The Power of Place

Place is important.


I tend to fall in love with places the same way I fall in love with people–instantly and hard–and that figures prominently in my writing.  I find ways to incorporate places that I love, like Portland, or places that fascinate me, like LA, in my writing.  And then there are places like Santa Fe and Sun Valley, western mountain towns that become locations in my work.  Writing about a place is a way of exploring that place and learning more about it.  Place is so important to me that I wrote my MFA critical thesis about it.  The paper had a grandiose title I can't recall but the point of it was to explore the role of landscape in the work of Flannery O'Connor and Willa Cather and to make the argument that to these two women, landscape was so important that it became a character.



Place has power.  It has power because no matter where we go, we are someplace, and locating ourselves in a place can be a powerful starting point for writing.  A favorite journal technique is sometimes called a weather journal, and it is simple to do–you simply start where you are, by describing your location and all of the sensory details you are experiencing and expanding from there.  Where we are is important.

Which is why it is important to pay attention to the kinds of places you like to write.  Do you need privacy and silence?  Or activity and people and music surrounding you?  Do you want to write in your office, at a desk, or perhaps with your computer pulled onto your lap (bad ergonomics, but I wrote that way for years)?  Do you want to work outside or in, at home or at a coffee shop?


I ask because it makes a difference.  If you are the type for whom a swirl of activity is inspiring, trying to write in silence will be an exercise in frustration.  And vice-versa.  I like to think of myself as the type who writes well in coffee shops, but the truth is, I often get distracted.  Instead of getting work done, I am very good at appearing to get work done, while I furtively people watch.  This is actually good for gathering material, but that is a very different beast than actually writing.  I know plenty of people who need the stimulation of a coffee shop to get work done, however.  At my favorite neighborhood hang-out, there's a least one writer who calls the place his "office."  And while I long to be one of those writers who thanks the staff of the coffee shop where I hung out in the acknowledgements page of my novel, I must come to terms with the fact that it is not to be.  Because most of the time I sit in my office, upstairs, removed from the temptations of the kitchen and windows to the street, and work.

I've written in some interesting places, however.  I've written on people's couches, sitting on a single bed in a small room, at resorts, universities, random houses, airports, airplanes, cars, football stadiums, you name it.  I work on a laptop precisely for the reason I can take it with me wherever I go.  And yet, most of the time, I'm right here in the same old spot.  But who cares?  What matters is that you find a place where the words will flow.  And this spot, right here, is that place for me.

What about you?  Where do you go to write?

*Top photo by EmZed, via Everystockphoto.  Second image by weirdvis, same source.  Third picture by tdenham, ditto

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.