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Craft of Writing, Fiction, The Writer's Life

Writing from Distance: Letting the Miles Create Perspective

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[1] 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[2]. 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?


[1] The first half of the essay is online. Since the web site doesn’t credit the original book I suspect it’s a bootleg, but if you’re interested, go here.

[2] See page 8 of the speech.

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About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.

Discussion

31 thoughts on “Writing from Distance: Letting the Miles Create Perspective

  1. It’s only after you leave that places “take on different, often deeper meanings, since you are no longer reacting to them.” This is absolutely true, Joe, at least for this writer. I didn’t realize it when I started my memoir years ago, but it has naturally fallen into three, clearly delineated sections: Missouri, Minnesota, California. Each of these places can’t help but be characters in my story as I’m constantly either escaping from them or adapting to them.

    I recently finished SON OF A GUN by Justin St. Germain, and he uses his hometown of Tombstone, Arizona as not only the setting, but as a character ever larger than himself or his family, the legends of gunslingers and the “wild west” rubbing up against his own tragedies. Expertly done.

    Posted by Teri | September 14, 2013, 1:07 PM
    • The St. Germain book sounds interesting from the perspective that a place like Tombstone has a “larger than life” aspect to it, which it seems has to affect the way its residents feel about themselves. For most people the influence is far more subtle. In a way I’m glad I didn’t grow up there, or someplace like Graceland.

      Posted by jpon | September 15, 2013, 9:25 AM
      • And then the problem with growing up in Tombstone or Graceland is that the place could completely overwhelm any story you tried to tell. I can’t imagine.

        Posted by Teri | September 15, 2013, 2:17 PM
  2. Hi, Joe (Just did a post on your book yesterday on my site. Great stuff, Joe, I wish I had written it!). Basically, I think that just as Dickens said “every parent has a favorite child, and my favorite is ‘David Copperfield,'” that every writer has a natural homeland about which he or she writes. And that homeland may either be where the writer lived the longest, where he or she felt most inspired (wherever he or she lived), or an expanding and contracting “country” made of different places and different times, the setting of each story or novel being appropriate to its topic. I like to think at least that everywhere I’ve lived has inspired me a little differently. But then, maybe a lot of my places are mostly alike, since I’ve never been west of the Mississippi! And after all, there is the type of writer also who can thirst for a place, research it, and write fantastic fictions about it without every having crossed its borders (Mrs. Radcliffe springs to mind, though of course she was only a Gothic romance writer)–I guess it all just goes to show that writers are many and sundry and can do a lot of different things, depending on their inspirations.

    Posted by shadowoperator | September 14, 2013, 1:42 PM
    • The adage that “one can never go home” speaks to how I feel about moving. I have immigrated four times, (unwillingly) moved multiple times from Australia, to Israel, to Holland, to the USA and five times around the U.S. No, not with the army. Now, when I return to Sydney, I am a stranger. I have changed so much that the visit paralyzes me. The sweet familiar has become immersed in a bitter disconnection. The memory of a place offers stuff for story. That nostalgia inspires. However, reality of a move back hits hard.

      The place might change a little, but we change dramatically. The years of distance weave nostalgia into memory and distort the reality of how “it used to be.”

      Kaye

      Posted by Kaye Linden | September 14, 2013, 2:21 PM
      • I agree, Kaye, with your assessment that nostalgia and memory play their part. But for fiction, the distortions that make us perhaps bad witnesses for the trial format can make us excellent writers, as I think (forgive me if I’m wrong) that you’re pointing out.

        Posted by shadowoperator | September 14, 2013, 5:20 PM
      • We change dramatically, and I think that’s part of why we idealize the memories of living in another place. We want that history to fit our present, to create the fictional causality that serves our current situation. We are writers, after all. Everything must be part of a larger story.

        Posted by jpon | September 15, 2013, 9:45 AM
    • First let me offer a huge thank you for the post on your site. I’m humbled by your praise, and so glad you found some things to like about my collection. And you’re right about having a favorite to write about. After seven years in the Detroit area I’m realizing how intriguing is the character of this place (and I’m certainly not the first writer to notice this) and how fulfilling it is to use as a basis for fiction. Now if only they could do something about the weather–we hear that a brutal winter is on the way (leaves started falling from trees in August and the squirrels are gathering winter food like crazy). I’ll have to look at the bright side and remember that this just means a good reason to stay home and write.

