Over the weekend, we drove a visiting friend up to San Luis Obispo. It was a disastrous drive--indeed, nearly it nearly became a fatal drive when we blew a tire at high speed in the fast lane of Interstate 5 in a section where ongoing construction had eliminated both of the road shoulders in favor of waist-high concrete barriers. But I digress.
While we were making our painfully slow way to San Luis Obispo--known as SLO to the locals, possibly becasue it can take so damn long to get there--we began discussing the virtues and drawbacks of the town. By the standards of Coastal California, SLO is relatively isolated; it's halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, which means it's about 200 miles from either of them. It's a charming little town of about 40,000, with a good-sized university located on the outskirts and a decent beach not too far away. Much of the old-town section has been preserved or renovated, and it's a great walking-around town, with good restaurants, laid-back neighborhoods, and eclectic shops. It's smack in the middle of Central Coast Wine Country, so the supplies of big, fat, loud reds (Zinfandels, Syrahs, and Petite Sirahs in particular) are plentiful. (My palate isn't subtle, so I say big, fat, and loud by the way of compliment.)
A nice place. Would I want to live there? I'm not sure. It's a long, long way to any major symphony orchestra, and I wouldn't count on Death Cab for Cutie* or King Crimson swinging through town on tour, either. The movie theatres aren't exactly cutting edge, and the university is better known for agriculture and engineering than for the arts. And, although the restaurants are wonderful, it wouldn't be long before a resident exhausted all they had to offer.
It's the kind of town I think many writers imagine settling in--quiet, civilized, walkable. But it ain't Manhattan.
This got me thinking about the whole issue of the fantasy of the writer's life. One of the key elements of this fantasy is that, if you were supporting yourself well from your writing (I'm not), you could in principle live anywhere on the globe. This might mean retreating to a rural town with a hermit's writing hut out back of the cottage, ala JD Salinger, or staying in the metropolis to write in the mornings and emerge as man-about town in the evenings, like Noel Coward. As soon as they had the means, some writers--Somerset Maugham and Patrick O'Brian come to mind--immediately headed for the South of France, while others, like Stephen King and John Grisham, haven't budged from their native haunts (Maine and Mississippi, respectively).
Where would I live if there were no constraints? Heck if I know. I like seclusion, so way off in the country has an appeal. I like human-sized, walkable towns, so a small city might be nice. But I'm a sucker for cultural amenities, and I like having grocers nearby that can supply, say, seitan, natto, and garam masala.
In other words, my perfect fantasy city doesn't exist. This presents no real problem, since I'm not in a position to move there anyway, but says something (probably something unflattering) about the way my mind works. Or fails to.
Where would you live if making a living weren't an issue? Are your fantasies as confused as mine?
I'm not asking, mind you, where as a writer you ought to live. We'll get on to that in the next post. I'm asking about your fantasy.
*Factoid: It's reasonably well known that the band "Death Cab for Cutie" takes its name from the title (and chorus) of a Bonzo Dog Band song. Less known is the origin of that song title itself, which was inspired by the title of a story in a trashy American true-detective magazine from the early 1960s.
The Bonzos planned on doing a second song based on the title of another story in that same issue, but unfortunately Stanshall and Innes never got around to it. Too bad: the title was "It Was a Lovely Party Until Someone Found a Hammer." One can only imagine.