What We Write About When We Write About Place

Abandoned home

“Don’t all writers have . . . something irreducibly theirs which stirs their prose and makes it tick and turn this way or that, and identifies them, like a signature, though it lurks far deeper than their style, or their voice or other telltale antics?” –Andre Aciman.

I don’t usually sit and think about why I write, because I’m usually too busy just sitting and writing. But something changed a bit when I read Andre Aciman’s NYT article, “A Literary Pilgrim Progresses to the Past.”

For one, I was comforted to learn that I’m not the only writer with a fascination about place.

“As for a sheath . . . I’d spot mine in a second. It’s place. I begin my inward journey by writing about place,” wrote Aciman.

I became focused on place and developed a deep desire to write about it while in graduate school at CCA. I’m pretty sure the jarring contrasts between the suburban and rural landscapes of the South and the concrete urbanity of the Bay Area were the catalysts that brought my sense of place to the forefront of my conscious mind.

It wasn’t just the way spaces looked, either. The wide accents, the accessibility of public transportation, the frustrations of parking, the ubiquity of bicyclers, the plethora of dietary options and exotic cuisines, the dirty and smelly streets, the perpetual cold, the walkability of the cities, the diversity of languages and cultures, the carpool lanes, the gentrification, the self-righteous liberalism, the blind spotted progressiveness, even the peculiar way women always draped scarves around their necks, all gave me a heightened sense of my status as an outsider.

When we’re familiar with our environment  and comfortable enough to take things for granted, we don’t take the time to think about where we are. Nothing makes us more aware of our surroundings than the feeling of being lost, out of place, a stranger in town. Perhaps feeling disoriented in the Bay Area drove me to write about place.

“Writing is how they grope,” wrote Aciman. “How they light the darkness around them.” He’s also described this phenomenon as “groping for inner signposts.”

Writing became a lens through which I could better see (read understand) where I was. Perhaps I believed on some level that changing places meant I was changing, and understanding where I was could help me understand who I am or might become.

In his essay, Aciman admits, “If I keep writing about places, it is because some of them are coded ways of writing about myself.”

Even when we’re writing about other people, or food, or grief, or politics, we’re still writing as ourselves, and therefore writing about ourselves, even if only subconsciously, even if no one will ever notice that flake of a memory fallen into our word choices and metaphors. (See what I did there? Why did I choose to use the term flake to describe bits of memory?)

When I became aware of my drive to write about place, I was not aware that I was really writing about myself. That’s because we are never squarely before ourselves, never wholly visible,  and our identities and vantage points never stable. We may recount facts and events as best we remember them in autobiographies or memoirs, but it’s impossible to articulate in full the essence of who we are. Writing helps us approach our core.

After reading a few of his essays, I spoke briefly with Aciman, and he revealed the question, “How do you get at a mood of what it means to be yourself?”

The mood of who we are is perhaps more appropriate than a definition or explanation. Though the mood is no more static than any other part of us, it’s what we remember most about ourselves and others. More than names, faces, dates, or words, we remember moods. We remember what it felt like to be with someone long after we’ve forgotten the name of the street they lived on, or what their clothes looked like, or how they spoke. We remember them in our spirits and in our bodies.

So if all of this is so elusive, how can we ever pen it down?

Some people write about sports, some people write about celebrities, or food, or technology. Others, like me, write about places and spaces.

How about you?

courageous compass