Thursday, January 24, 2013

“You leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences”

Continuing with enhancing a sense of place in your memoir:  

Why make a big deal about creating a sense of place?  

Because the landscapes of your stories, the natural settings, influenced who you were becoming in the past and who you are today.

“How hard it is to escape from places! 
However carefully one goes, they hold you—
you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences, 
little rags and shreds of your very life.” 
(Katherine Mansfield, English writer)

Geography played a role in shaping you. It served as a backdrop.

Your environment molded you—maybe it smoothed you, maybe it roughed you up.

Perhaps your place’s weather defined your appearance.

The territory—good or bad—sculpted your identity and your dreams.

Your place whittled you and carved your wings so you could fly into your future and become the person you are today.

Notice how Linda Joy Myers invites you to enter her childhood through setting and place. She writes about: 

 “ in Oklahoma, in the middle of the Great Plains, in a town that literally was in the middle of nothing but land and wheat and sky. The wind molded us, pushed and pulled us, threw red dirt in our faces, lifted our hair straight up. As children, we had to lean into the wind to walk.… The golden wheat throbbed against the deep blue sky, all of it was everywhere, there were no boundaries. The wind stroked the wheat into the amber waves of grain of the song, and at night the moon rose, huge and round and smiling over the tiny specks of people that appeared insignificant in all that magnificence.”

In We are shaped by the sound of wind, the slant of sunlight, Barry Lopez writes that he was “shaped by the exotic nature of water in a dry Southern California valley; by the sound of wind in the crowns of eucalyptus trees; by the tactile sensation of sheened earth, turned in furrows by a gang plow; by banks of saffron, mahogany and scarlet cloud piled above a field of alfalfa at dusk; by encountering the musk from orange blossoms at the edge of an orchard; by the aftermath of a Pacific storm crashing a hot, flat beach.… the height and breadth of the sky, and of the geometry and force of the wind."

“… However we feel about
a particular place in our lives,
or whether the drama that unfolded there
was one of joy or sorrow,
the invitation in writing memoir is this:
explore the personal and other meanings of your place.
Doing so can not only help you locate your story
in a concrete and complex world,
it can help you discover its larger meanings and connections.”
(Tracy Seeley, author of My Ruby Slippers, the Road Back to Kansas)

Your place’s philosophy also persuaded you, for better or worse: 

For example, after living on the equator for 11 years, where blazing heat forces people to move slowly, I’ve concluded that my most significant place, Seattle, and the Pacific Northwest’s cool, clammy climate allows folks to accomplish more than a hot climate does. That geographical factor, in turn, influences philosophies. In Seattle, I rubbed elbows with others that moist, mildewed, high-energy region begat: Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon, Costco, Boeing (I grew up a five-minute walk from Bill Boeing’s home), Nordstroms (I went to school with one of the Nordstroms). Pacific Rim philosophies. Environmental philosophies. Rainforest-dwellers’ philosophies. Volcano-survivor philosophies. Earthquake-survivor philosophies. (And daily I recognize that the Pacific Northwest’s geography and philosophies have many contrasts to my current place: the heart of the continental U.S.) 

“If the place is important enough in the character’s life;
if on the most basic level he spent enough time in it,
was brought up in it or presided over it, like the Senate,
or exercised power in it, like the White House;
if the place, the setting, played a crucial role
in shaping the character’s feelings,
drives, motivations, insecurities,
then by describing the place well enough,
the author will have succeeded in
bringing the reader closer to an understanding of the character
without giving him a lecture,
will have made the reader therefore not just understand
but empathize with a character,
will have made the readers’ understanding more vivid,
deeper than any lecture could.”

For your memoir, search for “crackly words” (Priscilla Long) to describe your places—specific words, vivid words, words unique to that locale. 

“If we read the Palestinian poet Darwish … we will find ourselves mouthing jasmine, doves, olives, veils, whereas if we read a poet like Marcus Goodyear, we will find ourselves breathing to the staccato of cactus, cattle, tree poker.” (L.L. Barkat)

Examine your manuscript. Look for ways to enhance a sense of geographical place.  

If you’re writing about a time of feeding your soul and spirit, describe your setting.

Are you writing about a time your wellbeing wasted away? Describe the setting.

Did you find healing? Describe that setting.

Are you writing about a summer in Italy? Marching during the civil rights movement? Falling in love? A summer job in Alaska? Watching a loved one die? Walking out on your abusive spouse? Meeting the First Lady? (My mother did.)

Picture those settings as if for the first time. Doing so will help you recapture your sense of place, make revisions, and invite your readers to join you. Be sure to include sensory details (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste). 

Your goal is to help readers experience what you experienced.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great article! I'm writing about my growing-up years in the inner city of Cincinnati, the slums surrounding us, the poor German immigrants, the Over-the-Rhine area, and I'm trying to get the flavor of the time and place, and it's been hard. I've gotten some ideas from your post and some needed inspiration. I enjoy your articles. Bettyann