      Thanks again, Victoria.

      Posted by jpon | September 15, 2013, 9:42 AM
  3. Joe, I do find myself writing about the setting of my childhood locations for my fictional characters. I also find they seem to come in zones relative to my age and the age of the character I’m working with. Preteen years seem to occupy a 10 block radius; teen years stretch out to Hermosa Beach pier and then out to San Diego and so forth. Eventually, of course, my perspective includes the world at large and how I thought of it or managed it. Those perspectives, both from age and location are intermixed and it does flavor (naturally) the writing. I would suggest that though a move back to So Cal might require getting accustomed to a ‘new home’ — it would just as likely be a new home with some flavoring of the old place you used to call home.

    Posted by Robert Hoffman | September 14, 2013, 2:43 PM
    • One of the things I wonder about is how the friends and associates I left seven years ago would react to “new” me should I return. I’ve found that people create images of others and tend not to want to adjust if time and distance have interrupted the relationship. Kind of like how your aunt still treats you like a little kid at age 40. The people I left did not know me as a writer of fiction. They might be surprised at how differently I look at the world now.

      Posted by jpon | September 15, 2013, 9:52 AM
      • an interesting point and a valid observation. well worth considering this line of response when developing character. It’s not hard to imagine the responses also falling along the lines of personality traits: three men approach an apparently uncrossable river and find three different ways to do it. The “new” old kid comes back to town and Smitty still offers him a drink; George is up for some racquetball; and Mary can’t understand why he won’t call. It’s a nice insight.

        Posted by Robert Hoffman | September 15, 2013, 8:43 PM
  4. I lived in several states because of my father’s job when I was growing up. So much of what you mentioned resonated with me. I did feel like a tourist for many years in these different places. I am also more of an observer than a participant (always have been). These are things I had never contemplated. Thanks so much for such a relateable post!!!

    Posted by wendymc12 | September 14, 2013, 3:03 PM
    • You’re welcome. Russo’s essay really taught me a lot about how we look at different places. If a Pulitzer Prize winning author couldn’t just pick a place and make it work in a novel (which I had also tried), maybe there was something I could learn about myself in that regard.

      Posted by jpon | September 15, 2013, 9:56 AM
  5. The natural landscapes of my youth have shaped my identity and continue to inhabit my creative work. I live in LA and write about the four state area of Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma. And the space between there and here.

    Posted by joplingirl | September 14, 2013, 3:26 PM
    • “And the space between there and here.” That’s a perfect way to describe the distance I mentioned, because it implies the passage of time and the act of contemplation that occurs once a person has made the decision to leave a place for good. Thanks for adding that.

      Posted by jpon | September 15, 2013, 9:59 AM
  6. Absolutely. I tend to set my stories in Cleveland and Buffalo and places I once lived, more often than I set them where I live now. I look at place as a kind of palace of memory, because when I return, stuff burbles up — people, experiences, episodes — stuff I haven’t thought of in years. So it must all be simmering in our brains without our realizing it. No wonder we draw on it in our writing. Thanks for the reflection.

    Posted by Claire Gebben | September 14, 2013, 6:07 PM
    • Your mention of the palace of memory reminds me of a great memoir/essays by Tony Judt titled “The Memory Chalet.” He was suffering from ALS when he wrote it, and part of the structure of the book was using a childhood memory of a summer vacation site to prod him to remember the shaping influences of his life and the violent world he grew up in (much of his early life was before and during WWII). Our minds are funny little houses of memories themselves, aren’t they?

      Posted by jpon | September 15, 2013, 10:06 AM
  7. I haven’t felt the urge to write about my home town, Las Vegas. I love a dark, claustrophobic setting so I tend toward small towns in out-of-the-way places. Maybe someday I’ll have the urge. Possibly it just hasn’t been long enough for me to gain the perspective you have.

    Terrific post, by the way.

    Posted by Averil Dean | September 14, 2013, 8:01 PM
    • Thanks. I know from following your blog that leaving Las Vegas was a fairly recent event. Maybe in a while that urge to write about will arise. I kind of hope so, since it seems like you would do something fantastic with it.

