Does Geography Determine Creativity?

MapEyeAs a teenager, I thought I had to move to a big city to be a writer. Growing up in a small Swedish town (3000 people), I had my sights set on London, Amsterdam, or in a pinch, Copenhagen. Berlin seemed pretty cool too, but when it came time to pick a third language in seventh grade and my school offered German and French, I for some reason picked the Romance language. When after three years I still hadn’t mastered the French vocabulary, I scratched Paris off the fourth place position on my list.

At seventeen, I moved to the US to study and learned quickly that in this country, the only place to become a successful writer was New York City. Young creative people still flock to this vibrant metropolis, but according to Candy Washington, sometimes they need a vacation from the “hustle-and-bustle of the NYC grind.” In her recent article for PolicyMic, she writes:

New York can be a great environment for the creative 20-something — but only if you’ve got endless funds, patience or both. And as the city continues to price us out, it’s important for young artists to consider other equally exciting and inspiring places to call home.

Ms. Washington suggests the following five cities for creative living:

1. Wilmington, NC: The new film and television hub
2. Little Five Points, GA: Boho-chic in the South
3. Providence, RI: The new ‘Creative Capital’
4. New Orleans, LA: More than Mardi Gras
5. Portland, OR: Stay weird

I would add San Francisco, CA to this list because of the video games influenced increase in creative jobs such as graphic art and game story writing. I’d also add Seattle, WA because I read somewhere that it has more published authors per capita than any other US city. And I’d add Austin, TX because it’s the city that first coined a marketing term that included the word “weird” (Keep Austin Weird) and because it offers live music of any genre any day of the week.

None of these cities were on my radar by the time I arrived in America and I didn’t pay much attention to New York either. Science had taken over as my main focus. I still did some writing, but not with my previous fervor. Being immersed in a second language also did weird stuff to my brain. Paragraphs would end up half Swedish, half English, and sometimes wholly in a new language I named Swenglish. Writing was hard and when I wasn’t studying, I was more interested in spending time with my new American friends and my new American boyfriend. None of them were interested in writing or any other type of art.

By graduate school, my neurons had figured out in which language to fire and writing flowed naturally again. I’d also moved to Denver, the biggest city I’d lived in up to that point. Medical Physics graduate classes and hospital internships pretty much ruled my life, but I found the time to go out and  also wrote a lot.

I had broken up with the boy I dated all through college and felt wonderfully free and independent. I was ready for new adventures and new friends. As the only woman in my graduate class and younger than the other students by ten years, I looked outside of school to meet new people. Thinking back, I don’t know exactly how I met everyone I know from my Denver days, but it started with playing on an intramural volleyball league and a soccer team and someone somewhere knowing some other Swedes. From there, the crowd I hung out with grew to an eclectic mix of Europeans and Americans. People who were painters, musicians, writers, or not creative at all—but everyone had day jobs or graduate studies that allowed them to go out most evenings.

As the capitol of Colorado, Denver has its fair share of cultural treasures. It would have been nice—and shown some sign of maturity—if I had taken advantage of the museum collections, plays, art exhibits, or visiting writer events that the city offered. Instead, I spent my evenings in dingy music venues listening to a friend’s band, or I was out clubbing. Every now and then, we’d party at someone’s house. My personality changed from fairly introverted and quiet to outgoing and, at times, outrageous. Like burnout outrageous. I studied, worked, partied, and wrote like crazy. I never slept. There wasn’t time. And when I tried to, I couldn’t. Insomnia made me a productive writer.

After graduate school, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area for a job in the high tech industry. My social activities calmed down. I limited my evenings out to weekends, for the most part. I caught up on sleep. I joined a writing group. I went to writer events. I wrote my own stuff. I met a man. I got married. We chucked in our jobs and went traveling for a year in India, South East Asia, and Australia. I wrote a lot. We came back. We were broke. We got new tech jobs and  hated the fourteen-hour-days. I got a tenure track teaching job in Spokane. We moved.

I had to look a little harder than when I lived in the Bay Area, but I found a vibrant arts community in my new town. It wasn’t hard to meet creative people. Even before I applied to EWU’s MFA program, I had ferreted out the writers, writing organizations, and literary events that Spokane had to offer. Writing became the major thing I did outside of teaching.

Looking back, the more creative, more productive periods of my life didn’t have much to do with where I lived, but with whom I spent my time. If I was surrounded by creative people, I wrote more. Sure, I’d still love to live in New York, London, Paris, Berlin, or even Copenhagen, but I don’t think you have to live in a particular place to be a writer, not even to be a successful writer.

I can see how being a screen writer in LA or a playwright in NYC may offer more opportunities than if you lived in a small town in Montana or Kansas, but living in a city with a big writing industry doesn’t necessarily makes you a better writer, or a more creative one. Tons of books, movies, and plays are about writers living a writing life in a writing metropolis. Some of them are excellent (HBO’s Girls comes to mind), but many of them don’t say anything new about that life.

I prefer art that takes a mundane place with mundane people and makes them into an exceptional story. And those are written by people who lived a lot of their life outside of the main cultural hubs, or at least take their vacations away from them.

6 Comments

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    I love Providence. I would also add Pittsburgh to the list and, as you note, Spokane. NYC is just too expensive, as is SF. When I got done with undergrad I thought I needed to leave the country to become a writer. That travel was good for me — and so is anything that makes you see things a new way. It is nice to be part of a community of artists, and you need a critical mass for such a community to develop — but I agree that it doesn’t have to be NYC. Or Paris. Or London.

    • I have a friend from Pittsburgh who wholeheartedly agrees with you, Sam, and gave me a talking to for not including it on the list originally.

      I think NYC would have eaten me alive had I lived there in my 20s. I had enough trouble in San Francisco. Now though, I can’t get enough of NYC.

  • Amaris says:

    Can I put in a recommendation for Albuquerque? There’s film industry here and a cool weird slogan (Keep it Querque! pronounced Quirky, of course)…

  • Michael Wong says:

    I’m an artist in San Francisco. My daughter aspires to be a writer, so I’ve been researching geography. Many seem to write that a writer can create anywhere, but I’m wondering about other writers? I don’t see many writers mentioning the number of other writers in a location as a significant criteria to recommend it as a place for writers.

    As an artist, it is vital that I be able to discuss and share my work with other artists and a stronger, bigger community is, well, a stronger and bigger community.

    Is it different for authors?

  • Michael Wong says:

    And are Brooklyn and San Francisco really the epicenters that I hear they are?

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