Experience & Setting

When you live in different places, and later try to write about the experiences you had in them, how much do you paint from the external and how much do you bring from within? Which is the better way? Which conveys a better sense of place?

When I commenced writing my latest novel, Milltown, someone lectured me that I hadn’t lived in a small town in Ontario long enough to write about one. After all, I hadn’t gone to school in one, never worked in one, hadn’t played hockey and gone drinking with the guys on Friday nights, never had sex in the back seats of cars at drive•ins when I was a randy young adolescent – how dare I write about life in a small town? I pleaded “guilty” to all those experiences, guilty for having committed them all somewhere else (except perhaps the hockey – would cricket count?), and “not guilty” for having perpetrated them in a small town in Canada. That said, they were no less thrilling wherever I had experienced them – be it in a big city, on a tropical island or in a desert oasis.

When writing about settings from within, the danger is that you also bring back the experiences which occurred in those places. Therefore the experience and the setting become inter•twined, and inseparable, and the experience is non transferable to a new locale. The writing may be more authentic, but the writer is stuck in his time and place warp.

Therefore, for this novel, my settings are written from the outside in, just as “method” actors do, just like landscape painters turn out masterpieces by sitting in a location and absorbing the scene in all its permutations and in all weathers and at all times of day. I am writing setting by observation, while transposing experiences from within, wherever they occurred, because human experience is universal.
That is why I like writing setting from the outside in, because I can transplant the experience, whether it was drinking with the boys or having sex in the back seats of cars, and place it wherever I want it – either in a big city or in a small town. I just have to change the props, but the experience and the emotions behind them, are still the same.

Setting is important, for without it, characters have no context, history has no colour and the stage has no backdrop. But setting can be separated from experience because the latter is transportable, the former is not. I bet you an orphan boy under threat for his life feels the same fear (i.e. experience) today that Oliver Twist did in his day; the present•day orphan probably has more solutions (i.e. props) at his disposal to alleviate that fear than poor Oliver had, because his setting is different.

The city we all bash – but it still works – too well!

We all like to bash old Toronto, especially these days with the garbage piled up and relatives from down there visiting and bringing their trash for us to “take care” of. Toronto, which as you approach along the 401, something catches in your throat and you realize that it’s not homesickness but pollution. But that city still works—let me give you some examples…

During the recent municipal strike, I visited the Toronto Islands. A speedy water taxi took me to my destination in faster time than the old public ferry and its lines of chattering holiday makers. The islands themselves were empty but for their residents, probably relieved to ride their bicycles and walk their dogs with no hordes of invaders from the mainland to bother them; the boardwalk was deserted and the views spectacular. And the towers of Toronto still gleamed imperiously from the other side. That was one of my best visits to the Islands ever.

I went into the heart of downtown TO last week and absentmindedly stepped out of a brand name coffee shop (where the price of a newly reduced cup of coffee is still higher than a glass of wine in my little town) with my empty disposable cup in hand. I looked for the nearest trash can. It was staring at me. There were trash cans all over the street – but they were clogged up to the mouths of their narrow openings with a month’s full of trash. I was about to stuff my empty cup in my bag and carry it back to my small town (like my city relatives had taught me) when I saw small plastic bags hanging off the sides of the overfull public trash cans. I also noticed that stuffed trash notwithstanding, the streets were still cleaner than the ones down south of the border. It was as if the people of Toronto go out at night on vigilante clean•up missions, sticking their fingers up at the striking city workers, determined to make their city work, unions notwithstanding. I deposited my empty coffee cup in one of the dangling plastic bags, feeling humbled and impressed.

Two days ago, I was in the city again at a business meeting that ran over time. I stepped out on to the street and my car, parked at a meter by the curb, had disappeared. Sure, I was guilty of being 15 minutes later than when my permit expired, but why the hell did they have to take my car as payment? My associate helped me call around to the various tow companies that operated that part of town and believe me there were lots of them. One number we were given to call ended up being the police, who promptly informed me that my car had been stolen. Never to give up, we continued to call through the unending list until one tow operator confirmed that they had my car. I was out there in a taxi like a speeding bullet (one note on taxis in TO – they rival New York now, or tow companies in TO – they are everywhere, thanks to the immigrant doctors and engineers who have swelled their ranks in recent times). I retrieved my car in the air•conditioned comfort of the tow company that accepted debit cards – a very smooth transaction, indeed!

Two hundred dollars poorer but wiser for my experience, I raced up the Don Valley Parkway, fleeing the Big Smoke, amazed at its efficiency. To salve my soul, I was determined to go back to my small town and park in the mayor’s parking spot (which I have used before in emergencies) determined to prove that I would not be tagged, towed or arrested, and looking for a bit of kindness and understanding over cold blooded efficiency.