Please welcome longtime Writer Unboxed community member Elizabeth A. Havey to the site today! If you’ve spent any time at all in the comments section here at WU (if you don’t you should, as loads of wisdom can be found there), you’re sure to recognize Beth, who is a kind and insightful regular commenter. A former teacher of English and a labor and delivery RN, Beth attended the Iowa Summer Writing Workshops, working with David Payne and Elizabeth Strout. From 2004-2008, she proofread for Meredith Books and co-authored Miami Ink: Marked for Greatness. In 2015, Foreverland Press published her story collection, A Mother’s Time Capsule. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Better Homes & Gardens, the Des Moines Register, The Nebraska Review and other literary and little magazines. Each week she publishes an essay on her blog: boomerhighway.org ,and is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. Next month Elizabeth will be moving from California back to the Chicago neighborhood where she was born and raised. That’s truly going back to her “place.”
Where I Ought to Be: A Writer’s Sense of Place
Titles can’t be copyrighted, so I am using one created by Native American writer, Louise Erdrich. Her piece appeared in The New York Times Book Review of July, 1985. I saved it, read it many times, the paper now wrinkled and worn. But that’s okay. The words are what matter. For we writers, it is always about the words.
Two years ago, my computer died—ah, the fragility of words. In that first panic, all I could think about was my notes, essays, versions of my novels. Up to then, I’d been fortunate in life, only losing some books and paperwork to a flood. But when it’s your creative work that might be lost, not a book you can purchase again, you might become very unpleasant to be around. I did have a backup system, all my data was eventually saved, and soon I was again in my writing place, allowing ideas, memories, the essentials of the writing life, to once again fall upon the page.
WRITING IS ALWAYS ABOUT PLACE
Louise Erdrich writes:
In a tribal view of the world, where one place has been inhabited for generations, the landscape becomes enlivened by a sense of group and family history. …a traditional storyteller fixes listeners in an unchanging landscape combined of myth and reality. People and place are inseparable.
Reading that last sentence underlines for me why one of my novels takes place in a northside neighborhood of Chicago, a crowded older area abutting the shores of Lake Michigan, probably Rogers Park. It’s where I lived while in college. I attach the word probably, because novel writing allows imagination to alter things. When one of my characters fights to stay in her home, argues that the move her husband desires is not good for their family, I’m allowed to envision my childhood home, a street lined with elm trees on the southside of Chicago, a place where hopscotch squares filled the sidewalks and a bike was the imaginary pony you rode around familiar city blocks:
She ran, feet slapping on sidewalks, one cement square worn, another fractured with prickly weeds breaking through, the straight-on Chicago blocks of this Near North Side neighborhood. Step on a crack? Break your mother’s back. …Change endemic to living, and it happening here, block after block, street after street, yet the place still familiar, like lines on her palms…
And if our characters are formed by place, they can also alter place, Erdrich being right—people and place are inseparable. I can sit at my computer in Southern California and unite myself once again with the sensory experience of that part of my life.
A CHALLENGE: CHANGE Versus IMMUTABILITY
But because most of us are American writers, Erdrich’s essay presents a challenge, asks that we compare her beginnings, her native culture, with our modern one. Because in our culture, if we are not satisfied with the landscape, we will eventually use our power to alter it. This despite the fact that the land has always depended on us for protection. Erdrich writes:
As we know, neighborhoods are leveled in a day, the Army Corps of Engineers may change the course of a river. In the ultimate kitsch gesture of culture’s desperation to engrave itself upon an alien landscape, a limestone mountain may be blasted into likenesses of important men.
Yes, a major aspect of Western culture is its mutability, that nothing, not even the land where we live and the work we do stays the same, so that Erdrich can write: . …it is therefore, as if, in the very act of naming and describing what they love, they lose it. And she supports this thesis using literature. Take Faulkner’s “The Bear,” a story set in a wilderness that is doomed to disappear: …gnawed at by men with plows and axes who feared it because it was wilderness. Yes, the pioneers felt the need to find the land, name that land and then consume it, tame it, using more and more modern farming methods that did irrevocably change it.
When Erdrich states that the course of a river can be changed by the Army Corps of Engineers, she wonders if our suburbs and suburban life may be more sustaining and representative of monuments than Mount Rushmore.
Though we might all believe we know what a suburb is, each writer’s interpretation of that particular place challenges a bland interpretation, welcomes readers to the oddity of place, capturing the reader’s attention and sustaining it.
But there is a true and real challenge in Erdrich’s analysis of American literature and how it considers place: [Read more…]