This column explores the often subconscious connection between the places we are from, the spaces in which we write, and the places we write about.
My favorite professor repeatedly and delightfully botched a quote often attributed to Tolstoy. They phrased it as “all stories are one of two things, someone takes a trip, or someone goes home.”
The first time he said this was in response to a piece I had submitted to his workshop, in which the protagonist goes home, takes a trip, then goes home again.
I had to submit at least ten pages about something. It was my first time being workshopped, post quarantine, in front of a live studio audience, and I wanted to prove something. There is nothing like the impending dread associated with a writing deadline that forces writers to pull things from the bottoms of our brains, like pulling reeds out of water and seeing which ones have the roots still intact. Manic, subconscious thoughts float to the surface, two pages are written about an interaction with an eccentric woman in the grocery store line, dialogue about a breakup that you will never recover from.
From my bed in my basement apartment in Yonkers, New York, where my only window faced a slanted parking lot and a brick wall, I wrote a story about my hometown.
My hometown is Tucson, Arizona, a black hole of a place that people my age are always trying to leave and can never get away from. There are few career opportunities and even fewer places to hide. We call it “the world’s biggest small town,” because even at its largest demographically—and it might be the failing infrastructure or the harsh climate that keep us close together—everyone knows everyone. By the time I was accepted to Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program, I was at an emotional rock bottom, obsessed with leaving Tucson and finding a new place and space to call my own.
But sitting in a new space, a semester into grad school, from that hidden box in the corner of my brain, I unpacked a story about my home. I wrote about the people I had grown up with, in the place that I had grown up in, alone in a dark corner less than an hour from the most populated city in the country.
The story garnered some praise for its funny dialogue, but the place in which it garnered the most interest was in my descriptions of Arizona. I found myself explaining what an arroyo, a gila monster, a shitty gas station tourist attraction was. Yes, we had roads and cars, not just horses. I found myself unable to stop talking about the setting I was raised in.
Perhaps COVID had something to do with this. We had all been confined to our homes in quarantine and were finally interacting with the outside again. I hadn’t seen much of New York, so it would make sense that my only setting to refer to was the place I had lived my whole life.
But I think it was something else too, is something else.
The desert had given me something, itself, as a gift, and I dove into setting in each piece I wrote afterwards. The stories were always set in the Southwest, in wide open spaces, in a very specific time and place. My fellow workshop participants began to leave comments like “the way you describe nature and setting in a story is so beautiful, but I feel like there could be more plot.” Setting had become a priority in everything I wrote. Setting, to me, was the plot in and of itself, because these characters could not exist or make the choices they made without the setting they were placed in. Why are our bodies so bound to the places we have been?
I’ve since moved from Westchester into NYC, and COVID restrictions have loosened, but I still write from the dark corner of my bedroom. Some of my fellow writers can only write on the train, some from one stool in one coffee shop. Some have to be in a specific mindset, a mental space, to write. Why are our minds so bound by the spaces we are in?
I’ve since been to Chelsea’s art galleries and Central Park, but I still write about my hometown’s mountains and restaurants. Some of my fellow writers fled evangelical religious cults and compounds, but their pieces still utilize that setting. Why do we all return to our pasts, even if we don’t want to be in them anymore?
Why can we only appreciate something, love something, hate something, analyze something, if we are far away from it or deprived of it? Why can we only see the setting when we are not looking directly at it?
And why can we only write about it when we are deprived in some way of other sensors? Why does the writer’s dream of a big desk, a wrap-around porch, an office, a peaceful hour in the morning, a “space to write,” rarely, if ever, come to fruition the way we want it to?
What are the spaces we force ourselves to write in? And what are the places we are forced to write about?
I believe the spaces in which we write and the places we write about are inherently connected, and influence each other, whether we like it or not.
My hope is to write from various spaces, some conventional (a coffee shop, a home desk, a library) and some unconventional (the back of an Uber, a park swing, a gas station parking lot), and figure out what it is, under the lens of space and place, that binds us. Whether we write in libraries or on closet floors, whether we write about new worlds with new laws and fantastical creatures, or we write about a country from centuries ago that no longer exists in its original borders: at the end of the day, we are all trying to leave, or, perhaps more painfully, we are all trying to go home.