Writing About Place.

My writing instructor lamented the other day about the fact that many of his undergraduate students were averse to writing about Edmonton. Why? Because it doesn’t seem “interesting”, according to students. And it doesn’t feel somehow as ‘authentic’ as writing about New York, Paris or even Canadian cities like Montreal or Vancouver that are older and somehow more mythic than a cold city in the prairies.

Admittedly, I too have been guilty of thinking less of writing about Edmonton than other places. It’s the city I know better than any city in the world including my current city of Vancouver. It’s the city I called home for almost a decade and it’s the city that I adopted as my home base, even though I’m not technically ‘from’ Edmonton. And yet, when I try to write about Edmonton, it never works. It comes across as affected, as if I’m trying too hard to characterize the place I know and love. I think back to Todd Babiak’s The Garneau Block, a novel about Edmonton which does take some liberties with the city’s geography but otherwise paints an accurate picture of the city, its values, and the people in it. Babiak introduces little details to readers to pain that picture: a woman wearing an old Folk Festival t-shirt, for example, and the characters eating at ‘famous’ local hangouts like the Sugar Bowl. For some reason, when a writer like Babiak does these things, they flow smoothly and mostly authentically. In the novel, Edmonton becomes a place that is to be written about. When try to write about Edmonton, the details come across as sketchy and un-interesting. I wonder if this is because of my own familial relationship with Edmonton, the sectors of the city I know and love, or if it is my deficiencies as a writer that prevent me from being able to authentically portray the wonderful city of Edmonton as a real ‘place’ in writing.

It has occurred to me though looking through almost all the fiction I have written, that I have yet to accurately and affectively characterize a specific, or even sometimes a non-specific place. Place to me is a missing piece in my fiction that, perhaps if filled, could add a lush and more realistic backdrop for my characters. I am a character writer and I focus so much on what my characters are doing, saying and thinking, place feels like a boring element to play with and write about. I don’t know how to do it. I have read many books and stories which have accurately and brilliantly made the setting into a secondary character, lurking behind the characters, allowing them and encouraging them and even preventing their motivations. How do I do this? Why do I struggle so much with place more than other story elements? What am I missing?

I’ve lived in Vancouver for almost a year and a half now, and it’s been wonderful. I have absorbed so much of the rich and lovely qualities of this city and having spent a wealth of time exploring and just being in this dense urban area has been a refreshing change from my former home of Edmonton. I have jotted down some notes about Vancouver that have turned into pieces of narrative or short vignettes but they are still not fully fleshed out, underdeveloped and feel still not quite as ‘authentic’ or ‘interesting’ as I would like them to feel. Perhaps they’re a step ahead of my attempts to write Edmonton, and perhaps this is because of me being re-inspired by the place I occupy or perhaps I am steadily becoming a more mature writer.

A part of my New Years resolution will be to aspire to write place. And I would like that place to be Edmonton. And I would like this piece to capture all the authentic and grounded details about Edmonton that allows it to be both a background and a character.

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