My wife and I are moving to a new home this week, so I may be off the grid for a short while. I’ve moved a number of times in my life, and each time I’m reminded of how important it is for us to adjust our vantage point from time to time. Writers have a tendency to become insular, and, if you’re like me, you also have an inclination toward routine. When it comes to my own writing, I know it takes a certain degree of stability and constancy to do my best work. Putting words onto the blank page is enough of a terrifying mess; the worlds we create rarely behave themselves. That’s why I’ve always found predictability in the world outside the ones I create in my writing room to be something I cherish. The less I have to think about what’s outside the writing, the better able I am to fully immerse myself in what’s happening on the page.
The problem is we can become too comfortable. We can become so comfortable that we can stop seeing what’s around us. We can stop becoming interested in human behaviors, cultural customs, the significance of details, etc. When we stop observing, we stop living. When we stop questioning, we lose our ability to wonder and speculate. When we stop interpreting, we stop making meaning. All of this is deadly for the writer.
A move to a different place demands our powers of observation. Out of necessity, we rely upon our eyes and ears and brains and hearts to make sense of the new world we’ve entered. We walk into a restaurant and we’re immediately noticing how the people there are different from the people in our previous home. We meet our new neighbors and we can’t help but compare them to the ones we’ve left behind. And we see ourselves differently in the midst of this new place and in the company of the new people we meet. By extension, we refresh our vision of the world and our place in it. We can no longer depend on what we’ve learned previously. We have to learn anew.
All of this is good for the writer. I remember reading once that the artistic personality often develops from being caught between two cultures. It seems to true to my own experience. When I was in the third grade, my parents and I moved from a farm in southeastern Illinois to a suburb of Chicago. I was immediately thrust into a world unlike any I’d ever known. When we went back to our farm each summer, I was suspect because I was changed by living in the city. When I went back to Chicago each autumn, I had to learn anew what it was like to be living there. I was always on guard, always taking careful notice of my friends and the new songs they liked, the new slang they used, the new fashions they wore because I so desperately wanted to fit in. Perhaps it’s this feeling of not quite belonging anywhere that leads some of us to become writers.
But moving is expensive and sometimes soul-consuming, so what can we do if we want to stay in one place but alter our perspective from time to time. Simple. Go to a part of your community that you don’t quite consider yours. Volunteer somewhere, or go to community programs you wouldn’t otherwise think of attending, or simply visit a neighborhood you wouldn’t think of spending time in just to take in the sights, the sounds, and to listen and talk to the people. Simply put: go somewhere new, take it in, think about how it affects you, think about how it adds to our store of knowledge, think about how it makes you curious about people and the things they do, think about how a change in your angle of vision opens up the world to you in interesting ways, think about how that same change in vision opens up your familiar worlds in ways you haven’t considered and brings you to material you can’t help but put on the page.