Michael Totten

Writing in Foreign Cities

My friend and former PJ Media writer Nancy Rommelmann uses a review of Pico Iyer’s book The Man Within My Head as a jumping off point for thinking out loud about writing in foreign cities.

She says she always knows almost instantly when she arrives in a new city if she’ll be able to write there. I do, too. Two of her favorites are Savannah and Honolulu, which aren’t foreign in the international sense, but are from from her home in Oregon. Tel Aviv is my favorite city to write in. I like the idea of writing in Paris, but I’ve never actually done it. Of course, dreaming of writing in Paris is a total cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason. And it’s just a dream for most writers because it’s expensive.

Tel Aviv works for me because it has a pleasant climate, a comfortable café culture, it’s laid back enough that I can relax and sit still, and it’s stimulating without being distracting.

Cities in the Middle East, though, are generally difficult places to write. Beirut is a fantastic city in general, but it’s a fun and unserious place (really, it is), which isn’t great for productivity. Writing somewhere like South Beach in Miami would be hard for the same reason. Baghdad is stressful and uncomfortable both physically and psychologically. Cairo is loud, abrasive, and depressing. Tripoli may be the least writing-friendly place I’ve ever been. I haven’t written more than 2,000 words in Tunis, but it has enough of the positive aspects of Paris that it might be the best Arab city to wash up in to spend time on a book. Dubrovnik in Croatia might be an excellent place, but I’m not actually sure because I was only there for four hours.

The truth, though, is that it’s hard for me to write in cities. I’m most productive when I’m out in the wilderness, or at least near it. Periodically I rent the cheapest local cabin I can find during the off-season and write massive amounts of material for my books in the space of a couple of days. I plan to do that next week, in fact, as I’m nearly finished now with my third book, Where the West Ends.

I love how this book is turning out, and I think you will, too.

Someday, if I ever make enough money from one of my books, I’d like to buy a tiny one- or two-room cabin in the forest or the desert to use as a writing studio. I’ll seriously ramp up my productivity if and when that ever happens. (And I will gladly, by the way, dedicate a book to any wealthy patron who feels like buying a writing studio for me.)