My wife regularly laments leaving Southern California seven years ago for the Detroit area (even though the move was to facilitate her career). She would love to go back some day. I would too, although I know I’ll never look at that place in the same way.
For a writer, leaving a place you’ve lived in for a long time (20+ years for me) creates a perspective you just can’t have while you’re there. The people, the style, the scenery all take on different, often deeper meanings, since you are no longer reacting to them, but relying on idealized memory as you subconsciously compare them to newer surroundings. Their familiarity fades and they become the backstory to the novel of your life, the stuff that influences how you react to your current world.
Richard Russo wrote about this in an essay I read soon after moving to Michigan and that I’ve always remembered. As a grad student at the University of Arizona, he composed the draft of his first novel, which would later become Mohawk, about a woman in Tucson. But since he hadn’t lived there very long, the book “betrayed a tourist’s knowledge of the Southwest.” He came to realize that the place he knew best was upstate New York, and he eventually moved the setting of the novel there. More importantly, he learned that place was character—not so much a physical character, but that the culture of a location was infused in the people who lived there, and it colored the ways they acted and thought.
Southeast Michigan is not unlike the place where I grew up in Long Island. It’s much more east coast than west, and my years in SoCal began to resonate against the chords of my earlier life. I never thought too much about it until I had the chance to appreciate the differences. Soon after I began to write about my SoCal days.
In the years since, I have even been able to examine my Long Island upbringing. I left when I was 19 and never went back. Much of it is a dark, murky memory. I am finally beginning to understand why.
What Russo didn’t experience, however, in his time in Arizona, was what I would call the newcomer’s perspective. He saw himself as a tourist. Maybe it’s a function of the similarity of my current place to my childhood venue, but the character of Detroit—both the city and the suburbs—speaks clearly to me. Held up against SoCal and Long Island and a dozen briefer stops along the way, its uniqueness is clear. I feel so strongly about it that I’m currently working on a book of linked short stories based in the region.
Some writers can live in one place all their lives and create beautiful stories. This writer must stay on the move, must see places in perspective.
And that perspective is one of the things that make it fulfilling to be a writer. We are observers mostly, much more so than participants, looking at life from the boundaries that mark the transition from insider to outsider, never fully involved, never completely detached. Perhaps this is the precipice of which Roberto Bolaño spoke. It makes me wonder, if Dona and I someday make it back to Southern California, whether I will be able to call that place home again.
Do you write about the places you have left?
 See page 8 of the speech.