      Posted by jpon | September 15, 2013, 10:09 AM
  8. Dear Shadowoperator,

    You are correct with your response to my previous comment. Fiction benefits from nostalgia but the reality of a move might offer quite a different reality.

    To specifically answer Joe’s question, I write about the places I have left behind, in particular the Australian lands. The nostalgia and mystique of childhood memory inspires research into the creation of magical stories, surrealistic shamans and talking dingoes. I love the United States, but may I always miss Australia… Kaye Linden

    Posted by Kaye Linden | September 14, 2013, 10:31 PM
    • Your explanation makes sense, Kaye. Now how to explain my own magical realism considering I grew up in a place as conformist and traditional as any yet invented. Maybe it’s an urge to break free from the narrow thinking of my origins.

      Posted by jpon | September 15, 2013, 10:11 AM
      • Your particular magic, Joe, comes from the way you interpret your memories and characters from that place and offer that perspective to the reader ….

        Posted by Kaye Linden | September 15, 2013, 2:39 PM
  9. This post really resonates with me. My husband and I spent 5 years living in Duesseldorf, Germany, when he accepted an international opportunity with his employer. The first year was the hardest: new country, new language, new culture, and we were also brand new parents. Culture shock in the extreme. Though it was difficult, it slowly began to feel like home. Although I still missed certain things about the U.S., my kids only knew life in Germany. We returned to Chicago in 2005 with a much more worldly perspective. I saw Americans and American culture through a very different lens. Our experience is now 8 years in the past, but it’s helped change me as a person. I empathize much more with the immigrant population here in America. I have a new appreciation for culture and language and how completely they are embedded in our character. As I rework my novel, I’m attempting to include some of these themes in the background. Not sure I’ll be able to pull it off, but time will tell.

    Posted by Gwen Stephens | September 15, 2013, 12:49 PM
    • Yes, living abroad multiplies the distance and culture factor tremendously. And if you’re not in an English speaking country (although I know a lot of Europeans do) there’s very little common ground from which to build. I’ve only had the opportunity to spend a month out of the USA, and that was just in Canada. I hope to try some time overseas as well to really gain some perspective. Thanks for sharing that, Gwen.

      Posted by jpon | September 15, 2013, 4:47 PM
  10. A related point – author Kathryn Stockett (THE HELP) based much of her novel on her experience growing up in Mississippi with hired help. She wrote the novel while living in NYC, because she wanted to draw on the nostalgia she felt for her home state. She felt writing from a distance worked to her advantage.

    Posted by Gwen Stephens | September 15, 2013, 12:59 PM
    • A good point. Trying to write the book while still in Mississippi might have forced her to consider aspects that wouldn’t fit into the story. Fiction, is after all, an idealized world.

      Posted by jpon | September 15, 2013, 4:48 PM
  11. Love this, Joe. Especially the bit about setting = character. As you know, I’ve been serializing a personal essay I’m writing on setting on my blog, and I may have to steal that Russo quote. (The other day my husband couldn’t sleep so he read my blog, a thing he rarely does. The next day, in a pensive mood, he said the only thing he doesn’t like about our house is the view he gets from our bedside window, that he wants to move just to see a view that’s more beautiful and expansive when he opens his eyes every day. I must say that although I love our home, we have been here 16 years and I’m ready to look at something new.)

    Posted by girl in the hat | September 15, 2013, 2:27 PM
    • I’m right there with your husband. My office view is just of some trees in the yard. But if I moved it upstairs, to an unused bedroom, I would have a much nicer view, down a gentle hill, able to see for a fair distance. Now I just have to convince my wife that it will work and motivate myself to move all that furniture.

      Posted by jpon | September 15, 2013, 4:52 PM
  12. great post and a fabulous discussion/set of comments. I was writing — just about eternally — about the Manhattan that I remember from my early childhood. there was something magical about it. Now that I am not living full-time in LA, I write about LA and SoCal more. I think you need the distance to “see” it. Judy Kronenfeld says she needed Riverside Ca to really be able to write about her New York. The contrast helps.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | September 16, 2013, 3:25 PM

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