Dispatches | August 16, 2011

I moved, at the end of last month, to a new house, which means I’ve recently had to establish a new space in which to write. In my new writing space, I’ve done very little writing, but there I have read some of the letters of Ted Hughes, which I picked up on a recent trip to Boston. In a 1956 letter to Sylvia Plath, he wrote,

“London is murderous. I tried to write a poem yesterday, and the result was ghastly. Drab stodgy exhausting filth and exhausted faces and exhausted streets. The trouble with London – all its ghosts have gone. The richness of a place, is the richness of the ghost impressions that it retains.”

Hughes is not the only writer I know of to blame his writing frustrations on his location; Hunter Thompson, if I remember right, lodged a similar complaint against Jersey City. It was in a letter he sent to someone who was not Sylvia Plath.

Finding that passage in Ted Hughes’s letter was rather well-timed; visiting Boston alerted me to a possibility I am often alerted to when traveling in other cities, which is that perhaps some places are fundamentally more conducive to writing, and to thriving as a creative person, than others. I don’t mean this in the sense that the way you arrange the furniture in your writing studio will help determine how much work you get done there. I’m thinking on the scale of cities, and it appears to me that Boston in particular must be a nice place in which to write, an impression that is reinforced by the probability that certain writers, Robert Lowell, Henry Adams, Phillis Wheatley and Sylvia Plath among them, would agree.

Lots of attention gets paid to places as they pertain to writing, but it’s an attention usually paid – smartly enough – to locations as they are written about, not as they are written in. But the city – or town, or county – one lives in must have a great deal of influence on what one writes, or whether one writes at all, and I’ve tried ranking the cities I have lived and tried to write in, from most conducive to writing to least conducive. Here are my results:

1. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
2. Columbia, Missouri
3. Kansas City, Missouri
4. Athens, Ohio
5. Morgantown, West Virginia
6. Wheeling, West Virginia
7. Cleveland, Ohio

I have nothing against Cleveland. I had a personal life there that was not conducive to writing, and my approach to this list is inflected by personal experiences.

My list is by no means quantitative. But I can imagine a quantitative approach to determining what cities are best to write in. I would not go the route of counting the award-winning books that were written in a given city; it wouldn’t be fair to cities haven’t had a chance to prove themselves yet, those that were founded in the last twenty years.

A quantitative measure of this quality of a city might entail counting up the public spaces in it that are conducive to visitation by writers who get restless at home and can’t write there, such as coffeehouses and moderately well-lit bars that have a quiet night from time to time and not a lot of televisions in them. We’d have to factor in the availability of reading material. How well-funded are the libraries in each city? What about independent bookstores? An accessible university library would make a big difference.

I’m always reluctant to prompt discussion of a blog post while writing a blog post – if a subject is worth discussing, the format of a blog, with its ever-inviting comments function, is enough of a prompt. But I wonder what other people’s writing city rankings would look like.  I wonder what factors other people would use to determine the writing conduciveness of cities. I’ve never lived in a city with particularly good public transportation, but I imagine that the increased time one can spend reading, when having to ride on a train and having the luxury of not driving, can’t hurt one’s writing life.

For Ted Hughes, the greatest prerequisite to a productive writing life was the presence of ghosts in a city, and ghost impressions. Although I think I know what he means, I don’t know how to determine whether I’ve lived in a city with good ghost impressions.