Dispatches | July 03, 2012
Location, Location, Location.
I’ve always kind of had a soft corner for New Hampshire. Now, bear with me, because this promises to be an unnecessarily digressive article, and I really do want to get to the end of it, and I’m pretty sure this might make some sense by the time you’re done.
So, I’ve been to New Hampshire twice, thrice counting a night stop en route to Friendship, Maine.* Here are the three experiences I had in New Hampshire:
a) The first time was Fall Break my first year in college (and America). I went with a friend and this girl who I had a crush on, who had just broken up with my friend, and whose involvement with my friend was not to my knowledge when we first got there. This friend lived in East East Out-there Hamlet,** his family did not lock the door to their house, did not even know if they had a key to their front door, and were a Norman Rockwell painting (but without the weird propagandist undertones) in disguise. They had two yaks, a pond on their own property, and my friend’s dad was basically a walking men’s over-40 commercial: ruddy, tall, handsome, and a country doctor. Anyway, two.nine people on that trip felt really uncomfortable the whole time because things spilled out and who the hell knows what animates 18-year old minds. But what we did do was this: We drove to Hanover to see Dartmouth, were in the near vicinity of Salinger’s house, actually parked a car in a field, sat on the hood, and looked at stars, drank a couple of responsible beers, went on a hike in the woods and threw sticks at each other. There was an evening that involved hot chocolate and Amelie on a VHS tape. Now, I’m not sure about Amelie anymore, but at eighteen it was pretty spectacular, specially given that 2 people watching were in the throes of unrequited love, and a third was probably feeling a little guilty about the whole thing.
b) My family wasn’t much for board games when I grew up. We played Scrabble a bit, and my dad once sat down to teach me chess (then left because I threw the rook at his face in anger), and that was it. My dad passed away when I was nine, and my sister left home as soon as she turned nine, and really–there was no use for that sullen, red Monopoly board at all. But I’ve always loved board games, and had this weird idea that it’s how families come together (by weird idea I mean the good folks at Milton Bradley convinced me). But on this second trip, over Thanksgiving, I was involved in a game of Trivial Pursuits with a real-life American family. Later, I was told to rake leaves and put them in plastic bags, which was my first American chore and helped me sympathize further with young Calvin. I learned the state motto: “Live Free or Die”, and knew immediately that there were no jokes remaining that I could make about it. And I learned that in New Hampshire, post-dinner (New England dinner, not Barcelona dinner), if you weren’t 21, and you wanted to hang out late, Dunkin’ Donuts was the preferred hot spot. This, by the way, was the capital city of the state.
c) The day after I graduated college, 2 carloads of my friends and I drove up from Connecticut to Maine, where we were going to spend an additional 4 days pretending not to have graduated. Along the route, in New Hampshire, we spotted an upturned SUV by the side of the road. We stopped to investigate and found that it had hit a moose, a moose that was now a large black mass in the middle of a two lane highway as night rapidly approaching. Being a big-city kid I reasonably suggested we just leave everyone to their own devices, but under the influence of a son-of-the-soil New Hampshire-man, we waltzed into the middle of the highway and dragged the moose to the side of the road, even as cars whizzed by us at fairly substantial speeds. One of the moose’s legs, the one I was holding, peeled off the rest of the body, and it was warm and smelled sticky. The five of us watched our hands with one shared bottle of water, then got in the car and kept on driving. This happened, I kid you not, the day after graduation. If I put that in a piece of fiction I’d be running the serious risk of being debarred, laughed at, and told that symbolic order of that magnitude needed to be put away pronto if I had any hope of surviving.
Now, New Hampshire is not the only state I have strong feelings about. I like Vermont too; I had a great Thanksgiving there once (Vermont is home not only to Ben and Jerry, but also the Choose Your Own Adventure books people). I’m interested in Maine, but I ain’t buying her a drink yet. I hate Arizona. I’d be interested in hooking up with Idaho. South Carolina is weird, and Georgia is awesome pretty with great food and Savannah.
But New Hampshire is still special because it was the first non-college place I went to in America, and I felt kind of like an adult almost doing it.
So, what am I trying to say?
That despite having experience with the state, I’ll probably never ever write a story set in New Hampshire. I remember enough as far as details go to do a passing imitation of the place. I’ll have a couple of those “insider” bits of knowledge that only a true chronicler would have, the details that scream versimilitude, the kind that makes the Wood-Kakutani duumvirate swoon. I’ll talk feelingly about the bucolic surroundings, and how no one locks their door (then, bam! Adding to that weird genre of “terrible things afflict small New England town” novels), and I might just pull it off. But I really don’t think it’ll happen.
Because “place” is one of the very hardest things to write about. For a long time I thought I just didn’t care too much about describing place***, and then I realized that pretty much every place I described was basically Calcutta, where I grew up, regardless of what Eastern European name I gave it (I was really into Kafka for a bit there). So I gave up and now set every story in Calcutta, a city I haven’t lived in for nearly a decade. I’m much more aware of the rhythms of Columbia at this point that I am of Calcutta, but I keep returning to Calcutta. Now, it’s all very well to write primarily about one town, but to feel this fear about attempting to represent a place that is not mine–even one that I’ve experienced both physically and emotionally, one that I can definitively attach to at least three significant moments in my own coming-of-age story seems a little rich. I should be able to spin at least a few good scenes out of the Dunkin’ Donuts + love triangle + dead moose trifecta, but I just don’t think I’ll actually ever do it.
I’ve made half-hearted stabs at it before but it feels fake and strange and as if I’m putting on a mask, and describing a place I can’t really know properly. Rarely do I feel my status as a foreigner more strongly than when I’m attempting to explain America in words. Writing place seems to be (to me) one of the arrows in the writing quiver that is the hardest to notch.
I used to be terrible at writing details, but eventually you can just compose a list of interesting things and put them in a blender as and when required. I used to be terrible at dialogue, but eventually you know just to put two people who hate/love/love-hate each other in an elevator/stuffy apartment/spaceship and see what happens. But “place”, because (I think) it’s so tied up in our emotions, in the part of our subconscious that reveals no secrets, that doesn’t let us understand our own emotional connection to what’s basically just a collection of mud, rocks, and water, is the hardest to access through the pathway of craft–how can you practice feeling? Writing place ends up becoming about more than “places I’ve seen” and becomes “places I’ve felt”. And while I’ve been to New Hampshire and seen it, while I’ve felt real emotions there, I haven’t “felt” that moment where as a writer I can say: I got this. This place is important to me.
Or, I just don’t pay attention to things when I travel.
*Friendship, Maine is so awesome a town that when you want to throw away your garbage you have to pack it all in a car, drive 2.5 towns over, stake out the back of a strip-mall Subway, and sneak your garbage into their apparently private dumpster. This, by the way, is a true story (which in turn reminds me of my theory that non-fiction and fiction are the same things, but just told in different styles at this point).
**a real New Hampshire hamlet! I bet you thought that election-day coverage of the 4-vote hamlets at Tuesday midnight, the “first voters in the nation” stuff was all bogus. Well, I’ve been to a real New Hampshire hamlet (And it is AH-MAAZING!).
***this was during my unfortunately long-lived “I wanna be the Indian Borges” phase.
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