As one of the recipients of a #NYCArtist Corps grant, I did a reading last weekend of my work in progress, “40 Days at the Dog Cafe,” at the market adjacent to the dog cafe, Marche le Woof. After my reading, I conducted a workshop called “A Sense of Place,” inspired by the fact that I was inspired by the dog cafe, Chateau le Woof, to begin writing about my changing neighborhood, over the summer.
I am toying with the idea of offering a regular, free, low-key generative writing workshop for writers of all levels. The workshop was my favorite part of an already rewarding day. Here is the “teacher’s edition” of the handout I provided the participants. Let me know what you think in the comments.
A Sense of Place
A Chateau le Woof workshop
When we read stories, we often don’t think of place as a primary element. In the earliest stories we heard, place hardly mattered at all. The story happened in a place – far away? enchanted? A kingdom? A village on the edge of a dark forest? A cottage by the sea? We had just enough to orient ourselves.
When we think of stories, we think of plot, characters, and the rise and fall of action. If we think of place at all, we think of where a story “takes place.” To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in Alabama, or, if you move in, in a small town in Alabama where everyone knows everyone else, or, if you move in more closely, on the front porch of the Finch household and in a courtroom.
A Game of Thrones takes place in the Seven Kingdoms, in Westeros, in King’s Landing, and in the throne room where the frankly ugly chair that everyone is fighting for actually sits.
But I’d like to explore how place can serve a story. How it can act as character, or metaphor, or place setting. Place setting is most common in the movies, where a bleak western landscape or a busy heartless city can set up a conflict for the hero. something to conquer.
But place can also be one of the main characters. the examples below are from essays. Let’s see how descriptions of place can be used.
PLACE AS CHARACTER
Somehow you are supposed to teach yourself how to comprehend Hong Kong’s energy and flash contradictions; Asian and Western; the encroaching Chinese mainland and the remnants of England; the greasy night markets of stick-rice tamales and knock-off leather boots that slouch right across from Tiffany, Chanel, and Prada. The only things common to these are the offices sending air-conditioned blasts into the street, a kind of longing for money, and, most important, the sense of storytelling that the city seems to require as a visitor’s pass. Hong Kong has a way of turning on your internal monologue. Walking becomes an act of silent storytelling, figuring people out. You feel like you are lost in some prelapsarian novel in which the plot has begun but the characters wait for you to name them. In some time, at some place, we step into an underground Cantonese restaurant and I see a grey-suited, red-tied man act like a parody of the States. American, I say, with an American accent: good-natured smiles, occasionally the slow English dispatched on foreigners and children, and a slightly uncomfortable look, as though he’s worried he’s outnumbered.
Ken Chen, “City Out of Breath,” 2005
This essay by Ken Chen describes a visit he made with his father to Hong Kong. His father spoke Mandarin but not Cantonese. Is Hong Kong a character? Perhaps an antagonist?
Once I loved a man who was a lot like the desert, and before that I loved the desert. It wasn’t particular things but the space between them, that abundance of absence, that is the desert’s invitation. There the geology that underlies lusher landscapes is exposed to the eye, and this gives it a skeletal elegance, just as its harsh conditions—the vast distances between water, the many dangers, the extremes of heat and cold—keep you in mind of your mortality. But the desert is made first and foremost out of light, at least to the eye and the heart, and you quickly learn that the mountain range twenty miles away is pink at dawn, a scrubby green at midday, blue in evening and under clouds. The light belies the bony solidity of the land, playing over it like emotion on a face, and in this the desert is intensely alive, as the apparent mood of mountains changes hourly, as places that are flat and stark at noon fill with shadows and mystery in the evening, as darkness becomes a reservoir from which the eyes drink, as clouds promise rain that comes like passion and leaves like redemption, rain that delivers itself with thunder, with lightning, with a rise of scents in this place so pure that moisture, dust, and the various bushes all have their own smell in the sudden humidity. Alive with the primal forces of rock, weather, wind, light, and time in which biology is only an uninvited guest fending for itself, gilded, dwarfed, and threatened by its hosts. It was the vastness that I love and an austerity that was also voluptuous. And the man?
Rebecca Solnit, “A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” 2005
This essay by Rebecca Solnit describes a landscape and a love affair. She ends the passage with the question, “and the man?” but what do we already know about the man, from the way she described the desert? Is he fat or lean? iI the sex good? Is he emotionally available? What clues do we have?
PLACE AS TABLE-SETTING
In the bar up ahead waitresses slam sloe-gin fizzes down on wet tables and men point pool cues at each other in the early stages of drunkenness. The singer in the three-man band whispers test into the microphone and rolls his eyes at the feedback. The sound guy jumps up from a table full of ladies and heads over to turn knobs.
We crunch over the parking lot gravel and wait for our song to finish. I’m over my head, but it sure feels nice. The bar is low and windowless, with patched siding and a kicked-in door; the lot is full of muscle cars and pickups. A man and a woman burst through the door and stand negotiating who will drive. He’s got the keys but she looks fiercer. In the blinking neon our faces are malarial and buttery. As the song winds down, the drama in front of us ends. He throws the keys at her as hard as he can but she jumps nimbly out of the way and picks them up with a handful of gravel, begins pelting his back as he weaves into the darkness.
Jo Ann Beard, “Cousins,” 1995
Where are we? When are we? What do we make of the fact that the writer describes what’s going on in the bar before she and her companion even arrive? What kind of evening is going to unfold, and how do we know?
Whenever the experiment on and of
My life begins to draw to a close
I’ll go back to the place that held me
And be held.
Jane Mead, I Wonder if I Will Miss the Moss
Write about a place that held you, how it held you, what it felt like to be held there.
Art is energy, held in a form long enough to be experienced.
Write about a place the gives or gave you energy, that inspires or inspired you. (It doesn’t have to be artistic inspiration – it could have inspired you to make a move, or a declaration.)
Write about anything you like.