by Julie Brickman Spalding MFA Faculty, Fiction
“This is what makes place so vital: its tie to character, tone, experience, change; its influence on the characters; its reflection of the unfolding riches of the story. Place is woven into the fabric of experience.”
I always love descriptions of place. Often, to get myself rolling on writing, I look out my window and describe what the landscape looks like at that moment of the day. Today, the mist from the ocean has grayed the air all day. Early this morning, my house, which sits on the edge of a canyon about a mile from the ocean, was enveloped by mist so thick that neither tree nor earth nor neighbor’s house was visible, nor even a bird in flight. It hung as if suspended in midair, invisible to the world and people around it. Now in the late afternoon the mist has thinned but not lifted, muting the greens and browns of the sere landscape, dulling the sky to a chalky grey.
In the past year I’ve been exploring new places to write. Living in the house in which my husband grew ill and died has sowed in me a desire to write elsewhere. I have written in the spacious grandeur of the lobby of a hotel in which I couldn’t afford to stay. I have written in coffee bars, sometimes Starbucks which is writer-friendly though loud and busy. In each place, I found I could quiet my mind and concentrate if it wasn’t a first draft. I have written in an outdoor pagoda overlooking the harbor. Of all the places, that turned out to be my favorite, though sometimes it grew too cold to use or I’d have to share it with a Tai Chi group. Being outdoors, surrounded by the natural beauty of a vast landscape, the melodies of birds and wind and water, the aromas of flowers and grasses, turned out to have a profound effect on the expansiveness of my imagination.
Descriptions of place in writing move me profoundly and stir my desire to explore. When I was twenty, I went to Alexandria because of Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet. I’d traveled to Cairo with a friend, a sculptor uninterested in the port city, but I was utterly compelled. I took a third class train from Cairo to Alexandria. Four slatted benches served as the meager seating; passengers stood or sat on their baggage; a few stretched out on the luggage racks. At the station stops, people and goods slid in and out of the open windows. In Alexandria, I headed straight for the Café Al-Aktar where Balthazar and the other Durrell characters hung out, but everything was named Al-Aktar and the best I could do was walk the Corniche by the sea.
Our relationship to place informs how we see it. Here are two descriptions of the city as dusk falls. The first is the narrator of Justine, an outsider to Alexandria, looking out his apartment window. It’s six in the evening and the workday is ending. The narrator notices things local inhabitants might not: the clothing, the habit patterns of people, the minarets where the pigeons roost. Most of all, he is aware of the link between the city and the flesh, a subject that will fascinate him throughout the book. It is not a happy moment for him, and words like shuffling, smear, waning, unwrinkles reflect this; later he acknowledges it is the hardest time of his day. The description is calibrated to him, his mood, his moment, his level of knowledge of the city.
The second passage from Balthazar focuses on the experience of nightfall through the eyes of a character raised in Alexandria, but living away, returning on this trip to a familiar festival scene. Here the character registers the things around him as familiar. He is comfortable with the details, lists them – the shows, the brothels, the stalls — rather than describing them, unless they evoke memories. It is a happy moment for him, captured in words and phrases, like rich with memories, walked lightly, nostrils drinking, aromatic foods, dazzling colored electric bulbs. Again the description is calibrated to the character, the moment in time, his familiarity and love for the place, even his shyness. Through his eyes, it is a different city.
This is what makes place so vital: its tie to character, tone, experience, change; its influence on the characters; its reflection of the unfolding riches of the story. Place is woven into the fabric of experience.
Have you ever yearned to go to a place because of a book you’ve read or found yourself longing to set a story in a place where you would like to travel?
Lately, I’ve been thinking about living in a new place for a while, partly to experiment with how it will change my writing. How does place affect you and your writing experience?
Julie Brickman is author of the story collection Two Deserts (Hopewell) and the novel What Birds Can Only Whisper (Turnstone). Her work has appeared in North American Review, the The Louisville Review, The Barcelona Review, and the San Diego Union-Tribune Books section, and has garnered grants from the Canada Council, a Pushcart Prize nomination, and a writer-in-residence position in Dawson City, Yukon.