

  1. Either way you choose to present it, it will/would convey a truth. While much stays the same, nuances will sneak in, this offering a contradictory confluence. Such would blend, and add to the complexity, that I should think the readers would feel evermore engaged. 🙂

  2. Spot-on post; I relate to this so much. I live in an oft-written place, but for me, it is an uninspiring setting for my stories. I once wrote about a small seaside town which I’d never experienced except on celluloid, and a virtual classmate who was a local gave me props for authenticity, which was the ultimate badge of liar’s honor! For me, the issue is that once I inhabit a place, even on holiday, I am overwhelmed by the its unromantic realities. Over time, as I put some distance between physically inhabiting a place and writing about it, the practical realities disappear and the experience is reduced to its core elements of mood and emotion. A place-time reduction, if you will.

  3. I always enjoy your posts. You put so much thought into them, I connect to the tone and context if not the exact details. This one is no different.
    I love stories where the special place is a character, whether it’s remembered accurately, or is as much a figment of the writer’s imagination as the protagonist, or is a slip-shod dream of a real place.

  4. Great post! I’m a military spouse who loves romance, and therefore everyone thinks I should write military romance. But, frankly, having lived the life, I don’t find anything “romantic” about it! So I write Young Adult, and usually a military kid sneaks in as a main character. I can be an outside observer of my kids, and how they handle things, and use that in my character’s actions. I think when you know too many daily details it takes away from the romance of a place or situation. Makes it mundane.

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