Is Where You Write Important?
A trip to the world’s top literary locations gave me the answer
Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon, London, and indeed Paris have always been legendary locations to me. Not for their bread, and not because of the Queen. But rather, because of the great literary works that have originated there. There must be some magic in the air in those places that helped so many great writers — Lewis, Tolkien, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Shakespeare and company write such grand array of literature.
It leads me to wonder — does location have a tremendous bearing on writing?
What Struck Me Was the Simplicity
My first gut reaction is that yes, location does affect writing. And I do believe that it does. However, it is more nuanced than needing to flee to Paris in order to begin your writing career. Because the first thing you notice when you visit these places where once great people met and discussed their works is this — the breath has gone out. I mean, whatever magic had been there before, whatever magic that had caused great writers to think great thoughts, has surely been replaced with Shakespeare shakes, Tolkien pies, Hemingway memorabilia, and so-on. No –the magic that allowed these similar, likeminded people to congregate and create is gone now — like the heat from a fireplace after the door has been open for too long.
I don’t mean to dissuade you from visiting these remarkable places. If you are in Oxford, by all means, do stop by the Eagle and Child, where the Inklings met. But only for the novelty of it. There is no real inspiration to be found in these places. They are forever locked away. Because you can find reference to them in just about any guidebook on the planet. They are no longer special.
Why Does Place Matter?
Location does matter, however, to writers. But not in the way that you would imagine. When a writer or a creative or an artist creates something somewhere, he does not turn that ground into sacred ground. It does not become a font of inspiration for further generations to come. Actually, it becomes something rather cliche and kitsch instead. What matters is not the location — it is what the location meant to the writers who first discovered it.
Often Tolkien travelled, for example, to the not so far away Cotswold region in order to find inspiration for his writing. But it was not the region that created the works. It was the experience of going there in search of something that rejuvenated Tolkien’s thoughts and ideas. And there’s something that we can learn about from this in regards to our own writer’s journey.
Place does matter.
But it’s not the location of the place that matters. It’s what the place means to you. Too often we get caught up in the grind. We know that something needs to be written. We know that if we don’t write it, we won’t be able to make the car payments, our family will go hungry, and we’re going to have to revert to that job at Starbucks or worse, in sales, that we worked so hard to get away from in the first place.
We sit in the same position throughout the day, in our perfectly conditioned office with the coffee pot nearby and eventually we forget what it means to be a writer. We forget the single most important truth — the reason that writing is worth pursuing in the first place.
Writing is an Adventure
And you can’t have an adventure when you are sitting around. I think that’s what Tolkien understood. Bilbo, in The Hobbit, is happy to just stay home. He likes the Shire and feels no obligation to leave it. And yet, see what happens when he does leave! He may not know where the road will take him, but traveling and getting new life experiences forever changes him for the better.
That must be the reason that Tolkien searched out new places to write. Indeed, it’s among the many reasons that drove so many writers to new locations in search of inspiration.
What Does this Mean for Writers Today?
The Eagle and Child is not special because of the building, or the bricks, or the food, or the beer. It’s only made special because of the people who gathered there. Don’t try to emulate this there. It won’t work. Rather, look at the places in your own community, within your own life. The places that you meet and gather with people of similar minds — people who push you to be better, who are willing to look at an unfinished project and see the potential in your work instead of tearing you down.
There is nothing special about Stratford-upon-Avon. And yet the greatest writer in the history of our language came from there. He found it a solace to write there, away from the business of life in London.
Where do you find solace? What spaces in your world make it easier for you to write? Do they frequently changed? Search them out! They can be a cabin in the woods in Wisconsin, or a mobile home on an island in the Pacific Northwest.
Don’t be afraid to write in one place one day, and another the next. And don’t think that you are wasting your time pursuing them. If driving the five minutes down the road and paying for a cup of coffee is the price of your inspiration, trust me, it is well worth it.