Immersion in an environment that’s different from the one you intend to write about poses problems. Our program is situated in a subtropical, largely suburban city. Everything from daily attire and automobiles, to weather and flora differs significantly from the region I’m from—New England. Since my writing is predominantly set in New England, summoning it is essential. Memory is seldom enough. Like a painter, I find props and models are often necessary. Though these don’t need to be objects per se. They can be two-dimensionalish (like books and ephemera). Audio and video, either pulled from archives or drawn from the web, also work. And of course there are physical things. I once kept an anchor and some candle molds under my bed and hauled them out when I felt I needed to look at them. But I won’t admit as to whether or not they’re still there.
What I cannot have on hand here in Boca Raton are places themselves. And it’s impractical to travel back and forth during the semester in order to wander the streets of a given town or stroll a snowy beach for instance in hopes of executing some sort of plein air writing. However, I can bolster my memory of my experiences in such places with those aforementioned examples. A YouTube video of a place I know, a place I’ve spent time in, often will allow me to re-inhabit it enough to fold it into my writing. Audio is particularly helpful in summoning New England vernacular which otherwise evaporates at the Connecticut New York border. Though it doesn’t entirely because Florida breathes in people from all over the country each winter. Many of these snowbirds, vacationers, and transplants come from one of the six New England states. Improbably, I’ve had many fascinating conversations with folks not just from New England but from little towns adjacent to my own. The Wimberly library, in its stacks alone, is very well stocked with books that encompass what I look for in regional history and natural sciences. Add to this, the Marvin and Sybil Weiner Spirit of America—13,000 Sixteenth, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Century books and documents that hold their own against the holdings of many prominent northern athenaeums. A big, pleasant surprise. Bookwise off Spanish River Blvd regularly turns up interesting books on New England subjects. I find myself in there more often than I should be.
Of course the temptation to write about Florida is ever-present. And the subject itself is rich, diverse and intriguing. Wherever you find yourself, that environment will cast a bit of an alluring spell. No offense to the Sunshine State, but I doubt I will succumb.
Rich Saltzberg concentrates in non-fiction at the FAU MFA program. He is a freelance journalist from Martha's Vineyard. His friends and peers consider him a heretic because he no longer drinks caffeinated coffee.