Following on from our recent Writers Chat, much of which focused on place, Linda and I decided that we’d like to revisit our 2015 Writers Chat about The Soul of Place A Creative Writing Workbook: Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci.
Linda, I was delighted to hear of a writing workbook dedicated to place. I feel it is something that the writing world needs – and place, which is so central to narrative, is often omitted from generic writing books. The ‘blurb’ describes the book as an “engaging creative writing workbook” in which you present “a series of insightful exercises to help writers of all genres—literary travel writing, memoir, poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction—discover imagery and inspiration in the places they love.”
Having had the pleasure to read your latest publication I found it a fascinating and easy read – before I even tried out some of the exercises with my writing groups. It left me with a number of wonderful ideas of how I might update writing prompts and exercises I regularly use with groups as well as introducing me to new techniques, and, more than anything, new perspectives on writing about place. This is what stays with me, now that I have put into practice some of your suggestions – how The Soul of Place sets out intriguing and original perspectives on writing into place, about place and from place. (I’ll be writing about this again, later!)
SG: So, a few thoughts, questions, and considerations for you, Linda. Firstly, am I correct in my understanding that your premise for this book stems from your own journey in writing and in place and the knowledge gained that to go deep into our creative selves we must reach into the soul – the soul of place?
LL: Yes, this book retraces various itineraries I have explored through many places as a writer, a reader, and teacher. It grew from two seeds, so to speak, the first is my own strong response to archetypal places which stir my imagination – islands, gardens, old houses, ruins, all of which appear in my fiction, essays, and in my life. The second was a travel writing course I designed on “place-based writing” for students visiting Italy, where I live, for the first time. My idea was to send them to interesting places, a medieval village, an Etruscan site, a baroque sculpture garden, ancient houses and churches, street markets, cafes, neighborhood festivals, train stations, a pilgrim’s road in the woods, to discover their own reaction to these environments while developing greater physical and intellectual awareness of the places themselves and engaging with the stories happening around them. I think creativity begins with awareness – taking time to notice who we are and where we are and with finding a new relationship to the space we live in and its contents.
SG: I agree with you about awareness, Linda. This is something that Julia Cameron and other artists talk about. Now you define the genius loci as “a form of intelligence operating within the environment in synergy with human beings.” Can you tell us a little more about how it affects our creativity, our writing, especially in relation to where we are writing (the physical place – e.g. an office, a school, a prison, a writers’ retreat etc)
LL: Architects and city planners, and before them geomancers and shamans have always known that architectural space and landscapes can be manipulated to produce certain feelings or induce certain behavior in human beings—to diverse ends. Places, like people or planets, have emanations which may be the combined product of various forces –cosmic, terrestrial, conscious, unconscious, individual, collective, natural, artificial, historical, cultural. For me your question touches on two related but different issues. The first and most obvious is, how can we obtain beneficial influence from our environment. I think it is possible to create – or find — environments where our creativity and general well-being are enhanced, and discovering where those places are can be a passionate, lifelong adventure for anyone, not just a writer or artist. That doesn’t mean that your writing place has to be one with a stupendous view, but rather one where you are able to commune with yourself and summon your memory and imagination – and this can be anywhere, from an office to a prison cell to a picnic table at the park. It is a subjective thing, however. You have to find a place that feels right for you. Very often we don’t really know how the places WHERE we live affect us. Another issue this question raises concerns the type of influence which might come from the Soul of Place. In some cases, it might not be a happy, or beneficial one, but a withering and painful one. Some places may transmit to us violence and fear. Still in such places writers may find stories they feel compelled to tell, and an incredible energy may be available to help them at their task. Lastly, to reply to your mention of writing retreats: whenever we have the opportunity to write in a different setting and place, it helps refresh our senses, find new perspectives. I think that’s very useful.
SG: Sorry for such a loaded question, Linda, but I’m glad you mentioned perspectives – as your book is full of interesting insights about this. I was particularly taken with the section on Deep Maps – and blown away by the story you tell of Heat-Moon literally walking on the US Geographical Survey Maps covering Chase County, and then walking across the County section by section, and the fact that it took 8 years of research and 6 years of writing to complete PrairyEarth. It really epitomises what you are proposing in your book – that we pay (literal) attention to the ground we walk on, and with all our senses. Could you comment on that?
LL: What Least Heat-Moon discovered about his environment – its multilayered structure with deep roots resonating within his own psyche, is something we can all find in the places where we are living now and where we have lived or only transited in the past if we take the time to investigate them with our senses, feelings, and curiosity.
SG: Curiosity is something that I sometimes think we are letting slip away – with so much information at our (literal) fingertips. Where is the meaning? And the discovery?
LL: I think you are right, we are so bombarded by information, images, news, ideas, it is impossible to take it all in. That’s one reason, I think, that being centered in a physical place, even if only for a brief time, is so important.
