A Place You Go

800px-Laguna_Beach Yesterday I wrote a blog post called Have a Place to Go in Your Writing.  It was about how important it is to know where you are going when you begin a writing session.  You can go back and read it here, but you don't really have to in order to understand this post.

This whole thing about place grew out of a journal entry from a few weeks ago.  I started out by writing on the topic of yesterday's post–having a place to go in my work and what a difference that made.  And then the journal entry morphed into how important the concept of place itself is in my writing.  The fact that place is front and center in my work is not news to me.  I wrote my critical thesis for my MFA on the role of landscape as character in the works of Willa Cather and Flannery O'Connor.  (And for the record, I'm a huge, raving Cather fan.  O'Connor***, not so much.)

There's a scene in my recently completed novel where the heroine, Emma Jean, who is a bestselling novelist, dramatically announces to her husband, "I cannot live someplace that does not inspire me."  While this is true for me, what is even more true is that I can't write about a place that doesn't inspire me.  And, bear in mind, I use the term "inspire" loosely.  I love writing about LA, though I have no desire to live there.  But something about the place inspires me as a location.  Conversely, though Nashville is one of my absolute favorite places on the planet, I've not yet been able to write about it.  I've set fiction in Portland (where I live), in Santa Fe, and in Sun Valley, Idaho.  I love the Oregon Coast, but have never been able to use it as a setting.  Weird, huh?

 And furthermore, getting the location set is as important to me as coming up with a character to write about.  To me, a character is so intricately linked to place that if I change the place she lives, that can jinx the whole book.  And, if I don't have a place firmly in mind when I think up a character, there's a good chance the story won't go anywhere.

Perhaps this odd thing about place that I have is about wanting to explore the parameters of a location.  It may not be that I have to love the place to write about it, but just that I want to know more about it.  LA, for instance, despite the many times I've been there, is a vast mystery to me.  I still marvel at the sunshine, the palm trees, the freeways, the cars.  I am still amazed that people actually live there.  Manhattan is the same.  A couple years ago, attending a conference there, I rode in the back of a taxi from the airport, staring at people walking down the busy sidewalks, flabbergasted that so many people lived in this place where you can't see the sky.  Try as I might, I could not figure out what it would be like to live there.

And maybe that is what it is all about–trying to figure out what its like to live someplace else.  Because, really, isn't fiction all about trying to figure out the someplace else and the someone else?

Thoughts?  What role does place play in your work?  Is it important or something you don't really think about?  How do you choose a setting for your writing?

**The photo is of Laguna Beach, where my dear friend Julie Brickman lives.  I've had the picture on my computer for awhile, but I think it originally came from Wikipedia.

***Now that I've dissed Flannery O'Connor, let me point out that today is her birthday.  She was born on March 25, 1925.  I just learned this while finding the link for her.

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6 Responses to A Place You Go

  1. Julie Jordan Scott 03/25/2010 at 10:29 #

    I primarily write creative non-fiction and poetry, so my writing is right here. Right now. Mostly about Bakersfield, California which for many is not the hot bed of inspiration. Gratefully for me and my art is I have come to love it here and appreciate it for exactly what it is. One of my specialties is finding spaces within Bakersfield that don’t necessarily feel like Bakersfield. And recently, chasing the sunset in the agricultural and country lands around town have been stunning. :-) Thank you for asking!

  2. Charlotte Dixon 03/25/2010 at 11:27 #

    Julie, I LOVE that you are finding inspiration in the place you find yourself, even if it is not a traditionally inspiring place. That is what creativity, art, and writing is all about.

  3. Patty - Why Not Start Now? 03/25/2010 at 11:39 #

    Wow, Charlotte, I’m a raving Cather fan too. How cool that you wrote your thesis about her work. Oh, and I guess you could say I’m a raving place fan too. I’ve done a workshop for years called “finding your true place in the world” which is about inner and outer, the inner landscape as well as the geography where we plop ourselves. It’s also the working title for the book I’m writing, although that will probably change. It’s such an enduring theme in stories, and the search for place comes up so often with my clients. Since I’m writing about personal growth, it doesn’t come up in terms of the setting, but it’s definitely something I that’s key to the writing. And I love places, period. Love to visit them, read about them, know where everyone is from and what it’s like there. For me it’s almost a way of living another life. Hard to explain. I think I’m just running on now because I’m so excited that you’ve covered two of my favorite things: Willa Cather and place. So thanks!

  4. Charlotte Dixon 03/25/2010 at 16:41 #

    Patty, So great to meet another Cather fan! I think you mentioned her in your book recommendations (I’m compiling all those from everyone for a post next week) but I didn’t have a chance to respond specifically then. I totally get what you mean about how loving place is a way of getting to live another life–maybe that is why I have the need to choose my fictional settings so carefully! Love the title of your workshop and eventual book, too.

  5. Derek 03/26/2010 at 02:17 #

    You seem to have echoed my thoughts completely on this post Charlotte.

    I feel that I am totally in touch with the places I love and there is no more mystery there for me to discover – just a quiet contentment at being there. In Zen, it is said that when something is fully experienced, there is nothing more to say about it and words have become inadequate.

    I think that it is the same with character. I feel that I discover more and more about my character as my story unfolds. In reality, I guess I am discovering more about parts of myself from which the character is created. I noticed this when I wrote my fictionlized biography of being a musician in the swinging 60s. It was true yet slightly exaggerated for greater effect. I often thought to myself, was that really me? Did I really do that? It was!

  6. Charlotte Dixon 03/26/2010 at 07:59 #

    Derek, The idea that once something is fully experienced, there is nothing more to say about it is really cool, and true, I think. You probably discovered a lot about yourself by writing your memoir!

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