The nonfiction of place is nonfiction in which the evocation of setting is central to the development of theme or character or action. Place isn’t only a destination—it’s also a threshold through which to enter time and text. Where we dwell influences who we are as individuals—it’s the impulse to memoir and personal essay (think of Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, E. B. White’s “Once More to the Lake”). Where we venture reveals who we are as observers—it’s the impulse to travel and nature narrative and reportage (think of John McPhee’s “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” Gretel Ehrlich’s This Cold Heaven). Where we go in the paths of others tells us who we are as readers—it’s the impulse to cultural criticism (think of Dava Sobel’s Longitude, Jane Tompkins’ “At the Buffalo Bill Museum”). Where we are and where we come from and where we’ve been—in a word, place—is a defining part of who we are. Place is vital and central in our lives and, consequently, in the writing we do about them.
The nonfiction of place has the ability to evoke in a reader familiar with the setting a recognition of the accuracy and insight of the presentation. It also has the ability to trigger in the reader unfamiliar with the setting a sense of being there, of dwelling within the textual place. In the most successful nonfiction of place, both kinds of readers feel they are in the same space and would know it again on site.
The writer approaches place largely as either an insider or an outsider. The insider’s story is often about observation, a narrative of close examination of landscape and locale expressing what time and repetition of experience teach the dweller about place. Thoreau’s Walden is the great American example. Through observing relentlessly and journalizing prolifically, he had a great deal of stored knowledge—both collected and innate—to draw on. Dwelling on his native ground is not only his motive for his life but also his means for making sense of it. A sense of place suffuses the entire book because a sense of place suffuses the writer.
A sense of place also permeates E. B. White’s essay “Once More to the Lake,” about a camp in Maine. It was not long time residence but frequent, recurring, intensive occupancies for short periods over a thirty-six year period that generated that sense of place. Before he wrote the essay he had already rehearsed its themes and his responses to experiences in pretend brochures, letters, and journal entries, and what underlies the essay is an aura of lived experience, the simultaneous superimposition of place and persona on the page. In the nonfiction of place the author’s persona is not simply situated in place; more compellingly, place is situated within—and emerges from—the author.
The outsider’s story is often about discovery, a narrative of entering into landscape and locale and learning either how to pass through it as a sojourner or how to become a dweller in it oneself. Outsiders write about places as a way of remembering and responding to and reflecting upon the ones that somehow affect them, that they are moved to write about. Writing on site—sitting on a mountain ledge looking across a valley, sitting on a remnant of a wall looking at an expanse of ruins—makes them pay more attention to what they’re looking at, locks it more firmly in memory; composing an essay from those notes about a site brings to the surface associations only they can make, juxtapositions that arise from storage in memory or experience. An interloper writing nonfiction about a place is as obligated as an inhabitant to write honestly about whatever he or she observes, but unlike the dweller, the transient makes no claim that the views presented weren’t collected in passing. John McPhee’s Coming into the Country is one great American example. Throughout the book he travels unfamiliar terrain with people who are familiar with it, trying to gain from their perspective while establishing his own.
The insider is an inhabitant, a denizen, a dweller; the outsider is a transient, a traveler, an inter-loper (in the sense of one loping—or striding—through unfamiliar terrain). Inhabitants are able to let understanding accumulate, to have unasked questions answered almost by osmosis rather than by confrontation or direct investigation; they have rehearsed the explanation of experience by thinking or talking about it over time, so that the words that emerge in the writing about place come from a deep, broad pool of familiarity. Interlopers are able to see things afresh, to ask questions that inhabitants don’t ask because the answers are so familiar as to be transparent; they draw instinctively on experiences of other places in order to understand the one under consideration, so that the words that emerge in the writing surface insights prompted by conscientious scrutiny and candid questioning. Both intimacy and distance have advantages.
