“Reading is probably another way of being in a place.” — Jose Saramago
I find it is always important to step away from the writing. Especially when it’s a long work, and I’ve been worrying it to death for weeks and months on end. But there is stepping away — as in putting it in that proverbial drawer and forgetting about it — and there is stepping away. Just taking a breather from the screen, or the notebook, for awhile is an important part of the writing process. Yes, it is part of the process. I like to physically remove myself by hiking. I wrote about my dog Buddy in my last (so long ago) post. He’s a listener. Which makes him the perfect companion when I hike.
We hike in the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s a great place to unchain myself from the physical act of writing. Buddy loves the mountains. More than almost any place other than the beach. His reaction to place is different than his reaction to people and dog friends. When we follow the familiar road that leads to the trail head, he begins to pace in the backseat, and cry. He doesn’t verbalize much, so this crying is notable. It’s plaintive. The longing it’s expressing is clear. He wants, intensely, to be in this place. He cannot wait to get out of the car.
I think what he loves about it is the same thing that attracts people to nature. Nothing much happens when we hike. When we’re climbing up the trail, our footsteps and breathing are often the only sounds other than birdsong and frogcroak. Sometimes we see other people and dogs, sometimes we don’t. I keep him on a leash because he has a tendency to find rattlesnakes. He’s content on the leash, though. He doesn’t need to run around or even socialize up here. He needs to smell everything — the dirt, the flowers, the scents of other animals, the breeze — and he needs to see everything. It makes him happy. His happiness is infectious, makes me glad I left all those words at home.
When I’m up there on the mountain, my mind calms. It’s a unique experience for me, mentally. My mind is never quite so smoothed out, so cohesive as it is when I’m hiking. That frictionless state of mind seems to be where the muse hides out. She’s in there, and if I pay attention, I can see her at work, filling in plot holes, giving characters motivation, creating scenes that make perfect sense, and all without any effort on my part. After the hike, I often return to the work with a small revelation that inspires me to get back into the thick of it. This, I know, never would have happened in any other place.
Other places, though, do inspire me, or plug me into some sort of collective memory that excites the brain waves rather than calming them. This has happened to me a lot. I think all of my books have their genesis in two things in equal measure — a character or set of characters, and a place. The book I am working on now was inspired by, in addition to two characters, Rome. I visited Rome for the first time in 2009. I was in Europe, and made a side trip to Rome to visit a friend. I had never felt driven to go to Rome before. But the minute I stepped foot in the city, it was as if some collective memory came back to me in an instant. It had the same sort of force as the kind of memories we often get from smells. Gripping, something I had to pay attention to, but of what I had no idea. Or like déjà vu. I have been here before, this place means something to me. But why?
In order to sort out this overwhelming memory, I have to explore the place. In the same way a dog has to smell every inch of a place, I have to visit as much of the place as possible and listen for the stories. In a city like Rome, those stories are everywhere, in layer upon layer, waiting to be excavated. I wonder, when dogs smell things, gather up all the information in those scents, are they gathering stories? Perhaps there is a kind of collective memory for dogs as well as for people. A memory that is more than simple instinct. A memory that carries the stories of a place, a species, a planet.
I think the reason I connect my dog’s reaction to the idea of place for writers is that there is something primal in the experience of place. There is something about the reaction that’s hard to pin down, but that somehow triggers our story-telling instincts. There’s a desire to know the place, or to be thrilled by the mystery of it, to settle into the comfort of it, or to just drop by because staying too long could be dangerous. But it’s the place itself that titillates, that disturbs.
“The truth is, fiction depends for its life on place. Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of “What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?” – and that is the heart’s field.” –- Eudora Welty