“I hate it here.”

WINTER-SAD-facebookThe other day one of my writing students said casually, “I don’t set any of my stories in Edmonton because I hate it here.”

I was surprised, not so much about the expression of hate as the fact that she wouldn’t write about the place where she lives. A lot of Edmontonians like to grumble about how miserable this city can be in winter, or how boring it is, etc. In a weird sort of way we take pride in grumbling and joking about the awfulness of our city. It means we’re tougher, more stubborn, more bad-ass or something, than people who live in “nicer” cities.

But I also shouldn’t have been surprised that this student never writes about Edmonton. It seems to be the attitude of most beginning writers here that only New York, London, or Big Gritty Generic City USA are proper settings for a story (actually the problem for them isn’t so much Edmonton as an unworthy setting as it is Canada altogether, which is another problem for another post). Many of my students over the years have set stories in these famous foreign cities, often for no good reason other than they believe this is where stories take place. Stories that matter, which seems to mean stories they see on TV.

Usually the students’ stories could be set anywhere for all it matters to the plot. So why not Edmonton? These students have absorbed the idea – wherever from? – that this place is too dull, boring, and characterless to be worth setting a story in. It would be like writing about your mother’s toe-jam. Uncool, pointless, and just not done.

Margaret Atwood taught writing in Edmonton for a year in the 70’s and according to most reports she hated it here, too. But she did what a writer should do: she transmuted her experience into story. The result was a classic of early bleak Atwooditude (she didn’t name the city but we know. We know and we haven’t forgotten). I first encountered the story as a teenager and I had no idea it was set in Edmonton. All I knew was that the story reinforced the lesson I’d already been absorbing about Canadian literature: it’s always by someone from somewhere else, and it makes you feel miserable and alone.

(Actually I didn’t live in Edmonton then but in Jasper. Another story for another post).

This is how it’s been for a long time. Someone from somewhere else defining our city on the national stage. The culture industry, like all eastern industries since the fur trade, taking what it wants from the west, then selling the result back to us grateful rubes. Central Canada getting to decide what Edmonton is, what Edmonton means, what Edmonton’s worth.

And despite all the fine Edmonton writing over the years, young writers here are still caught in this mindset. If these young people in my classes don’t write about home, they’re letting someone in Toronto take even this – the place of their own city in Canlit – away from them.

To the student who hates it here I said, okay, if you hate this place then that’s a powerful source of creativity for you. James Joyce disdained and raged against Dublin but it became his lifelong writing obsession. He turned what everyone thought of as a grey, dull, unremarkable city into one of the most famous settings in world literature.

So go ahead and hate. But write.

Another student joined in the Edmonton-bashing to say that nobody ever writes about this place, that it’s not a literary city. Are you kidding me? Henry Kreisel, Robert Kroetsch, Rudy Wiebe, Myrna Kostash, Aritha van Herk, Marty Chan, Todd Babiak, Minister Faust, Wayne Arthurson, Alice Major, Sean Stewart, Laurence Miall … I can go on. I will, next week, in class. I’m preparing a long, improving lecture on Edmonton, City of Writers.

Anyhow I was so appalled by what I was hearing from these would-be writers – writers cutting themselves off from the most ready source of material, the life right under their noses – that I resorted to emergency measures. I came right out and told them that as a writing instructor I love to see stories set in Edmonton.

Now that they know this, that this city as a setting will please me, I expect to see a lot more Edmonton-based fiction. (Truth is I won’t raise a grade just because a story is set here, but stories set where the student actually lives usually tend to be better stories anyhow).

I don’t give my writing students guidelines about their content. I let them write about what they’re interested in. But I’m getting really tired of stories set in Los Angeles, for no good reason. And stories about zombie elves on the planet Grabotnix, for that matter. This little Edmonton-bashing incident has galvanized me. I’m on a crusade now. For next year’s introductory workshop I’m going to impose the following rule:

YOU MUST WRITE ONE STORY SET IN EDMONTON.

