Linda: Placing Ourselves

Writers of all genres are concerned with matters of place,
whether you are a novelist establishing the setting for your book, a poet
noticing a particular element of a landscape, or a writer of nonfiction
exploring his place in the world. At this year’s Kachemak Bay Writers
Conference, there were many opportunities to think more deeply about place and
to discuss the art of creating a sense of place in our work. This year’s faculty
included Elizabeth Dodd of Kansas
State University, who has authored several books of essays and poetry. Her workshop
Home Grounding drew inspiration from the book Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry
Lopez and Debra Gwartney, a wonderful resource for writers who want to immerse themselves
in the language of place and for readers seeking an explanation of unfamiliar
geographical terms. (Alaskan writers who contributed definitions of their own home
ground were Eva Saulitis and Carolyn Servid.) While most entries, from “abutment”
to “zanja,” include an objective definition, they are also snippets of story suffused
with the personal in the form of examples from writing both familiar and obscure.
In this workshop we each chose a verb we deemed essential to
our home place, created a definition that reflected our special connotations for
it, and then wrote sentences illustrating its use as a verb and also as a noun.
When it came to sharing our choices, it became apparent just how individual our
common experiences of Alaska are. Try it for yourself. I for one am guilty of
not paying close attention to the too-familiar world around me, and this
exercise reminded me to be more mindful of my surroundings.  The home ground questionnaire handed out contained
many prompts to facilitate a closer examination of place, and encouraged us to
look for surprising juxtapositions. How many winters have you spent in the
place where you live? What is the coldest day you remember there, and what do
you remember best about it? What plant do you associate most closely with your
place? Why do you choose it as representative of your home place? Name one
thing you wish that you knew more about regarding your place. How might you go
about deepening that knowledge? And so on…
Elizabeth Dodd also led the two-day workshop following the conference,
Placing Ourselves, which it was my privilege to attend. In the secluded setting
of a wilderness lodge across Kachemak Bay, we became truly immersed in the
notion of place. First we considered ways of seeing. According to art critic
John Berger, “We never look at just one thing: we are always looking at the
relation between things and ourselves. Our vision is continually active, continually
moving, continually holding things in a circle around itself, constituting what
is present to us as we are.” Not only are we seeing, but we are also being
seen. To contrast these two experiences, we studied and discussed two poems: Elizabeth
Bishop’s “The Fish” and Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” Try
placing yourself at the center of seeing and been seen, and journal about what
you notice in the spiral of sight between the far horizon and where you sit or
stand, from both the perspective of the observer and the observed.
Of course writing about place is not limited to our intimate
knowledge of home ground; our society is constantly on the move, and the act of
traveling to or experiencing unfamiliar territory provides ample opportunity to
explore the internal terrain, especially when a life is in transition. Think of
examples from writing you enjoy, and consider how the author uses the external landscape
to convey the narrator or character’s inner journey. Focusing on the
particularity of your own experience, reflect on some aspect of a journey you
have taken recently – it could be a walk in your neighborhood or a trip to
places unknown – and find out where that journey takes your interior self. Is
it back to the past, and the emotions associated with a particular event or
place, or is it into the future, to something you dream of or dread?
Rather than rely on memory I have decided to begin a home grounding
journal to record my observations and experiences of the place in which I have
lived for more than twenty years. It is my hope that this exercise will not
only capture the essential details and emotions of inhabiting this particular
place, but also provide a new perspective on home.  What are some ways in which you have examined
your relationship to place?

2 thoughts on “Linda: Placing Ourselves”

  1. Lynn Lovegreen

    Hi Linda, what a great topic to consider! I write about Alaska and grew up here, so this is close to my heart. One way I have thought about my relationship to place is in the way I identify myself. I identify as an Alaskan first. To me, that shows my relationship to the land and the people. I love our independent individuals and the way we enjoy the natural world.

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