I’m getting ready to write a print book memoir and an ongoing online blog-memoir, a series of digital postcards, if you will. (Note: The latter will be the new incarnation of my other blog, 366writing.wordpress.com, alternating with writing exercises). During these times when major book projects are percolating, I always seem to dive deeper into a sense of place – wherever that place may be. Which, with me, could be just about anywhere; somewhere along the line, I inherited an awful lot of gypsy genes.
Right now, am sitting in the Sierra Nevada foothills, at the Ananda Meditation Retreat, rejuvenating health, meditating, writing, editing my clients’ books, planning future teaching gigs, and mapping out the digital publishing side of Word Journeys. I always feel right at home here, deep in-place. Partly, it’s because after the past several years of living in Kentucky, the rural space – whether in hardwood forests, deserts or lush Ponderosa Pine mountains – feels very comfortable. Or maybe it’s because the greatest single influence of my writing life, the great Pulitzer Prize-winning poet-essayist-conservationist-ecologist Gary Snyder, is hanging out at his home not 500 yards away, taking in a rare mixture of rain and snow in mid-May, perhaps reflecting on the 80th birthday he celebrated Saturday. Or, Gary being Gary, moving forward, finding the next text to study, the next piece of firewood to chop, the next poem or essay to experience, then develop. (I am very proud to state that, for 31 of those years, I have been reading, studying and learning from his works.)
I don’t know. What I do see, though, in more and more writing – especially in this new era in which anyone can publish, anytime – is a lot of descriptions about places, without actually writing from within the place. It’s like the difference between us describing Nature and Ecology: Nature is a thing, an object we categorize, define or otherwise try to relate to; Ecology is movement, relationship, the interweaving and interaction of all elements that share the same space, the same place. Nature requires us to write from past or even future; Ecology is all about presence. The difference between the two is the difference between a photograph and a movie. And our goal, as writers and as citizens of this planet, should always be to not only watch the movie, but find our place within it. The great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore put it this way: “Center everywhere, circumference nowhere.”
When we write from within a place – whether it’s our home, community, place we visit often, or somewhere that transforms us, like a beach – we write with strength and conviction. Readers not only surmise that you know what you’re talking about; they can feel it in every energized word. When we can take our readers by the hand and anchor them into our setting, or place – whether in a poem, an essay or a story – we’ve got them. The common perception is that we can accomplish this through facts and crafty word choices, but that’s only the window dressing. The real writing, the real value, comes from feeling the pulsating heart of the earth, or a tree, or a river flush with winter’s snows, or the vibration of a hummingbird’s wings, and sharing the wealth.
Unfortunately, in our haste to crank out the next books, essays, articles or poems, we often miss this point. We miss the ecology, the entire relationship of place in which we exist, and settle for the nature.
I have a couple of exercises in my book The Write Time that help develop the skill of writing within a place that I’d like to share:
1) Sit outside, in a setting that comforts you – a lakeshore, riverbank, woods, garden, beach or even your backyard. From where you sit, visually create a circle surrounding you, 30 feet in diameter. Drop the curtain on everything beyond that circle; your world now exists totally within the circle. This is your place, your oikos (root word of Ecology). For the next 30 to 60 minutes, write your place. You can start by writing about the place, describing things, but turn inward as soon as possible and become the center of the place – write from its heart.
2) Try writing haiku – tiny three-line poems. True Japanese haiku doesn’t use the 5-7-5 syllable rule; rather, it focuses on the simple dynamic of a moment in time, in place. For the purpose of this exercise, observe a movement around you, and put it into three lines. Go with the 5-7-5 syllable count, simply to practice economy of words. As you write your haiku, focus solely on the wholeness of what you’re observing – and keep yourself out of the picture. You’re writing the moment, not your interpretation of it.
See how these practices help with writing place. This skill is essential, no matter the genre. I know one thing – editors and publishers find it very hard to put down manuscripts or collections that are rooted in this way. Readers can’t put them down, either. And there is little more satisfying to writers – whether professionals, journalers or letter-writers – than knowing you have not only described a place well, but written the heart and spirit of that place.
Finally, a little morning moment, using haiku in the popular 5-7-5 format:
Pungent wood smoke scent,
driven down and scattered by
rain and hummingbirds