Part 1: Writing place alive
Place grounds us. Twenty-six years ago this month (on 12th March 1994) I was ordained priest alongside 31 other women in the first ever such service in the Church of England. Although I left ministry seven years later and no longer share this faith, that momentous time is inextricably linked with place in my memory.
I’ve always been fascinated by a sense of place and intrigued as to why some places set up a feeling of affinity whilst others leave me unmoved. It’s not always as simple as familiarity or echoes of places I’ve once felt at home with. A love of deserted stretches of coastline I can explain as a resonance with the place I grew up. But it’s less easy to pin down why I’m drawn to forests or feel uneasy that it’s now more than a year since I last spent time in Budapest.
The magic of place
Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash
As a writer, I’m a keen advocate of a strong sense of place being one of the fundamental ingredients of the best in writing. In On Writing Eudora Welty puts it like this:
The sense of place is as essential to good and honest writing as a logical mind; surely they are somewhere related. It is by knowing where you stand that you grow able to judge where you are. Place absorbs our earliest notice and attention, it bestows on us our original awareness; and our critical powers spring up from the study of it and the growth of experience inside it. It perseveres in bringing us back to earth when we fly too high. [,,,] One place comprehended can make us understand other places better. Sense of place gives equilibrium; extended, it is sense of direction too. […] it is the sense of place going with us that is the ball of golden thread to carry us there and back and in every sense of the word to bring us home.
When we are able to conjure place in a novel, poem, story or essay, we invite empathy and connection. Place lends intimacy to the writing. It transports us elsewhere — to places real or disappeared or fantastical, whether located on maps or in the otherworld of imagination. Place can work strong magic to provoke epiphanies. As I note in Writing Down Deep:
[…] it is in a place that we begin to narrativise our lives, and the lives of our characters. We tell stories to reconcile ourselves to time — to the huge events of cosmology, to the big and small and hidden events of history. And in doing so we locate those stories — somewhere, someplace.
Not only is sense of place fundamental to good writing, but it also connects us as writers, jolting us out of our comfort zones. Not all writers have the luxury of travelling. The obstacles can be many: cost, adverse health, caring commitments, political limitations … But where travel is possible it certainly stimulates and enhances the writing process as I’ve written about previously.
But whatever our circumstances, all writers can and should travel in imagination. All writers can move into internal worlds or invite readers into places that push boundaries. To quote Eudora Welty again:
For the artist to be unwilling to move, mentally or spiritually or physically,out of the familiar is a sign that spiritual timidity or poverty or decay has come upon him; for what is familiar will then have turned into all that is tyrannical.
The aliveness of place
Photo by Tom Wheatley on Unsplash
For me, place is often not only what invites a reader in, but also a character in itself. In the novel I’m currently writing, Saoirse’s Crossing, the places are alive, particularly a maze in a garden in Roscommon, which speaks in the voices of the yew and hawthorn hedges and the hazel at its centre.
The sense that places are agents and characters is foundational to a living connection with the planet that needs us to advocate for it more urgently than ever. The Scottish writer and mountaineer, Nan Shepherd, understood this absolutely in her extraordinary and intimate descriptions of the Highlands in The Living Mountain:
Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered.
The connections of place
Photo by Hendrik Cornelissen on Unsplash
This sense of place as having its own agency and spirit, an alive place that requires our respect and co-operation, is something that runs through the work of poet Wendell Berry, who is keenly aware of how place connets us.
Writing in The Way of Ignorance, Berry notes that whilst there are actions that appear to be individualist, such as Thoreau’s willingness to go to prison in protest at the Mexican war, this type of ‘rugged individualism’ in fact is:
authenticated typically by its identification with a communal good.
However, he goes on to discuss how individualism is more generally deeply destructive of the places we live in and need.
The tragic version of rugged individualism is in the presumptive “right” of individuals to do as they please, […] This is most frequently understood as the right to do whatever one pleases with one’s property.
Rugged individualism of this kind has cost us dearly in lost topsoil, in destroyed forests, in the increasing toxicity of the world, and in annihilated species.
When property rights become absolute they are invariably destructive, for then they are used to justify not only the abuse of things of permanent value for the temporary benefit of legal owners, but also the appropriation and abuse of things to which the would-be owners have no rights at all, but which can belong only to the public or to the entire community of living creatures: the atmosphere, the water cycle, wilderness, ecosystems, the possibility of life.
Such individualism is further exacerbated when corporations are given the legal status of ‘individuals’ with similar rights to abuse the earth at will.
Starting from the small place
Photo by Marc Zimmer on Unsplash
In the face of this, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. But we are writers. We can give voice to place as much as to any character. We can enchant people with places they’ve never been or have not yet imagined. And we can begin with the tiny places on which we stand. This is Berry:
The health of the oceans depends on the health of rivers; the health of rivers depends on the health of small streams; the health of small streams depends on the health of their watersheds. The health of the water is exactly the same as the health of the land; the health of small places is exactly the same as the health of large places…
We cannot immunize the continents and the oceans against our contempt for small places and small streams. Small destructions add up, and finally they are understood collectively as large destructions.
We all know places that we love. We all live somewhere that we can care about. We can all dignify and defend small places in our writing and in how we live.
Such small places are not always those we start out from. Some of us are deeply rooted in one place for a lifetime. Others of us are more nomadic. I’ve written before about having had a peripatetic adulthood until my most recent home of 19 years:
And yet my experience of moving home and not feeling rooted is tame in comparison to that of many across the globe. In an age when more and more people find themselves as refugees who belong nowhere and for whom borders are not just inconveniences on the way to a holiday, what does ‘home’ mean?
Migration has always been a feature of human society. Moreover, migration brings a wealth of benefits in cultural and linguistic diversity, access to new philosophies and so much more. But as more and more of the planet is destroyed by ecological disaster or conflict, forced migration will only increase, even in the face of a horrifying rise of xenophobia.
Whether we live in the place we were born or have migrated within a country or across the globe; whether we tell a story of an ancestral line inhabiting one small place for centuries or have grown up with stories of far-flung ancestral homes that we may never have visited, we all need a place to stand. Archimedes famously said:
Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth.
He may have been talking about levers, but the metaphor still holds. Find a small place and inhabit it with love and attention.
Home can mean many things but a minimum requirement might be that it provides a place to stand. For me, a place to stand means somewhere my writing can thrive and imagination can flourish. It means a place where I can connect.
In the run up to the ordination that I mentioned at the start of this article, a potter in Avebury made me a chalice and paten. On the underside of the paten he inscribed a line that was on everything he made:
For the joy of the sweet green earth.
That line has stayed with me and I know that home for me goes hand in hand with a deep connection to the natural environment. The potter also added an extra line:
Let not those who seek cease until they find and when they find they will be astonished.
The line reminds me of lines from Eliot’s poem, ‘Little Gidding’:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Time has a way of circling us back to major themes in our lives. As James Joyce succinctly put it:
Longest way around is the shortest way home.
A place to stand isn’t always static. Some of us as are deeply enmeshed in one location. Some of us move occasionally, or frequently. Whichever you are, write about place as though it matters, write it as though it’s alive. Because it does. And it is. And because, if we don’t give voice to the sweet green earth, then it will sour before it falls silent.
Becoming a different story
Thank you for reading — if you’d like to join writers who are diving deeply into the writing life and making transformations, sign up to my email list. You’ll also find free courses on my site. While you’re there, take a look at my book Writing Down Deep: an alchemy of the writing life.