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.
Where 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 encounter?
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.”
Place 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 Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
Place writing is about perspective within an environment.
During 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?
Many 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!