From the Archives: The Power of Place

For the past week, I've been immersed in reading Bridge of Sighs, a novel by Richard Russo.  The novel is set in Thomaston, New York, a small industrial town that finds itself struggling to stay alive during the post WWII era.   Lou (Lucy) Lynch, the novel's protagonist, is doggedly loyal to Thomaston, even though chemical laden river is probably responsible for the cancer which kills his father.   This town, with its clear demarcations of social strata, its racial tensions, its lack of expectation and promise, becomes a focal point not just in the lives of Russo's characters, but in the story itself. Reading this novel has set me thinking about the way our sense of place effects our writing.  Russo also  wrote about small town life in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel Empire Falls, so it's clearly something that preoccupies his writers' mind.  His view is not the idyllic scene made popular by writers like Jan Karon in her Mitford series.  Russo's characters  often seem stuck in place, as if their location were quick sand sucking them under.  They suffer, with their unfulfilled hopes and dreams tied like albatross around their emotional necks.

Writer's are often advised to write about what you know, and I imagine this refers to locale as well as subject matter.  Certainly it's possible to write effectively about places you're never lived, although to do it well would require much research and surely some personal visits.  But I think we are drawn to write about the places that have touched our hearts, that dwell within us, sometimes more deeply than we even know.  I think we develop a realtionship with the place we live, it's geography, it's society, it's history, and that relationship is reflected in the way we write about place, in the location of our stories, and the environments we imagine.  Our readers will feel this deep relationship, and it will transport them more directly into the setting about which we write.

I lived my entire life in the midwest, in the suburbs of Detroit, surrounded by working class people who live comfortably, but don't have a great deal of "extras."   Although my physical roots are here in the midwest, I also have spiritual roots, places that seem to call to me even though I've never spent much physical time in them.  The American south, home to my maternal ancestors, holds a great fascination for me, and I occasionally feel a surprising longing to be amidst the great Smoky Mountains, or wander barefoot through cool Kentucky bluegrass.  And the three weeks I spent traveling in the South of England, staying in little towns scattered throughout Kent and Sussex, felt oddly comfortable, as if I were returning to a place I'd once lived rather than visiting a foreign country for the first time.

It makes me wonder if our spirits have a memory, if the places we've come from over time become engrained in souls.  Toni Morrison wrote, "You know they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage.  Occasionally the river floods these places.  "Floods" is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding, it is remembering.  Remembering where it used to be.  Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place."

In her book, Writing Begins With the Breath, Larainne Herring asks "What does your piece of the earth talk about? What stories are hidden in the houses? The unpaved streets? The rusted mailboxes? You don't have to travel the world to find your landscape.  You've grown up in one, and whether you connect with it or know without a doubt you're in the wrong place, you're still affected by it.  We' re all people.  It's the place we're living in that shapes our behavior, attitudes, desires, and activities."

How about you? How does place figure in your writing?  Do you feel comfortable in the place you live, or do you feel at odds with your atmosphere? Do you convey that in your writing?  What stories does your location have to tell?

Write On This:  

"The loss of a place isn't really so different from the loss of a person.  Both disappear without permission, leaving the self diminished, in need of testimony and evidence."   Bridge of Sighs, Richard Russo

Write about a place you've lost....