A Sense of Place
the Midwest. I have always loved
the loneliness of those midsized cities
strewn along the plains, in them
it seems to me my heart would at last
be that open field where an entirely
new love could snow.
-Matthew Zapruder, "Dobby's Sweatshirt"
I wonder if perhaps the reason we as writers talk so much about place is because we tend to be a transient bunch. We are constantly being told: be willing to relocate. And we do. We move for an MFA, for a job, a one-year residency, a fellowship, three weeks at an artist's colony. I've lived in four states and two countries, travelled to many more, typically for school or work, but sometimes simply for the thrill of an adventure. Most of the writers I know have similar stories--rarely have I met someone who has lived and written in that same place their entire lives.
For me, I feel that when we emphasize place, what we're really talking about is displacement--that through the lens of distance or the unfamiliar, we can see a place more wholly, more truly. After I first moved to Midwest, I remember calling a friend just to say "There are no trees here." I was used to the loblolly pines of the South, how they tend to sway to the right in storms. I was used to being swallowed up by nature. It takes time to learn the beauty of a new place--to notice how the sky really does look bigger when the only backdrop are miles of fields, and now when I hear the word crisp I don't think of an apple but the smell of winter in Indiana.
In writing, we often talk about authenticity as a core need for a story or poem to be successful. Does it feel real? Do we believe it? We exist both with the realists but also with Coleridge, still begging for that willing suspension of disbelief. Place is funny, in that it allows us to experience another world vicariously but when done right, with the emotional tenor of being truly there. We're all a lost tribe I guess, cobbling together new homes from old places.
Writing began to record history, to record the things that had happened so we would not forget them. Now we use writing to construct our own kinds of history, fictional and the true. Doesn't it sound like a bad college freshmen philosophy argument? If it felt real, then it's real. Perhaps this is what we really want from place in writing. Not to locate us in the scene, but to make us feel a sense of belonging, even if it's that of the outsider looking in. Go to your favorite books. The poem that you read and still remember years later--it succeeds because it pulls you towards something, some kind of feeling. I see that as place at work. The writer has taken you somewhere, held your hand, showed you how the city moves different at night, has given you the place they love as a gift, just for you.