Heimweh (On Writing and Place)

You can be a little ungrammatical if you come from the right part of the country.
          —Robert Frost

When I was 16, I had lived in two houses, one of them for fifteen years. By the time I was 25, I had lived in three dorms, three basements, four apartments, and—briefly—on a porch. Then I managed to live in one apartment in North Minneapolis for seven years. In that apartment, I started and finished a PhD, spent sleepless nights with two infants and watched them grow. I cooked a lot of meals in the kitchen with the floral-print wallpaper. Yesterday, I put the fourth set of license plates on my trusty, rusty Dodge: Texas (following, from most recent to oldest: Minnesota, Ohio and Idaho). For the first time in a long while, I’m a newcomer.

Place grounds writing. It might allow you, as Frost suggests, to be “a little ungrammatical.” Even a few generations into mass media’s flattening of regional accents, changing places changes the sounds of the language around you. (Never mind moving far enough to land in a different language.) If, like me, you write fiction, you have to pay attention to dialogue. The story of a torrid Miami Beach affair should not feature the linguistic cadences and quirks of North Dakota.

Writing and place intersect in more profound ways than dialect, though. The intersection is also about landscapes—the real and the imaginary. When I moved from Idaho to Wales, my stories filled up with fragile cliffs and dramatic tides. In Minnesota, I was suddenly writing about trees a lot more. Summit Avenue in St. Paul is lined with wonderfully big, old trees, and they seeped into my work. Characters climbed trees, or stared at them, or marked out the seasons by their leaves. I wrote about snow, of course, and snow still occupies a prominent place in my mind, the way it can be a blanket, an obstacle, a coat of paint…

Imaginary landscapes are just as important—in high school, I went to a writing workshop in the same part of Idaho that Hemingway had once called home. That mattered just as much as the dry hills and hidden streams. Summit Avenue? It had big, old, expensive houses to go along with the big, old, trees, especially going up towards the Cathedral. It was the place where F. Scott Fitzgerald grew up, and what led to much of his bitterness about the rich. The Idaho of my youth was all sage brush and cowboys. I knew a few when I was a kid, old hands who’d been on horses since the Jazz Age was happening on the other side of the country. Sometimes it felt like there were more animals around than people. In Wales, it was not hard to populate the fog and the rolling hills with bits of Arthurian legend or the Mabinogion, to read omens into the flight of a crow. Places wear their stories.

So that’s one way writing ties to place: it supplies you with a mental geography. There’s another thing, though, that has really affected my writing over the years: the places I actually do it. I’ve done a lot of writing in coffee shops. True to type, right? But coffee shops are all a bit different. In Bowling Green there’s a combined coffee shop and used book store called Grounds for Thought. They do their own roasting and the coffee is great. Working there usually combined the best aspects of coffee shops and libraries. It was pretty quiet, there were books all around, the light wasn’t too bad…and, like I said, great coffee. There was another coffee shop, though, whose name I’ve forgotten. It was a few blocks closer to my apartment. The coffee wasn’t as good. The lights were brighter than I liked. Usually, there was Christian Rock playing too loud, too. There were times when I needed to go there to work, even though I didn’t “like” it as much as Grounds for Thought. I needed a place that was a bit abrasive to force me to focus. The distractions were just unpleasant enough to make me shut them out. I composed a lot of music in that coffee shop.

I wrote most of my dissertation in two Minneapolis coffee shops a few blocks apart. Sometimes the shops’ hours would decide which one I went to, other times I’d decide on the painfully mundane basis of whether I wanted better coffee or better pastries. (Once in a great while, I could legitimately base my decision on picking the coffee shop with the faster wi-fi.) Over the years, those two coffee shops became almost too familiar for me, and I had to cast further afield to find the right place to write. In the last phases of my dissertation, I’d bike across the river and down towards campus, spending the whole day writing and revising in a coffee shop that I don’t think I ever visited recreationally.

How does all this tie into the post’s title? Heimweh is the German word for homesickness. “Heim” translates to its cognate “home” pretty smoothly, but “weh” is less about illness than about ache. “Heimweh” is as much nostalgia (which has its linguistic roots in the pain of coming home) as it is homesickness. I’ve been feeling a lot of that with the move to Texas. I miss my old haunts, miss my old real and imaginary landscapes. When December comes and there’s no snow on the ground, I expect to be jealous of my friends in Minnesota complaining about windchill and snow emergencies. Thinking about where I am now, I cannot help thinking about all the places I’ve been before. When I get tired—especially when the things that have worn me out are the hassles inherent in 1200 miles’ worth of relocation—I just want to be back there with my familiar joys and concerns.

In the last few days, though, launching this blog and committing myself to writing, I’ve remembered something: from my earliest days as an aspiring writer, I’ve always written on trips. That’s the flip side to Heimweh, Fernweh—the ache to be traveling. (“Wanderlust” can also be translated to and from German as…”Wanderlust.”) The first big text I completed was a travelogue of my adventures taking trains through Europe. Even on shorter, busier trips, I usually keep a notebook and jot things down in it.  An academic conference in New Orleans, for example, inspired key points of the novel I’m writing. Even though there’s cliche in the thought, Texas is a big place. It’s not precisely another country, but it likes to think of itself as one. Along with the Heimweh comes the opportunity to explore this new landscape, to write in new places…and to find new favorite coffee shops.

I think I’ll get by.

What about you, my pioneering handful of readers? Any thoughts to share on how place has affected the content of your work? Or the process of creating it?

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