PLAYLIST FOR THIS POST:
“Death To My Hometown” Bruce Springsteen
“Back on the Chain Gang” The Pretenders
“Winter Song” The Crash Test Dummies
Let’s talk about setting.
The other night my friend Jim tweeted that our old Binghamton University dorms, College in the Woods, were being slated for heavy renovations and upgades. Cayuga, where no one I knew lived, is up first, and the rest of CIW will follow shortly. Binghamton University has been undergoing a ton of renovations to make the dorms more like “apartments” and less like “prison cells” in a continuing effort to lure potential students/indentured servants. (I say this as a proud Binghamton alumni; those cinder-block dorms made me the person I am today)
CIW is important to me because it’s where I made the majority of the friends I still have today, where I threw my best parties and where I really began honing my craft. I lived in Oneida 4D my entire time on campus, with the same roommate (Allie) until she moved out my senior year. I can remember the placement of posters on the wall, the way my desk chair felt, the arrangement of the furniture in the Triangulon (where Eeon, Jim and Pete lived) next door, the exact degrees each knob in the shower had to be turned so you didn’t freeze or scald yourself to death. In a few years, perhaps, none of that will physically exist in any layout I could map blind. I’ve never lived someplace where I’d never again have the chance to walk the floors.
Setting has never been one of my strengths, and anyone who’s ever been in a writing workshop with me will admit this. It’s usually something I go back and add in later, but in a first draft, the majority of my action takes place in a black box with the curtains and the view added later.
Part of No Awkward Goodbyes takes place in Binghamton, specifically, the Belmar Bar, which is a little townie dive on Main Street, off the main college drag. In the book, it’s where Jett confronts the mysterious GPS, and I have transcribed it exactly as I remember it: Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs on the jukebox, a pull-knob cigarette machine of Pall Malls and Lucky Strikes, smokers in the parking lot. That setting came easily to me because, hey, write what you know.
You don’t know how sweet water can taste until you’re dying of thirst. The other day my friend Chuck sent me a piece he was working on, and he started by describing the character’s alarm clock, her bedroom, her makeup ritual. If I was writing that same scene, I would have ignored all those details, because my idiot mind would have thought “everyone knows what waking up is like, get on with the story!” but the way he worded it felt like water–simple, and yet, so essential to the character’s existence. No airs, just simple, stark, well-paced prose. I was seized with both jealousy and awe, and vowed to do better. Bad writers seeth. Good writers learn.
I doubt the Belmar still has the pull-knob cigarette machine. Maybe they don’t have Tom Waits on the jukebox, maybe the place has been taken over by college students, I don’t know and it isn’t important. But what’s important is that Jett and GPL — and therefor, the reader — feel comfortable there, that they have a space to exist. It’s a lesson I’m going to have to learn again and again. But I need to learn to write spaces my characters can map blind. One step, one clock, one pack of smokes at a time.
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