“Why do you think you are particularly good at writing about place?”This was the essence of the question posed by my professor.
The place: my writing workshop at American University in Washington, DC, where I have begun courses as a first-year MFA student in Creative Writing. The class was reacting to a vivid description I had done of a Bangkok street, featuring an overflowing garbage can, some squid jerky, and a breakdown of the city’s multi-colored bus system.
It was an excellent question. My answer: “Because I have always been able to see place. I enjoy it.”
“That’s not good enough,” she said.
I understood, but I’m not an “instant answer” kind of writer.
And so I took some time. I went to some places.
First, I went walking into the woods, south from the university, following the dusty little path that cuts down the middle of Battery Kemble Park, then veers over to Glover-Archbold Park before ending up at Whitehaven Park. Along the way, I have to cross a few quiet streets, but I can literally walk in the woods the entire time through the twists and turns of the dusty path, and emerge from the forest a block away from my apartment. It’s perfect. I always seek the forest, the mountains, or the ocean when I need to reflect. Maybe it’s the New Englander in me. I need to be away from people, away from the din, the ceaseless “go go go” chant of America.
A distinct memory came to me along the way – a day in my childhood, in Acton, Mass., when I closed the door, and created a little forest for my A.A. Milne stuffed animals, out of clothes, paper, a paint easel, and anything else I could think of, and then played for a day, alone and content. Years later, it has become a touchstone for me, a metaphor for what I needed to do to write, a special place I needed to go, the needs of the introvert in an extroverted world.
Then my wife and I went to another place, 2 Amy’s Pizza, a crowded Italian restaurant just north of the National Cathedral, and met up with an old friend (now the local food editor at a newspaper).
“Why do you write about food?” my wife asked in a neat parallel to the question I had heard only too recently.
“Because I spent some time meditating about my writing,” he said. “And I discovered that everything that I’d ever written, that I really enjoyed writing, all my best work, had to do with food, or with preparing food, or people who cooked for a living. Then I knew I had to write about food.”
After dinner, I spent a few minutes in my own meditation, and I found place in lieu of food – a lot of my own memories and a lot of my best things I have written are suffused with it. The times when I have surrounded myself with beauty have also been the most productive times in my life, when the writing flowed- my little porches in Mae Hong Son and Chiang Rai, Thailand, with a view of the mountains and forest; the 19th-century farmhouse that I house-sat in New England one winter before Peace Corps; and now, in my writing program, only a block away from the forest, in Glover Park, DC.
The least productive times in my life were the times I was surrounded by ugliness and stress – most recently, and emphatically, in the bowels of the grubby little boiler room inside a factory in Vermont. There, amid the whine of machinery, I found myself lost and blocked, muffled and voiceless, literally in pain from not being able to write.
I know place is the reason that I love living in Thailand so much, and why I also love my New England roots. The Thais are so grounded in place, food, and culture; it’s like a living entity. You cannot imagine Thailand without seeing the gold-gilded temples, the marketplaces with carefully-stacked fruit, and the endless rice paddies. I love New England for similar reasons – people are so rooted to the land, the seasons, and the environment, that they ache for it when they leave. The Red Sox Nation is not just a concept; it’s a whole way of seeing the world, a subliminal call to a city with crazy-quilt streets and ancient houses.
Finally, with all this in mind, I headed to one more place.
I traveled down toward the Potomoc River, and sought out the statue of the “Awakening,” the giant metal man rising out of the ground at East Potomoc Park. I had written a column about this statue for DUCTS.org many years ago, and I still get fan mail for it. It’s been by far my most popular column, about a place naturally.
I sat down in the lee of the giant metal man and I opened a book, one that I first read last year that made my mind sparkle, an exploration of the American landscape by James Howard Kunstler titled, “The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape.”
“Eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been built in the last fifty years,” he writes, “And most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy, and spiritually degrading – the jive-plastic commuter tract home wastelands, the Potemkin village shopping plazas with their vast parking lagoons, the Lego-block hotel complexes, the “gourmet mansardic” junk-food joints, the Orwellian office “parks” featuring buildings sheathed in the same reflective glass as the sunglasses worn by chaingang guards, the particle-board garden apartments rising up in every meadow and cornfield, the freeway loops around every big and little city with their clusters of discount merchandise marts, the whole destructive, wasteful, toxic, agoraphobia-inducing spectacle that politicians proudly call ‘growth.'”
Have you ever read anything that made you tingle with excitement? This book did. It seemed to awaken something in me, an idea or similarity of thought that I hadn’t yet put a strong voice to, and it made me wonder how much America has lost its sense of place. I see us starving for it in our full-speed, full-throttle existence. For us, work has long since trumped place, and money trumps everything: we’ve got to keep moving on to the next thing.
I am in a particular place for the next couple of years, Washington, DC, and I know I have a love-hate relationship with this city. I love the buildings of DC, the free museums, the statues, and the beautiful parks that you can walk and bike through. This and the amazing diversity of the population fuel my writing. It did the first time I was here just after the Peace Corps. But I also find myself abhorring the social environment. I’ve seen too many instances of childish, selfish, and bottom-line behavior here, extroverts who preen and prattle on without listening to anyone, and a status concept at work that rivals any third-world oligarchy. Why do people have to be so petty and egotistical in such a beautiful city?
I know there must be a little misanthropy in my preference for place, but I also like to think that my aesthetic value drives a hope for our future. Think for a second of all the distinctive places in North America: New Orleans and its food and nightlife, San Francisco and its artistic liberality, or even Quebec City and its ancient walls. I think beauty, and our choices to build, sustain, and discover beauty, anchored in place, are critical to our well-being and our sense of who we are.
“Why do I like to write about place?”
I still see that little child playing upstairs, building a river out of an old pair of jeans, draping a green shirt over an old paint easel to create a tree, and I feel again the magical realism of a childhood forest, a place that I can escape to, away from the demands of the world, into my art, into solitude and the deeper recesses of who I am. I am sustained, ennobled, and nourished by place, and thus I must write about it. With this inside me, I head out to explore more of this world – a bit wiser, yet hopeful for the places, and the people, that I may find.