When I set out to write about the town I’ve lived in for nearly thirty years, I was following age-old advice to “write what you know.” I never thought that knowing a place so well would unleash such insecurities.
It was inevitable from the start that Provincetown and its citizens would play a significant role in The HomePort Journals. The story takes place in the off-season when midsummer’s carnival atmosphere is a faded memory and the realities of life on a strip of sand out in the Atlantic are unavoidable. The gray skies, isolation, and storms of winter seemed a perfect backdrop for my hero’s efforts to start a new life and evolve as a writer. What’s more, the other characters (primarily composites of neighbors, family, and friends) were so quirky they’d be unbelievable in most other settings.
One night over cocktails, I was asked that inevitable question, “What are you working on?” “A book set in Provincetown,” was my evasive reply. My interrogator laughed and said, “Be careful. Remember what happened to Grace Metalious. Provincetown folks take no prisoners, especially in the off-season.” I didn’t immediately recognize Metalious as the author of Peyton Place but was intrigued enough to research her story. It seems she’d suffered dreadful retribution from the good citizens of Gilmanton, New Hampshire for all she’d written about the town she lived in.
This discovery was the origin of what I came to think of as my Peyton Place complex. I’d built my novel around the relationship between Provincetown’s gay men and elderly Portuguese women—a phenomenon I’d experienced firsthand and considered unique to my hometown. Some of these women, dedicated to their families and often quite religious, had found mutually rewarding friendships with their gay neighbors. Their common currency was gossip—the more outrageous the tale, the more both parties enjoyed its telling. Sexual peccadillos were definitely not off-limits. From this unlikely intimacy, loving bonds were often forged. Such a bond was to be the turning point in The HomePort Journals.
Pondering Grace’s fate, my thoughts went into overdrive. Would such an incongruous relationship alienate readers? Would my characters’ deep affection for each other resonate outside of Provincetown? As a novice writer, did I have the skill to craft an accurate portrayal of these women without making them seem tawdry or pathetic? They had been good to me. I had to do them justice. These fears and hundreds of others echoed through my brain, blocking progress every time I sat down to write.
The reclusive Lola Staunton is the sole heir to a vast whaling fortune. As her character evolved, I grew concerned about writing of great wealth in a town where many work seasonally and can barely make ends meet. Provincetown was (and still is) facing significant challenges due to the lack of affordable housing. Resentment runs high against second-home owners who’ve bought up most of the real estate only to use it for a few weeks a year. Would my readers see the pathos in Lola’s circumstances, or focus on her wealth and miss the point altogether? If that happened, there’d be no trust in her redemption, and my notion of a family of choice would fail. If that theme failed, the entire novel would fail.
I felt I was walking a tightrope blindfolded. Suffice it to say, in my naïveté I’d plastered an entire layer of angst atop already daunting challenges. Second-guessing myself made me overly cautious and my writing lost its spark. Weeks passed, until one day I read a quote from Ray Bradbury in Zen and the Art of Writing. He wrote, “Everything I’ve ever done was done with excitement because I wanted to do it, because I loved doing it…Because I wanted to do, I did. Where I wanted to feed, I fed.”
With this insight, I immediately traded “Write what you know,” for “Write what you love.” I loved those old women who’d seen it all. I loved the way their eyes lit up with every new tidbit of gossip. I loved the way they called me “dahlin’.” I loved the beauty, contrast, and contradictions of Provincetown. From glorious sunrises over the harbor to drag queens sashaying down Commercial Street, I loved it all.
I began to write from where my passions reside, not the cerebral, cautious, accommodating place that enables me to navigate the everyday world. (There’s an enormous difference between the two places: the former is like taking the subway to work, the latter like crossing the Canadian Rockies in an observation car.)
The strategy worked, and in the end my fears proved groundless. Reviews were great. Copies flew out of the Provincetown Bookshop. One friend wrote to say I’d captured his friendship with an elderly Portuguese woman perfectly—a relationship I’d never witnessed. A long-time resident bought several copies as gifts for family and friends.
Even a frustrating, self-inflicted episode such as mine can be a learning experience. Here’s what my Peyton Place complex taught me:
- Don’t discuss work in its early stages.
- Don’t let people into your head. If they’re such experts, they can write their own book.
- Write first. Worry later.
- Never doubt yourself. Perseverance bears the gift of self-knowledge.
- Take risks. For every person who pans your work, there are multitudes who will adore it.
And, most important of all, write about what you love with all the passion you can muster. When it comes time to promote your book you’ll be really glad you did. You won’t have to dig deep for reasons why you wrote what you wrote. They’ll be part of you, making you sound sure-footed and convincing. Readers will take notice.
A.C. Burch is still writing and living in Provincetown. He is currently at work on A Book of Revelations, eight short stories where nothing is as it seems and a sequel to The HomePort Journals. He’s yet to read Peyton Place.