Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Exotic Familiar

We're told, as writers, to "write what we know." There are, I am sure, entire chapters in writing books devoted to this or some variation of it. Like all advice, it only goes so far, and often times it might be felt it doesn't go far enough. For example, what if you've never gone anywhere? What if all you know is middle of nowhere small town America? That hardly seems like enough of "what you know" to be able to hang a story on.

"I don't know enough to write anything interesting," some might cry. "It's all so boring and familiar."

Well, of course it is if you've lived there all your life. But to an outsider, someone who hasn't been there, it may seem as much an exotic locale as Paris seems to the small-towner. Case in point: Las Vegas is not someplace I would ever consider "exotic." It is so not exotic, so familiar, that in fact I feel comfortable referring to it by the short version of it's name: Vegas. (No one does this with Los Angeles, though, at least not to my knowledge. That may well be another topic for discussion some other time.)

Some of this comes from it being an American city. While it's not one I have ever visited, it's certainly shown up in a fair amount of movies and television shows, some even eponymously titled after their locale, so in some way I feel I know it. It's not even like New York City, which I recognize as being so large and complex that despite being a loyal Law & Order fan, other than a generic sense of where things are I don't know anything about it. I couldn't begin to tell you where Brooklyn or the Bronx is.

Vegas, though, tends to reduce itself down to one main feature: the Strip. And the Strip I have seen, from it's early incarnations - courtesy of The Godfather - to it's more recent trend towards themed, family-friendly casinos - courtesy of both CSI and Ocean's Eleven. The remake, that is. I wouldn't exactly file this under "what I know" if we're equating that with having walked it's streets. But I am inclined to suspect that, armed with a map, I could, to paraphrase Neil Gaiman's comment about being a Brit writing about the US, do as good a job as any other person who doesn't live there.

All of which simply points to the fact that, to me, Vegas does not seem exotic. Mind you, it's got show girls, which my home town doesn't have (nor, come to think of it, have any of the places I've ever lived) but it's still not enough of an "other" for me to qualify as exotic. Not the way that even someplace that shares a similar culture and language, like London, for example, would fall under that category. London, to me, is exotic. Part of this is that I half expect it to still retain some intangible connection to the late Victorian-era London of Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens. I know full well modern London no more resembles that than Boston still retains any of its Colonial American feel - with the exception of historic markers and the occasionally still-standing structure. But, to me, it's someplace that I could feel safe in calling exotic.

Then again, I'm not Helen Mirren. (Which really shouldn't be a surprise to anyone.) In an interview I was listening to about a month ago, she raised this exact point in discussing why she'd taken on a role as a Vegas madam. To her, Vegas was someplace exotic. London, and by extension England, was the familiar, the thing she knew, whereas Vegas was the unknown other. Listening to her explain this, and actually referring to Vegas as being "exotic," got me thinking about all those times - including for a current project - where I have critiqued my own work as being too dull, too boring, too familiar to be of interest to the reader. Those times where I feel compelled to take a place and make it more interesting, when the truth is, it could stand just as well on it's own, provided I do a good enough job capturing the place.

The truth is, writing what I know may not seem very exotic or interesting to me some of the times, but for someone else, if I do it well, I can transport them someplace that, to them, will be a completely new experience. And that, I think, is at the heart of the exotic. After all, it's all familiar to someone out there.

No comments: