The Writing Life: Does it Matter Where a Writer Lives? by Abby Norman

I’ve lived in Maine my entire life, save for the few years I spent in college in New York before I fell ill. I’m a proud New Englander now, and growing up was privy to a lot of stereotypes about East Coast life. But for a while during my teen and early young adult years, I was determined to have a more metropolitan existence (and shed my tell-tale accent as quickly as possible).

I enjoyed living in the vicinity of New York City and was heartbroken when I had to leave and return to Maine to “recuperate” — a concept that turned into me moving back here permanently six years ago. I didn’t move back to the community I grew up in, though. I actually sprung for a more affluent one, mostly because it was near the hospital in which I was being treated.

One thing that’s true of a lot of places, but particularly so in rural states like Maine, is that the economic disparity is a source of equitable horror and fascination. The waterfront community I live in now is home to some exceedingly rich and lush people, and it’s just an hour down the coast from the seafaring, blue-collar town I grew up in. Even within this “elite” community I now reside in, the economic disparity on a single street is jarring at times: multi-million dollar homes on tree-lined, oceanfront streets just a few doors’ down from well-concealed low-income housing complexes.

Because I don’t own property here (I’ve been renting the same 800 square foot apartment for about five years), my cost of living is actually quite low. I live walking distance to downtown and the waterfront but am off Route One, so it’s fairly quiet. If I get in my car with my dog on a nice afternoon, fifteen minutes in any direction would position us to hike a mountain, walk along a waterfront trail, or head a mile out into the middle of the ocean along the Breakwater. I’m nestled between mountains and lakes on the northern side, and the resplendent Atlantic ocean to the east. If I stand on the sidewalk outside the post office, I can see both simultaneously.

The town I live in is famous for these sights, and it makes the summers festooned with tourists. Many a film and TV show use b-roll footage of our downtown for New England Town, USA motifs, and in fact a lot of movies have been filmed here in their entirety (In The Bedroom featured a lot of local talent). Author Tess Gerritsen lives and writes here, and Stephen King lives about two hours north. We’re frequently a respite for artists, actors, and creators: J.J. Abrahams, John Travolta, and Gabriel Byrne among our most frequent half-time residents.

I assume one reason they like to live here, at least part of the time, is that no one bothers them. Maybe that’s the Emily Post New England etiquette that was drilled into us as children, or our natural proclivity to ignore and silently judge those “from away” folk. But living here is a quiet, undisturbed existence. It’s a spectacular and accommodating place to think.

For me, whatever it is that I’m writing, the work always begins in my mind. Most of my work starts on one of those aforementioned hikes, where I can let my mind wander as my dog and I wander through the words, or stand atop a trail overlooking the vast expanse of the natural world which is indifferent to my thoughts. To my very existence, really. Driving aimlessly for hours through winding roads is another place where I am often inspired, and a great deal of my book was “written” while I was zooming along Route 52 toward mostly nothing.

Trading creativity for the practical for a moment, it’s worth noting also that I am permitted to write for a living because my cost of living is fairly low. I don’t make a lot of money; last year, even with the first pay-out of the advance for my first book, I made less than $25,000. Factoring in my work-related expenses, my gross income is fairly close to being in the negatives. While there are some expenses, like travel and health (which in my case is a huge expense) that are non-negotiable, I find it very easy to be thrifty. I think it’s also important to note that I personally have very minimal social requirements and therefore don’t spend a lot of money outside of the necessities anyway. But for someone who would desire to go out more, it could be difficult to have to give those things up in favor of paying the bills.

As I approach the next phase of my book becoming a reality (that is, handing the manuscript over to the publisher and entering a protracted state of panic) I started to think that I should probably move to New York City. I got so far as making a plan to do it which included having a place to live and packing up my apartment before the reality sunk in: given my health, it’s just not possible.

But then I began to also wonder: is it really necessary?

I think a lot of young writers move to New York City (Brooklyn, if we’re being honest) in hopes of getting the agent, the book deal, the byline, their name on a masthead. Those are all things I have. And I didn’t get them living in New York City. I haven’t been living there as I’ve written my book, either. And so far it’s all worked out just fine. In fact, the times that I have been in NYC (usually to meet with my agent or editor, or interview sources) I’ve actually been extremely unproductive. For one, whenever I’m there I must spend time doing things I love doing while I’m there (going to the New York City Ballet and the public library, spending time in Prospect Park, visiting friends) and becoming extremely rundown and exhausted in the process. It leaves me very little time to work, and the work that I do usually isn’t worth much until I’ve gone away and had time to polish it up. Because I can work at a more comfortable pace when I’m home in Maine, doing the work doesn’t exhaust me. If anything, it energizes me. Because the truth is, living here, there isn’t much else to be energized by.

I’m fairly introverted by nature, so I do pull inspiration and strength from being seated in such a beautiful, rich with natural wonders, place. I enjoy certain familiarities of small-town living, like knowing the guys at the post office and the gal who makes my coffee on the mornings I choose to wander out for it.

I discussed my doubts about living here versus The City with my agent and my editor, and they both had a fairly practical response: your job is to write, so it doesn’t matter where you write so long as you do. My editor also pointed out that there are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of writers writing about living in New York while living in New York.

I’m not. I’m writing about something totally different. Being here, writing here, living here, has given me a different voice. A different perspective. It’s something that sets me apart.

And it’s not like I can’t go there if necessary, or even if I just want a week away from the more mundane existence I typically prefer. In the same way I’m trying to figure out what kind of writer I am, I’m still working out the specifics of the type of person I am, and the kind of life that I want. And when I actually sat down and read up on the writers I most admire, it turns out the vast majority of them didn’t live and write in New York either!

Annie Dillard, perhaps the most hermetic of all contemporary writers, probably still lives in the woods, rarely seen. Anne Sexton lived in a suburb of Boston. Thoreau wrote Walden because he was so enamored by his surroundings. Flannery O’Connor, not unlike me, had health problems that precluded her doing much living outside of her home in Georgia, where she wrote most of her work from the first floor living room since she had trouble climbing stairs. Poetess Edna St. Vincent Millay is, in fact, from the town I live in now. There’s a statue of her in the park that I look at on my daily walks. Some of her most famous poems were written while she lived here, walking the same streets that I do now.

Every town and every city in the world is rich with stories. And as storytellers, we’ll find them no matter where we are. Writers should live where they work best, where they feel supported, inspired, and can reasonably work. Nothing interrupts one’s creative flow like worrying about money or street noise.

For me, I’m often reminded of Virginia Woolf’s words, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write,” and although she was thinking about writing novels, I find the same true of myself in the work I do. And while more money would be nice, if one keeps their room small and well-insulated, and can forgo some of the finer things in life, I think a writer can write, and make a life, just about anywhere.

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