Deb: Landscapes Revisited

If you don’t have a
moment like this, of vision and theme and subtext, your work is not worth
reading, and landscape description is the easiest way to create these moments.

~David Vann
With the words you’re reading here, the 49 Writers blog has
featured a whopping 1281 posts. Figure an average of 600 words per post, and
that’s 768,600 words, or enough for nine full-length books at an average word
length of 85,000 each, a truly amazing collective accomplishment achieved by Alaska’s
Blogger continues to beef up its stat reporting feature, and
while it acts up once in awhile, it has overall become a fascinating source of
information about who’s reading what on the blog. The top five 49 Writers posts
with the most page views are an eclectic assortment that includes the “We have a key!” post announcing the opening of Alaska’s first writing center, a tribute to John Haines, a post on Amazon self-publishing, a Harper Lee Christmas story,
and our most recent Ode to a Dead Salmon contest finalists.
It’s an intriguing assortment, but what’s of even more
interest are some really great hidden gems that haven’t yet made the top five,
or even the top ten all-time posts as measured in number of page views. One of
my personal all-time favorites is David Vann’s piece on landscapes, posted all
the way back in 2009.  It’s worth reading
alone for Vann’s introductory comments:
The London Book Fair has been going on this week, and
it’s one of those events that controls my future. I know nothing about it,
though, except that my agents are there and several of my editors are there,
and I do trust that they’re doing the most they possibly can for me. I’m
extremely happy with my editors and publishers now, but I had a lot of
frustrations with that first book.
All’s well that ends well, as one of the world’s best
writers once said. That first book Vann mentions, Legend of a Suicide, went on
to win numerous awards, including best foreign novel in both Spain
and France.
But it’s Vann’s observations on landscapes that keep me
going back to that post, because it’s there I first came to fully understand
the objective correlative, something I’d been doing (sort of) without knowing
the term for it. I’ll let Vann explain it, since he does it so well:
When T.S. Eliot used
this term, he meant something larger (such as a sequence of dramatic events
that, taken together, evoke an emotion in a reader), but in creative writing
workshops it has come to mean this: by describing an exterior landscape from
the point of view of a character, we are indirectly describing the interior
landscape (the thoughts, feelings, and sensibility) of that character. This is
the same, really, as what we mean most of the time by “vision” (how a character
views himself or herself, the other characters, and the world), and since these
are inevitably the most important moments in our stories, telling our readers
what our stories are about, it’s also the same as “theme,” and because we’re
saying something important indirectly, it’s also the same as “subtext.” It’s
impossible to write a successful work in any genre without at least one of
these moments. I mean that. If you don’t have a moment like this, of vision and
theme and subtext, your work is not worth reading, and landscape description is
the easiest way to create these moments.
For more of Vann’s observations, including how to see, how
to describe a place, how to use landscape to build theme, and how to write a
beautiful sentence, read the full post, which is partially a reprint of an
article Vann wrote for Writer’s Digest. Whether or not it makes the top five
all-time posts, you can be sure I’ll be reading it again and again.

Try this: From David Vann, this exercise on the objective correlative: For
two pages, describe a place that you haven’t seen in at least ten years, a
place that remains vivid in your memory. Use this place to indirectly describe
one of the primary sorrows, regrets, or fears of your life. Don’t name any of
these emotions or tell of the events, just describe the place.

Check this out: David
Vann’s Legend of a Suicide, winner of multiple awards, including the coveted Prix
Etranger, for wonderful landscapes and a whole lot more. Yes, it’s dark. It’s
also brilliant.
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