A Word Against Realism of Place.

I don’t drive.

This admission used to cause me a great deal of chagrin, especially during my early 20s, when everyone was zipping up and down freeways in their toy cars, visiting high school and college buddies at their varied new locations and seeing parts of the country to which I might never be privy. “Driving is freedom,” no fewer than fifteen folks have assured me during the course of my life, and I’m inclined to believe them.

Nonetheless, I am not in possession of a driver’s license. I’ve had five learner’s permits, but no license, and frankly, I’m not certain that this reality will change soon. I’ve come to terms with my life as a passenger-pedestrian. It is not without its advantages. Of course, it’s not without its massive setbacks, either.

Aside from the obvious inconveniences (like the zigzagging, counterproductive slalom of bus routes or having to wake up two hours earlier to make an appointment than would be necessary with a car), there are subtler and more embarrassing non-driver side effects (though admittedly, my case is probably more severe than most).

For starters, I rarely know where I am, at any given moment. One of the joys of being the perpetual passenger is that you don’t have to pay attention to things like street names and traffic patterns. You can observe the clandestine transactions belying complicated street corner handshakes. And you can stare sadly at the toddler riding his Big Wheel down the sidewalk at 1 am. You can marvel at the gopher-sized rat tipping through an alley. And you’re the one who sees the girls jump off the bus, throw down their backpacks, and yank each other’s weave away from their scalps.

For the storyteller, riding is a cinematic experience. When I’m in a car or bus or train, I’m more concerned with landmarks–the Popeyes with the half-lit marquee, advertising “imp dinners,” for instance–than with cross-streets. I can tell you about the Latino little person cursing out his five-foot-five Black girlfriend, but I can’t tell you whether I saw that on Fulton or Freemont.

In Baltimore, I know that there’s a Billie Holiday statue in the courtyards of some subsidized housing. I can’t tell you the name of the housing or the name of the street on which it sits. But I can tell you that, at the height of Baltimore’s “Believe” campaign, someone stuck a “BELIEVE” bumper sticker on Billie’s waist, like a belt-buckle.

All my memories are this way. The incidents hover above their locations and I’m at a loss as to how I should realistically ground them.

In my writing, there’s little solution for the displaced incident. If I wanted to set a story in Baltimore, where I grew up, I’d feel tremendous pressure to authenticate the experiences, to couch them within a very real, very well-described location. I would be preoccupied with an accuracy that wouldn’t be organic. I’d have to catch a bus or a ride to the site of my narrative to get the streets right, to get the store locations square, to describe the rowhome faces in a way that proves to the reader that they’re the exact and actual homes situated at Auchenteroly Terrace.

Were I that devoted to accuracy, I’d write more nonfiction. I’d also pay more attention to where I am, even if it meant missing the imagery. And, maybe, I’d make a bigger deal of learning to drive.

Instead, I write stories that occur in fictional or unnamed cities, where I can be the authority of place and, hopefully, the reader will find me a reliable navigator.

This wouldn’t be a problem if the worlds were vivid, fleshed out, and believable–or if I were a fantasy/sci-fi writer. But often, my story locations are as vague as the ones in my real-life memories. And, because good writing is a sublime fusion of plot, character, setting and countless other elements, there’s a delicate balance to be achieved and too much focus on convincing an audience of place will distract the reader from the larger story.

I still favor the unnamed location. I trust the settings I sculpt so much more than my cloudy perceptions of real places.

Maybe I just need a very, very good book on setting, with writing prompts and technique suggestions. If you know of any, comment below.

One response to “A Word Against Realism of Place.”

  1. Sounds like something you’d have to figure out. It reminds me of painting–you have those hyper-realist painters…your Impressionists…and your I’m not sure what this is but I like it painters. So to each his or her own…I know in my writing, I’m not too terribly preoccupied with describing how everything looks, but sometimes I wish I could describe something the way some people can do–the kind of people who make a half-drunk can of off brand soda sound like the most amazing thing I’ve heard in a while.

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