Douglass Bourne: Hookers, Place, and Writing Workshop

A few
weeks ago I drove a friend, Loggerhead, from Healy to his dry cabin on the
south side of Denali Park. I think he earned the nickname when he worked in
Everglades decades ago. I met him more than ten years ago when we both worked
for the concessionaire that provides bus transportation into Denali.

In the
years since we first worked together, Loggerhead has built cabins in the
National Petroleum Reserve, built other things in Antarctica, earned a special
sailing license in South Africa, sailed around icebergs off the coast of
Greenland, transported boats around the Bahamas, among many other adventures. The
winds have carried him far away from Alaska.

He was
visiting Denali for part of the summer to heal an injury. After visiting the
Galapagos and sailing towards Fiji (I think he was sailing to Fiji), he stopped
off at a tiny little island in the Pacific that nobody except sailors has ever
heard of. It was a one bar kind of island. The tourist activities included
scuba or horseback riding. Loggerhead went riding up a mountainside, got thrown
off a horse, and tore his rotator cuff. Turns out he needed surgery.

does Loggerhead go to recover from surgery? Denali Park, of course. It was a
pleasure to meet up again. During the drive we talked about far away places,
but eventually I began talking about a writing project I completed last spring.
The gist of the story: a Christopher McCandless type character drops out and
kayaks from the Carolinas up the Interior Waterway to the Jersey shore. There
he becomes stuck and has to navigate the consumerism elitist society, or the middle-class
society who needs to behave like elitist—sometimes it’s difficult to tell the
difference between them.

I wrote
about that culture without ever visiting New Jersey. Nor have I watched TV
shows featuring the urban environments. To get a feeling for the place, I
looked at a lot of maps and viewed many photos of the area. I thought about the
egos of people I met when visiting coastal Massachusetts. I added in the
consumer culture I knew from living on the coast of North Carolina. Most of all,
I wrote from my imagination. What would the place look like? How would the
people behave in this place? What kind of people would this character

I had
forgotten that Loggerhead grew up in New Jersey. He actually spent the first
couple weeks recovering from surgery back home on his father’s couch. He said I
nailed the materialistic culture. I nailed the boardwalks above the waterway. I
nailed the clash (or sometimes blind eyes) of the rich and the poor. I nailed
it all without ever being there. “The only thing you missed,” Loggerhead said.
“You need hookers. Can’t forget the hookers.”

He was
right. I did need the protagonist to talk to hookers; however, hookers are
really beside the point right now. The larger idea I want to reach with this
anecdote is that it is possible to write about place, authentically, without
ever “being there.”

writing is one of those funny little concepts that can be difficult to pin
down. Trying to define it is like trying to define home. Do you have to live in
a place a certain amount of years before it becomes home? Does Loggerhead have
a home? Can a sailboat be a home?

Place writing
is not just physical details, not just writing where the setting becomes a
character. Place writing can be setting centered, in the case of James Galvin’s
The Meadow that is most certainly true. Most of the time, place writing is just
as much about the attitudes, the culture, and the values of the writer or the
characters. I think John Milton describes my point in Paradise Lost:

Farewel happy Fields
            Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail
horrours, hail
            Infernal world, and thou profoundest
            Receive thy new Possessor: One who
            A mind not to be chang’d by Place or
            The mind is its own place, and in it
            can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of

writing is about perspective within an environment.

the month of October I will teach a place-writing workshop on Thursday
evenings. We will try to better understand place writing. How is place
important to your writing? How do you authentically write about a place that
exists in your imagination? What is poetry of place?
writers like to focus on one genre, which is great, but I believe good writers
should read everything they can get their hands on. Each genre can inform the
others, so this writing workshop is open to all genres.

We will
read some examples of place writing, and we will workshop what you bring to
class. I also have some writing exercises planned that will remind us of the
power of language and help us generate material. I don’t want to over plan the
workshop with readings. I have some ideas to get us started, but I want to
devise readings that will meet then needs of those who are in attendance.
I hope
to see you there.  

Douglass Bourne worked as a tour guide in Denali for nearly a decade. He earned an MA from Western Illinois University, followed by an MFA from University of North Carolina—Wilmington, where he served as Nonfiction Editor of Ecotone: Reimagining Place. Douglass teaches in the English Department at UAA and is faculty advisor to the undergraduate creative writing magazine, Understory. His screenplay won a Sir Edmund Hillary Award at the 2011 Mountain Film Festival, and his poetry and prose have appeared in a wide variety of literary journals. Beginning Oct. 2, Douglass will be teaching a course in for 49 Writers called “Claiming Your Place.” Register today!
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