SG: I like the way the workbook is structured – you discuss concepts, invite the reader to a selection of further reading, and illustrate the practice of these concepts or ideas using examples from literature and your own novels, and then present us with some exercises. Are there any readings or exercises you wish you could have included in the book?
LL: At one point this book was a third longer than it is now, with specific poetry exercises, journaling, fiction exercises that made it unwieldy, and so in my final version I scrapped some of them. I did have a section on recreating environments in historical fiction, something which really interests me, in fact all my novels are set in the 1920s and one, Katherine’s Wish, focuses on the historical character of Katherine Mansfield. I decided not to include this material in the book, but to leave it for a later time. Another thing I didn’t include was a special exercise on masks, related to Carnival time, in Italy, and I hope to do something with that, too sooner or later!
SG: Oh that would be interesting – please keep me posted on new ventures; you might even have a second book on place and objects?
Well, I suppose it depends on the response to this book, but my own research has continued since I completed The Soul of Place. I’d like to something more with writing rooms and writers’s rooms for example, and my publisher had a great idea for a short video or two based on the ideas in the book.
SG: I am interested in arrivals and departures and how these movements connect to and disconnect from place and, because of this, form our emotional attachments (or detachments) to places and landscapes. You bring this notion a step further when you invite the reader to study every day places such as parks, gardens, markets but also to deeply explore sacred places and spaces, and labyrinths.
LL: Living in a place like Italy, you are literally immersed in layers of history – also religious history, in places where Christian churches incorporated pagan sites where Neolithic people worshiped in even earlier times or in places where Renaissance artists rediscovering the humanism of the antique world fused pagan and Christian symbols – The secret languages of myth, symbol, and the sacred are stamped on so many places here – gardens, towers, palaces, churches, grottoes, roads, you are constantly transiting from the bustle of contemporary life to these other zones which appeal to another part of our nature which is less concerned with the quotidian and hungry for feelings and sensations that make us feel part of a greater world. Most cultures do have special places, religious or natural sanctuaries, “set aside” to restore us from the frazzle of daily activities. It can be very rewarding for writers to explore these different settings and their effect on our creativity.
SG: It is clear that place – and placing cities, landscapes, exterior and interior to the forefront of your writing – is important to you. I know you discuss talismans in the book so can you tell us if there are any mementos that you carry with you? I, for example, have some Mexican milagros that go everywhere with me when I’m writing. I feel they connect me to place, and now that I have a name for it, thanks to your book, they connect me to the genius loci.
LL: Nowadays I tend to travel lighter than I once did. As far as talismans go, I keep a ticket from the Paris metro in my wallet –hoping it will somehow anticipate my next visit to a place I love. The old house where my husband and I go on week ends sometimes is a talisman in itself. Full of curious objects accumulated in various ways, it definitely has a personality of its own. Rather than taking things with me when I travel, there are certain things I love to bring back, like dried herbs, honey, or seeds. I always bring back sea salt from Greece, Sardinia or France. People think I am crazy to bring back a kilo of salt from a Greek or French supermarket –but I just love the idea of adding a little touch of the Aegean or the Atlantic when I cook.
SG: Oh goodness, this has put a smile on my face – when I go to the west coast of France (which is pretty much every year), I always bring back large bags of sea salt. There’s nothing like it! The other day I made a wonderful salty caramel using it. Moving on from this, can you describe the place where you wrote this workbook?
LL: Different places: A sunny room in Rome with a balcony over a very noisy street, with jasmine and plumbago vines and a nest built by a pair of blackbirds that then never occupied it. A darker room in an old house in a village outside Rome, with a red brick floor and thick chestnut beams, with a view of the canyon, and a woodstove with a glass door through which I can watch the flames. A courtyard in that same village, with lush Virginia creeper clinging to old stone walls and flowering hydrangeas concealing a fountain.
SG: I can just picture them – all so inspirational, magical and, of course, so full of vibrant colour. Tell me, where will you spend the summer months – and what will you be working on?
LL: I will be visiting relatives in the US and then hopefully, will return for a short visit to Greece, where I am hoping to organize a five day Soul of Place Writing Workshop with a writing center on the island Andros next summer. I am trying to finish a memoir about a house sit in Tuscany, called Postcards from a Tuscan Interior, and also have a couple of novels on the fire, as well. Thanks so much for your interest in my book. Your questions have been quite challenging.
SG: Thank you for engaging so fully with the questions, Linda, and I wish you every success with your book which I will continue to use as part of my teaching and which I recommend – highly!
Connect with Linda and Purchase The Soul of Place–A Creative Writing Workbook: Ideas and Exercises for Counjuring the Genius Loci (Travelers’ Tales: Palo Alto, 2015)