A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image. -Joan Didion
And it is not even about claiming the space as my own, but this is right, that it is the reshaping of a particular place that all the best writing does. In my past attempts at writing fiction, I have been hesitant to use real settings from my past and have instead used bland Anytowns, tried to eliminate the necessity of place from the story. Could there a more stupid way to approach writing? There was a quote from Brian Hughes, said probably half in jest a few years ago, the type of quote that only twenty year olds can drop so confidently, that there was no more awful form of writing than autobiographical writing, that the writing of technical manuals was even better. This quote and the thinking behind it have led me to avoid writing "semi-autobiographical" fiction - a terribly ugly phrase.
Proust is nothing without the sight of those church spires. Roth, nothing without Newark. Didion, nothing without California. So as a joke I started writing this story about a map of Alexandria and masturbation and one idea is leading to another is leading to another. There is no straining for what to write; there is a straining to contain it all somehow, and I am really happy with it so far. Past attempts at writing fiction have been awful, I will not hesitate to tell you. I have finished little stories and reread them, cringing, thinking how awful they were. Without a place to focus on, to eulogize - the story was a sham, having to rely on cliched phrases and sentiments since it was about no real place, but the typical town, thus producing typical prose, typical storylines and reproducing all the conventions of fiction in the process, the type of writing that I hate, yet the type that I was doing. Place frees you from plot.
After reading Roth's fiction, after reading his defense of his fiction (yes, fiction!) against all the critical writings that read his fiction as veiled autobiography, I knew what I wanted to do, saw the freedom that playing with your past gives you. I have been wavering whether I should try to write Sarasota or Alexandria (never New York - the places yet to be staked out - maybe Didion was right, it is about claiming it, colonizing it?) and ended up writing this story about a teenager which for me, I associate with Alexandria, those teen years. Last night, I felt like I got a sign to stick to this project. I opened up the new biography of George Washington, His Excellency, and Joseph Ellis writes in the first sentence about how he grew up in Alexandria, near the same part I did (he of course, doesn't mention me), but since I had been thinking of Alexandria a lot the past days, this was very exciting. And I am not sure why. I like George Washington and stare at the statue of him in Union Square everyday. I see the ties between here and there and like the potential of dealing with America as a subject. I am thinking about Whitman and how Midnight's Children dealt with the birth of India and the Smashing Pumpkins and how to integrate these concerns into something coherent, something even enjoyable. I have to stick to the project. The only difference between good artists/writers and us (both you and I) is the level of commitment, so let's quit doing it half-assed and commit ourselves to these things, set aside time each and every day.