Writing Place: You Had To Be There?

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A member of the faculty of an MFA program once admitted to me that he had a bizarre method of determining which writers received funding to travel in order to research for their work. As he read through applications, he would keep Google Maps open and pull up any location mentioned on Street View. If Google Maps could answer the driving question or motivation of the proposal, the students’ request for funding would be denied. We were discussing the idea of writing place, and he insisted that with the advent of the Internet, there was little need to “be there” anymore.

It’s true: nowadays, you can walk the same Paris streets Victor Hugo once did with a mere drag of your little blue avatar through Street View. But is there still something lost? If we have YouTube now to show us what the Running of the Bulls can be like, would Hemingway have used it then? And if we have Yelp and TripAdvisor, do writers have to experience what walking around Ibirapuera Park in Sao Paulo is like to be able to describe it, when they have the experiences of countless others at their hands? The Internet has granted writers the tremendous privilege of being able to write about locations they cannot visit, be it for financial reasons or issues of safety/international security. But what could be lost?

I once attended a Q&A with the writer where I was surprised to learn that despite the richness of the historical and geographical aspects of her novel, she admitted to having not visited some of the locations in her book until after a draft was finished. Her reasoning was that she did not want to tamper with her creative process by miring it in fact. While the book manages to mention monasteries and even small cafes that are true to its location in stunning detail, a lot of this was done as a sort of “guess and check later.” And although I have heard frequently that many writers’ processes involve “write first, research later,” lest they fall into a research hole or transform their drafts into an information dump, I wonder what can possibly be the advantage of inserting oneself into a location and how a draft can suffer from “armchair-style” writing. Is it simply laziness that keeps writers from researching places that are not their own, or is it simply unnecessary?

This practice is not uncommon. Italo Calvino never visited China, though Invisible Cities does. Franz Kafka and Saul Bellow never visited locations that featured prominently in their novels. Even Shakespeare is guilty: his biographers have found no evidence of him ever leaving England, and so his myriad works set in Italy must have been based on speculation and research. While there is a concern that not researching a place can lead to a writer fetishizing or misrepresenting it, the facts stand that often writers are more than able to get away with it.

And as for what is lost, perhaps we can use historical fiction as our guide. I suppose a lot of what a novel stands to lose depends on what a novel attempts to do. There is maybe more to be lost in a book about someone whose experience is deeply entrenched in the historical and social implications of their time (or–when it comes to writing about a place–place) than a book about some other aspect of human existence that just so happens to take place in 1776. (Which, of course, I would encourage the writer to consider why their book is set in 1776 or why their characters are in Hong Kong if the author has only ever lived in Los Angeles.)

While the Internet may have given writers an excuse not to visit a place they’re writing about, the act of writing an unvisited or unfamiliar location has always been commonplace. It’s not been informed by the pervasiveness of the Internet. If nothing else, it’s actually been improved by it. If writers are going to write a place they’ve never stepped foot in, perhaps it is advantageous to at least be able to drift down the streets on your computer while at home in the comfort of your pajamas. I don’t believe the Internet will make the act of writing about a place that is not the writers’ own more common, but I do hope it will be able to ground more of the writing in fact rather than plain speculation.


Lead image by Dariusz Sankowski.

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