Walking the landscape.

It`s been a few weeks, but this post goes back to my last post about landscape. A few days after I posted last I had a chance to read an essay in The Writer`s Notebook, Craft Essays from Tin House. This particular book was recommended by Cynthia a little while back.

How appropriate that the first essay in the notebook was entitled Place, by Dorothy Allison.

“Place is not just landscape,” she states. “Place is feeling, and feeling is something the character expresses. More, it is something the writer puts on the page – articulates with deliberate purpose.”

articulates with deliberate purpose
. This sentence captured the whole editorial process for me. At times, donning the editorial hat is tricky for me – it keeps falling off. I tend to get wrapped up in the story, the grip of emotions, without ensuring that every element moves the story forward. At which point, I need to go back X pages and begin again.

“I need an actual person walking the landscape, responding to it, telling me, in fact how he or she wound up there.”

“Place is emotion.”

“Place is people.”

“Place is visual detail…conditions….place requires context.”

I tend to write in close third person, except for shorts which often come out in first person. I find that writing in this way, I have a greater connection to my characters. I also prefer readings book in this pov, for the same reason of connection. When writing a description I tend to ask myself, what does my character see? I am very visual in my writing – if I cannot see it, I cannot write it. Next, and almost more important, is what does my character feel in response to what she sees? What is the reaction / response?

Allison`s essay, brought my self-posed questions to a higher level, and encapsulated all that I was trying to do on a subconscious level. Sometimes, becoming aware of these automated editorial process we each have makes everything clearer. Seeing my surroundings, something so commonplace, as powerful is new for me, and quite amazing.

“Story happens from what we put on the page and what the reader takes off the page. The reader does not always take off the page what we imagine we have put there. ”

All quotes from Dorothy Allison`s essay Place, published in The Writer`s Notebook.


17 thoughts on “Walking the landscape.

  1. I like the last quote: “The reader does not always take off the page what we imagine we have put there. “
    What I’m wondering is, has the story been successful if there has been this ‘miscommunication’ between the writer and the reader?

    1. Hi Helen. I see your point, yet at the same time, I feel that this happens all the time. I am constantly recreating things that I read on a page, and only because I interpret the story through my own experiences. For me, that is part of the fascination of it all.

  2. I agree, that last comment is very thought-provoking, and we do all read through our experiences. I wonder if that is some of what plays into “taste” in fiction – someone who loves a book and someone who can’t “get into” a story. Obviously other things impact taste as well, but I wonder.

      1. I just don’t have the imagination required to write about the unknown. I have tried, but it just doesn’t float the way my descriptions of places I’ve been emotionally connected to.

        For example: In my current wip, I describe a lawless area in L.A. with menace and fear only because I lived it. I saw the street life, the crime, the grime, the adults only open-all-night joints in such detail that it was easy to write about it.

        I admire those who can write fantasy or any unknown and create a magical world for escapism.

  3. I’m sure it’s not necessary to visit a place to write about it.

    Do you think Poe was really at Helseggen?

    “Never shall I forget the sensations of awe, horror, and admiration with which I gazed about me. The boat appeared to be hanging, as if by magic, midway down, upon the interior surface of a funnel vast in circumference, prodigious in depth, and whose perfectly smooth sides might have been mistaken for ebony, but for the bewildering rapidity with which they spun around, and for the gleaming and ghastly radiance they shot forth, as the rays of the full moon, from that circular rift amid the clouds which I have already described, streamed in a flood of golden glory along the black walls, and far away down into the inmost recesses of the abyss.”

    A Descent into the Maelstrom

    And what about all those novels about Dragons and their mountain lairs that apparently intelligent people enjoy?

    1. Thanks for the great quuote, Joseph!

      I have asked myself this question. Having written 65K on a novel that fluctuates between 1864 and 1914, I often wondered what I was doing writing this story. Yet, the story demanded to be told, and when writing I become completely engrossed that there is no question for me.

  4. Some very interesting thoughts here!

    Like Helen and Cathryn, I’m fascinated by the last quote. Doesn’t the so-called “New Criticism” school in lit crit theory argue that authorial intent doesn’t really matter – that readers create the truest meaning of a work (forgive me if I’m oversimplifying the idea)? I think this theory can go a little too far with its claims that the author doesn’t matter, but I love the idea that books have a life beyond their authors. I don’t think that a writer has failed if a reader gleans some idea from the work that wasn’t intended by the author. (I do think it’s troubling if the reader can’t understand the mechanics of what’s happening, but the meaning and images that emerge from a book are as much the reader’s as the author’s.)

    Also, Joseph’s comment is very interesting. I agree that a person doesn’t have to have visited a place to describe it well. I think the reason for that is related to what you discuss in your entry: setting is as much about a character’s emotional connection to her environment as it is about physical descriptions of a place. A writer who understands a character’s emotional makeup can describe any place – real or imagined – with verve.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post! Hope all is going well with you.

    1. Not having a background in literature, I love hearing the thoughts from those of you who do!!

      What you say, Christina brings to mind the idea of films from novels.

      I have often thought when reading books from other periods that I am not seeing what the original intended, for the words are coloured by my experiences in modern day.

  5. “Story happens from what we put on the page and what the reader takes off the page. The reader does not always take off the page what we imagine we have put there. “

    Such a great quote! I believe that life itself is open to interpretation. All you have to do is to listen to two people describe the same experience and you get two entirely different stories.

  6. Jennifer-I hope you get as much out of this book as I did. I just pulled it off the shelf to see what I had underlined in this essay–just about all the lines you wrote about here, plus some! And I agree with Christina’s comments above regarding that wonderful last line.

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