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City Mouse, Country Mouse

It might have been the abrupt change of scenery or the exhilaration of being behind the wheel of a car again, but as I drove out of the city and down through the cornfields and rolling hills of New Jersey and Maryland last week, I slowly became aware of a distinct change in my perception of, well, everything. Living in a city is so insular; the things I notice most often have to do with other people. Interactions with others are thrust upon me regardless of whether I want them or not. Whether it’s being smashed up against six other passengers on a crowded morning L train or vaguely being made aware of another’s existence as voices float in through an apartment window, you’re never really alone in a city.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—methods of introspection and observation are subsequently adapted to suit city-living, it’s simply that I had forgotten how different it feels not only physically, but intelligently and emotionally to explore wider spaces. I began to notice scenery in a new way, different still from when such views were the norm and before I had lived quite as long in New York. Descriptors came to me and I recalled lines—some clichéd, others less so—from literature and film that made more sense from a more pastoral point of view. I began to notice myself more, too. Driving with the windows down on a long country highway with hardly another car in sight allows a lot of time for introspection.

I wonder, now that I’m back and can compare the two sensibilities with greater acuity, how this effect can apply in a literary sense. Just as one perceives books differently when read at earlier and later stages in life, surely the greater environmental impacts on a person can change this as well. And writing! Not only were my thought patterns altered, but I noticed modes of speech that I hadn’t employed since I’ve moved away from the shore came back in little spurts—phrases as well as dialect reverted back.

Of course, this escape was brief and could hardly change me permanently, but the ephemeral shifts are still interesting to note. I can’t help but wonder if my ideas for writing or taste in reading material would morph (again, I am sure only slightly, as I would of course retain my core sense of self). I can only see this as an invigorating and positive switch—like when you change shampoos and your hair is lustrous and beautiful for that first time with the new brand. And yes, I am now comparing writing to washing your hair. It’s Friday.

As it’s the season for vacations and scenery changes, does anyone have a personal anecdote or opinion on this matter?

4 Responses to City Mouse, Country Mouse

  1. Christi Goddard says:

    There was a book I adored when I was seventeen (which I won’t name here) and I read repeatedly my senior year, checking it out from the school library whenever my grace period ran out. It’s out of print now, but I found it online and was thrilled when it arrived in the mail. It’s not the same. It was an adult novel, and read through my teenage eyes it was amazing and exciting. Twenty years later, after working on honing my own craft, I found the character two-dimensional, the dialogue boring, and the metaphors tired. Sometimes I think I was happier as a reader.

    I’ve crossed that fence from reader to writer, and sometimes the view is depressing. But, happily, on my journey to absorb all manner of prose, I’ve been more able to enjoy a well-written book than I would have otherwise, pausing to absorb a line and let it resonate with me like it was my own thought and had simply forgotten it.

  2. Donn says:

    I like that distinction between city and countryside – that the city is all about interactions between other people.

    Cities are way too anthropocentric. Sometimes it’s good to be thrust into places where humanity plain isn’t.

  3. DBurks says:

    I am impressed that you noticed the essential difference. So many people are locked into their personal experience and refuse to notice anything else. I live in the country on a farm surrounded by extensive forest on the north bank of a scenic river not far from an interstate highway. Every summer there are about four drownings in the river of city folk on small craft, rafts and inner tubes. There is usually at least one fatality and several rescues every winter of people hiking in the forest in the same clothing they wear to a shopping mall. Their minds are just too small and closed to grasp that the world is a big place, and their past experience might not apply.

    I do have a literary complaint: Editors and publishers are really quite pitiful when it comes to rural and wilderness details. Country life and small town affairs are usually just cartoons based on a few urban assumptions that have never been accurate. And dialog never ever reflects the fact that education long ago reached the edge of the wilderness. I suspect that no matter what the author writes the editors want revisions to reflect their prejudices.

    Many people read to experience places they could never go so why not give them an authetic experience? How can I trust the details in The Kite Runner about Afghanistan or other exotic places when the details of the nearby countryside are seldom genuine?

    So, for all you agents, editors and publishers, get out more often. Expand your horizons. If the drive through New Jersey was noteworthy imagine going to Oklahoma or Idaho and leaving the highway.

  4. Anne Stuart says:

    I moved from NYC to a town of 500 to write my first novel. 40 years later I’m still here, and the population has only grown to 700.
    I love New York for the energy. My mind goes like a subway, clacking along at great speed. For me, the city is great for the mind and work. Not so good for the soul.
    In a perfect world I’d have an apartment in NYC where I could go to write for long periods, then go back to my life in the country. But then, I always was a woman of extremes. I’d say I’d write darker books if I lived in the city full time, but I don’t think I could get much darker.

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