A sense of place - drawing on the Home Town
I need to be up in less than six hours and I can't sleep. Knowing this only makes it worse. So I read. I know everything I've said in some previous post about hating 'how to write...' handbooks, having been through so many in years gone by and concluding that they count for little except as a nifty side-line for struggling or mid-list writers. Perhaps I should also have mentioned that most of those 'How to...' books were American, written in that homey kinda way; not just that but also seem to use titles like 'Use Killer-Diller Detail....' as though the key to believing what the writer is writing is in the diller, whatever the diller is! And then there is, to my mind, many American 'How to...' books that are so adamant that it's formula, formula, formula. Two of my books on writing, American, seem to be dead set against writing anything literary or any other aesthetic considerations. This is the way the market works, they seem to say, and so this is the law of writing. With that manifesto of formulaic we would be stuck with libraries full of Dan Browns and have very little artistry. Anyway, I then returned to The Agony and the Ego and loved the way the writers in this collection in no way preached, or said 'now look, this is how writing works...' which I also recently posted on. And it was such a contrast, and the fact that most of those writers were British and Irish made that difference. We are less for formulas and rules when it comes to the creative - otherwise the process is stifled. However, not being able to sleep I turned to 'The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing - Everything you need to know about creating & selling your work'. American. But I was impressed by the names on the front cover when I bought it a few months ago in a rare period of writer's block. Margaret Atwood (Canadian, I know!), Richard Russo, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut 'and more!' And so I scanned the table of contents, sighing as I again come across those chapter headings, like 'Who's Afraid of Point of View'? To which there is no answer. But then I turned to Richard Russo's chapter, entitled 'Location, Location, Location: Depicting Character Through Place' and a few sentences in and I feel a natural affinity with him. Russo had left his home time of Gloversville, New York, when he was eighteen, to go to university. He had come from a working-class family who had grown up in a 'shabby little town'. And, he said, he had hoped his education would mean that he could become more like a tourist to Gloversville, rather than realising that it was a big part in what made him who he was, as a person. When he wrote his first novel it was critiqued and he was disappointed to discover that the details that rang truer were those which came from a real sense of place - everything he had come from. He then challenges the writing students he teaches when they present him with work with no defined sense of place. They fear, he says, that it will make them 'regional' writers and they equate that with not having a story that is 'universal'. Yet Russo points out that a story is universal the more rooted in its sense of place it is. It interested me also because of my work-in-progress, which is deeply rooted in Manchester. And I have to ask myself whether I've given it the McCity treatment - could it be just any other city? I don't believe it can. It's strange considering how adamant and desperate was my need to 'escape' Manchester, yet it's the one thing I found myself writing about, not just as a setting but as a character in its own right. I wrote a novel in the mid-nineties, the premise of which garnered publisher interest. Yet it was set in London and I found I stalled in such a way as to render that publisher interest as futile because I abandoned it, unable to add meat to the bones of the story. Whilst I still have, to a different extent now than of previous years, a strained relationship with Manchester, whilst I write about it I no longer have to grapple with my love/hate relationship with it. It just is. Yet could I write about it if I lived there? No way. Would I live back there? No way. It is something that critic turned writer Anthony Quinn understands only too well, as he mentions in this interview featured in The Independent. He could never go home, he says, to Liverpool, and yet what is his debut novel about? It is described as a love letter to that city and he probably admires about it everything he admires about himself - the strong sense of individuality but solidarity of 'us versus them'. Maybe it's a northern thing too? Whatever it is, a strong sense of place is key. We have enough of the McStreets in McTowns in McCities, it doesn't do to have the McSetting too.