I may get a bunch of stories that make you feel miserable and alone, but at least they won’t be by someone from somewhere else.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. I’ve never been able to write (well) about a place while I still lived in it. I needed distance to really see my experience there. But I also think it’s a great exercise to be made to really see the place you’re in, too.

  2. Donna Duke says:

    I love to read stories by Canadian writers which are set in Canada. I’m Canadian. Why wouldn’t I? I can more easily relate to a story in a familiar setting. I can certainly relate to Edmonton. I was born and raised there. The book I’m currently reading is The New Normal by Ashley Little. The setting could be anywhere.

  3. Correne Refsahl-Jensen says:

    The only book I can recall reading that is set in Edmonton is The Unfinished Child by Theresa Shea. It was very strange at first, bumping into places and weather that I recognize. It pulled me out of the story somewhat. I realized that settings in New York or Bombay are entirely imaginary to me because I’ve never been there. They might as well be set in Middle Earth. I wonder what it’s like for residents of LA or New York to stumble across familiar landmarks while reading.

  4. I can’t understand the amount of hate there is for Edmonton. I love this city! And I love stories set here. That mindset boggles me. I tend to gravitate towards setting my stories in Edmonton, if for no other reason than path of least resistance. I’m always worried I’ll get something totally wrong about my setting if I write about somewhere I don’t know very well without researching the heck of it, whether it’s a logistical error or just not properly understanding/capturing the personality of a place.

  5. Anthony Karosas says:

    A friend shared this post on his Facebook, so I’m crossposting the comment I wrote there.

    I understand the appeal of setting a story in a city with a ready reputation, but unless the author is very skilled and meticulous in their research, they’ll be unable to give their story a real sense of geography, a sense of place. New York City is exciting, sure, but if you haven’t lived there or researched it extensively, how are you going to make Houston Street, or Washington Park, real to your readers? If you’re simply setting your story in such a city to avoid the work of creating the sense of place, you’re just being lazy. I’ve done that; been lazy in that way, and it wasn’t just that my writing suffered for it, but my audience was cheated of their opportunity to be engaged with the place as well.

    I’m reminded of a time in my childhood that underscores how powerful a real sense of geography can be in a story.

    My teacher in Grade 5, Mrs. Hanslik, loved reading. She read to us in class at least a couple of times a week, and her love of reading was palpable.

    She read one particular book to us, “The Tomorrow City”, which she was ABSOLUTELY CONVINCED was based on Edmonton. She’d read aloud a passage describing some aspect of the city’s geography, and then point out how the description corresponded to Grierson Hill, or Highway 2 just south of the city, or some other location. What made the experience so appealing, besides Mrs. Hanslik’s infectious joy at reading about her adopted home (she had immigrated from Austria), was that though the novel itself was dystopian, the city was not portrayed as bleak or grey or boring.

    Years later, thanks to the internet, I was able to look up the book, and damn, but she was right.* The author, Monica Hughes, lived in Edmonton for some time and according to Wikipedia she often set her books in Canadian cities.

    *Mrs. Hanslik may have actually known the author was Edmontonian, but in my memory she simply suspected it.

  6. Hi Thomas,

    A friend of mine linked your blog post, and upon reading it, I couldn’t help seeing my reflection. I was born and raised in Edmonton, but I’ve been living out east for 7 years now. I am also an amateur writer, and I can relate to the sentiment espoused by your students. Nevertheless, the only story of mine that even came close to being published (it was shortlisted) is an ode to Edmonton.

    I’ve since made the choice to self-publish what little work I produce, so here’s the link: http://www.placet-experiri.com/wii/

    If you read it, hope you like it.

Trackbacks

  1. […] don’t get why young people in Thomas Wharton’s creative writing classes “hate it here.”  Mr. Wharton should mention to his classes that great novelists wrote about London and Paris and […]

  2. […] friend Tom Wharton posted a piece on his website about setting stories in Edmonton. You can read it here. He always encourages his creative writing students to write about this place in all its bifurcated […]

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