Until recently, I’ve had a block on writing about the city I live in: I’d write about the last place I lived, but never the current one.
Years ago, the first time I lived in Madison, I wrote instead about the city where I grew up, a medium-sized town in northeastern Ohio. I don’t think I ever named it or specified where it was, but I knew which image was in my head when I wrote something set in, say, a medium-sized town in the Midwest with a particular school and particular burger drive-in and a particular layout. And before I left that city, I wrote stories in which I simply never specified where anything took place. Teachers were forever scrawling margin notes like, “Where the hell are these people? Where do they live?” The answer was generally, “some unsatisfying place between ‘nowhere’ and ‘everywhere.’” At the time I wondered if it was really so necessary to locate a story in a certain spot. Until I exchanged the Ohio town that had been the only one I knew for something different, I would have said no.
Leaving the place where I grew up seemed to free me to write about it. Similarly, leaving Madison to go to New York seemed to free me to write about Madison. As it turns out, place really does matter, though it’s taken me years to begin to see why.
I haven’t written about New York yet, even though I left it a few months ago to return to Madison. Part of the reason is mere practicality: I don’t want to add to the pile of MFA manuscripts about the new kid in Gotham. I lived in the suburbs, for another, so either I’d be a big poseur or I’d have had to start my own literary genre of a young girl’s first experience with the electric big-city romance of Yonkers.
Instead, while I lived in New York, I found I could write about Madison—but in my head it was cleaner, pleasanter, prettier than it actually is. Not to denigrate my adopted hometown: it’s really a lovely city, but it suffers from potholes and poverty like any other place. Still, now that I was living somewhere else and just conjuring it all up, I never had to address its flaws. I wrote about Madison’s charms and its particularities, about the Friday fish fries that every single bar and restaurant seems to offer, about the UW Union where everyone goes in the summer to drink beer and smell the algae off the lake, about the farmers’ market, the funky, grungy east side and the spanking new west side. All true, but, in my imagination, all blocked off in primary colors and neat lines. And come to think of it, when I wrote, however loosely, about Ohio, I forgot to mention the staggering economy and the cracking streets. I just wrote about the nice stuff: the green yards and the gorge and bonfires in a long back yard. I should probably learn from this.
Still, I felt quite confident about how I depicted Madison until I came back, midway through my second book, also set in Madison, and looked more closely.
The neighborhood I was depicting turned out to be tightly crowded, so much so that the new book in progress completely shifted inside my head. I’d forgotten the little park next to the houses I was fictionalizing. I’d forgotten that the streets themselves are narrow and the yards miniscule. I needed to write in some neighbors! There was no way one would not know her neighbors, at least by sight, in such a densely populated section.
Moving to Wisconsin in December really brings home the preeminence of the weather in these parts. Earlier, I’d written right over the brutal cold and the first taste of a hundred inches of snow, both of which greeted us our first weekend back. Now I’m here and I’m like a 19th century farmer: I cannot talk about anything but the weather. I want to, but I can’t. I’m too busy marveling over the six inches of ice still packed onto the streets, about the fact that recently someone skied down the middle of my street. I glanced up from my computer just in time to see him gliding blithely by in the direction of the frozen lake. I have to remember this, I thought. These people are tougher than I am.
So this book is still set in Madison, but I hope it’s made different and better thanks to seeing the city afresh. For years I thought I was clarifying my vision by cleaning up these places in my head—making them pretty, making them shine. But I’m more interested now to see the flaws in the design, to write about the parts that don’t feel as neat and clean as I recalled. Maybe I’ve gotten less naïve. Maybe I’m just older—there is that whole weather fixation, after all. And maybe I’ve begun to write about topics that twist in the brain a little more. So if I do try out that electric-romance-of-Yonkers idea, I won’t de-pollute the Hudson that flowed near the Irish and Italian neighborhoods on the other side of the hill behind my house. I won’t unclutter the streets in the Bronx where we bought fresh pasta and mozzarella. I won’t turn the Catholic-school-benefit-bingo nights into something more genteel, and I will leave intact the terrifying nature of the Yonkers train station. There are a few layers of grime on everything, but if you ask me, there’s something interesting under there.