I recently appeared on a writing panel to discuss setting. My prep on the subject reminded me that when I was a new writer, having published just a couple of short stories, I didn’t handle setting well. Actually, it wasn’t that I was bad at capturing a sense of place, it was more that I ignored it. I wrote, as I now often see my students writing, dialogue scenes set in a vacuum, action passages that take place in a fog. It just wasn’t a factor in my writing.
Nobody is equally adept at every aspect of the craft of writing, and our abilities don’t grow at identical rates. Most of us find we excel at some aspects of writing — maybe our dialogue sparkles, or a strong voice emerges pretty much on its own. And our abilities in those areas grow in leaps. We might not soar quite so fast with other aspects, but our improvement is steady and we gradually build more competence and confidence in those areas. But there are also other disciplines that just seem to elude us. We see our classmates, critique group members or other writing contemporaries sailing past us. And we wonder why we’re dragging behind when it comes to that skill.
Setting was my weakness. Unlike many new writers, however, it didn’t bother me that I didn’t relate to setting. I told myself that it was because all my fiction writing was limited to short stories then, and setting sometimes doesn’t play a significant role in stories.
But the root of my issue with setting went deeper than that. The truth was I didn’t consider my real life setting as significant, either. At some level, I think I saw myself as a gypsy, not tied to any one place. Where I got that idea, I couldn’t say. While I didn’t live in the place where I grew up, and we did move a bit too often in those early years — I’m a classic Cancer, a natural nester with a strong need for my home space. How I came up with my totally erroneous self-image I can’t imagine. But because I didn’t see myself as tied to place, I saw no point in writing it. When editors required a bit of setting as a condition of accepting a story, I put it in — and while those editors seemed happy with the result, the outcome always felt hollow to me.
One day something clicked, and I saw how ridiculous my assumptions were. My home was my sanctuary from the world, a world that sometimes leaned heavier on me than I would have liked. Would it have been able to touch me if I didn’t notice it there? I began to see how the place where I lived reflected my choices, and how I interacted with the things around me showed as much about me as it did about those objects.
The gypsy idea? Well, once the writing habit took hold, I limited my imaginings to the page, and saw my real life in its true colors.
Once I got it — the point of setting — I never again had trouble writing it. I simply opened myself personally to background, and it moseyed into my writing. My work, and my own life, became richer as a result.
Now I see too many students struggling with the same lack of setting. I see such naked dialogue, their books more closely resemble screenplays. I see characters who will use props if they must, but they insist on pulling them from the air, like magicians. I see settings so generic, they could be transferred from Anytown to Anytown and nobody would notice.
I keep reminding my students to work in setting. I keep telling them how necessary it is. Yet I can’t help wondering whether they simply don’t know how write it and resist learning, or if like me, there’s something in their thinking that blinds them to its value. I wonder if they’d regard me as crazy if I shared my gypsy story. Who has that little self-awareness? Instead, I limit myself to nudging, reminding and showing them once again how to write it, while I wait for something to click for them as it did for me. I know their books will be better, once they begin to allow setting into their writings. And maybe, once they open themselves to it, their lives, like mine, will be richer, too.