James Joyce ruined it for the rest of us when he wrote Dubliners. It was obvious to me, a kid from boring Connecticut, that this old Irishman had been born lucky. He was from Ancient Times, for one thing. Life was simpler then. And he had his own city: Dublin. Made even more so by the glory of exile.
Oh, to be exiled! One of the fastest routes to ownership of a city.
But I wasn't exiled from Weston. No, I was exiled to Weston, at least that's what the teenage me thought. Blind to my surroundings, I imagined there was a place of adventure out there, and I would sally forth to that place soon, though not soon enough.
Barring exile, when does a person have the right to write about a place—to take it as her own and create a literary equivalent? I have often wondered this, as I've lived in many locations, and felt equally under-prepared to write about all of them. There always seems to be a good reason not to write about a place—a sub-demon of the reasons not to write at all.
I went to graduate school in New York City. This was an excellent experience, but living there forced me right away to reckon with my ability to render place. Not just any place, but an iconic city. So many writers lived there. So much good writing had already been done. The Algonquin room—and so on. Writers with deep roots or other indisputable advantages had and would continue to write brilliant evocations of the place. The city had been made with marble and mortar, and then made again, lavishly, with paper. Yet the simplest thing happened, allowing me to un-freeze and scrape my pen against the page. Love. Yes, the city seduced me. Brave and stupid, I staggered around, small in the shadow of those tall buildings, tousled and ransacked by people on the subway. It was one of the most significant experiences of my life, and the intensity swept away at least one kind of doubt. Basically, I wrote love letters. You can't not write them if you're feeling that way.
Besides love, cultural shock can open a person's eyes and make communication feel urgent, however superficial or flawed it might be. When I moved to Wyoming after years on the East coast, I was knocked back again. Here, too, I was a small person—but this time under a vindictive sky, on the level, suddenly, with wildlife: deer, pronghorns, foxes, coyotes. My first week there, I saw a "jackalope" head mounted at a cowboy bar: a rabbit-like creature with horns. I believed it was real. A cowboy helped me believe this. Then laughed at me. There was nothing about rural Wyoming that I understood, but the relationship between people and animals was one of the hardest for me to accept. And so I wrote, fueled by ignorance and curiosity. I wrote poems about rattlesnakes. I wrote letters to the editor about fox and coyote hunts. Within a couple of years, I was writing about my experiences volunteering at a veterinary clinic, too: "Saturdays at the Animal Hospital," a poetry manuscript in a drawer somewhere around here.
Perfectly misapprehending my own country, I moved on to write a novella set in France. (I began the book in New York, completed one draft in Wyoming and another in France, and finished it in Arizona many years later.) To set the tone, I listened to French radio. I thought I was learning the language by osmosis, though this did not continue for long. What hubris, to take on a historical city an ocean away! But I was bolstered by birthright. I'd been born in Verdun and lived there until I was three. Though I remembered little or nothing from those years, I'd been struck with a sense of affinity when I'd returned to France as an adult
the taste of the bread, the shape of the hills. Whether this feeling allied with "real" memories or not, I had enough to propel me forward, to add conviction to my faulty language skills and the few facts I'd gathered from books on World War One and maps of the region. My early errors were plentiful, but later, thanks to a fellowship, I was able to get back to Verdun and walk the streets and make adjustments. One correction was adding to the list of pastries in the front window of a patisserie—I had not been able to imagine such bounty. A gracious Frenchwoman also helped me fix my French vocabulary and grammar.
In my novel History Lesson for Girls, I took on the Connecticut I'd left so many years before. I was finally exiled. Not for political or familial reasons, but simply by time—a patient stalker. I went back to visit Weston for research. Driving my rental car through town, I felt like some kind of strange, lonely interloper. My family and friends were long gone. My childhood house, a modest split-level, had been (rather ostentatiously) redesigned. I recognized the contours of the yard but little else. The novel was to be set in the ‘70s, exactly when I'd lived there. On my lonely-but-for-ghosts visit, I bought a book on the town from the Weston Historical Society. I went to the library and looked at old newspapers. I went to Weston Center. I lurked at a soccer game on the middle-school field where I used to ride my horse, against the rules. I didn't feel the reckless love I'd felt for New York, nor the terrifying glory of Wyoming. The place where I'd grown up was in front of me, but also quite gone. This absence was motivating, to say the least. To make the past real, I needed to render it, to summon back a place in time.
Now I live in Tucson, Arizona. I've been here fourteen years. It's home in a sense, in large part because this is where my husband and I have raised our daughter, and we've got good friends here. Still, I can feel out of my element and a bit bereft for the places I've called home in the past. Some days, I'm not sure I belong here.
Although I'd written stories set in Tucson, it wasn't until 2009 that I got the feeling that I had to, not just set a story here, but write about the place directly. Tucson is in large part a poor city, and the recession hit it hard. Stores and restaurants were closing, houses were being abandoned, friends were moving out of town. Suddenly I, ambivalent Easterner, became aware of all that this place had come to mean to me, all that was in danger of being lost. I wasn't even sure I would stay. But I wanted to render the city—save it—even if I was looking at it in the rearview mirror. The resulting collection, Demigods on Speedway, came out of a conviction that a city is made of its people, and that Tucson had a lot of people who were trying hard to survive and to help others survive, and other people who weren't trying at all.
Here, then, was another kind of love story, another story that came out of loss (or potential loss). My bona fides were as absent as ever. This time, I felt bolstered by the idea that other people had also written and would continue to write their own portraits of this town. It's a trust exercise of a sort. I write what I believe or see or imagine, and you write what you believe or see or imagine, too. Finally, it's a place of the imagination, after all, and there's infinite space to move.