The poles of perspective for the nonfiction of place are occupied at one extreme by denizens and at the other by drifters, but in between the poles are innumerable intersections of longitude and latitude where others situate themselves—those who stay in a place long enough to become acclimated beyond the casual but not long enough to feel thoroughly intimate. Writers don’t necessarily occupy only one site throughout their careers, and the site or sites they do occupy may not be determined by choice. If we write about a place we know we almost can’t help conjuring contexts that affect how we perceive the location; if we write about a place we are encountering for the first time, we almost can’t help dwelling on direct observation and the associations and reactions they produce. Our longitude and latitude may be determined by our relative distance from each of the two poles of perspective.
However, on many intersections are pilgrims traveling while immersed in texts by earlier inhabitants and interlopers. They not only see place directly, as those other writers do, but also simultaneously view it through an additional lens, a textual prism. If we write about a place familiar from our reading, our vision is refracted—our response influenced—by the earlier writing; we read the place measuring how the way it appears to us at the moment we encounter it compares to the way it appears in another writer’s text.
This is not an uncommon approach to the nonfiction of place; witness the number of books retracing the routes of Lewis and Clark in the American West or Johnson and Boswell through Scotland to the Hebrides; witness Richard Holmes following Stevenson by traveling without a donkey through the Cévennes or John McPhee reliving the march against Macbeth by walking with his family from Birnam Wood to Dunsinane. This approach projects a portrait of place through a translucent scrim that changes, with the intensity of the lighting, from nearly invisible and transparent to wholly visible and solid, like those two-way mirrors which, with the twist of a dial, superimpose the image of your face onto the face of the person on the other side of the glass. We seem to occupy two (or more) different compass points at the same time.
If a nonfiction of place arises from a writer’s confrontation with the landscape which he or she most fully enters, we have at least three ways to write it. We might write it by exploring familiar terrain, learning all we know and understand about the place; we might write it by exploring unfamiliar terrain, recording what we discover about the place; we might write it by exploring terrain across time in the company of an earlier writer, comprehending the influences that time and perspective have on the way we perceive a place.
The reliable, old-fashioned way is to write about place while you’re in place. The daily journal of observations not only records what the writer sees but trains the writer to observe more closely, to be more spontaneously observant; it also rehearses the language the writer will use as the basis of drafts and revisions. For the inhabitant perspective drawing on the experience of dwelling in a certain landscape or locale, it’s important to revisit the sites of experience. The actual, physical visit in place not only recovers experience but also gives you an opportunity to check specific details of landscape. To write a memoir of my childhood I returned to my hometown and retraced the familiar routes I took to school or to downtown or to friends’ houses and a cornucopia of memories and images spilled out of the past, scenes I’d thought I’d forgotten.
But the visit doesn’t have to be physical; it can also be visual, reviewing old photographs and videotapes. With images it’s possible not simply to describe what you see in your hand but also to, in effect, enter the photograph and snoop around. Don’t merely look at the people at the center of the frame; look over their shoulders at the background and then try to reconstruct the setting. With enough concentration, it’s possible to step into the photograph and take a good look around, even to see what the people in the picture were looking at beyond the photographer.
The visit can also be psychological, imagining yourself walking through those old terrains. The psychological visit is a kind of self-guided imagery, where you close your eyes and try to picture what you saw when you moved through this landscape in the past. A couple of easy examples: Close your eyes, then imagine yourself opening your eyes in your bedroom on a typical childhood morning—look around you at the familiar setting and take in what you see, then get out of bed and be the subjective camera eye moving through the house in your familiar routine. Or imagine yourself opening your eyes as you enter your school building—follow your gaze as you walk through the halls and notice the people around you and head for your locker or your classroom, even follow yourself through your course schedule and revisit all your classes and teachers.
These approaches are ways of getting into place, particularly of getting into place when you’re not actually in place. They provide the resources to describe what you see in these visits in such a way that the reader is able to see what you saw.
On-site writing is also important to anyone writing as an interloper. Vague impressions aren’t enough to sustain a sense of place or to give sufficient authority to a description of place to satisfy anyone familiar with the location. The interloper perspective needs to develop and utilize powers of close observation of the unfamiliar, a consistent and continual alertness to surroundings. One way of training your abilities as an observer is to take your journal or daybook into unfamiliar terrain and begin recording what you see.
For example, pick a locale you haven’t visited before—a museum, a neighborhood, a park, a store—, walk through it carefully, and after you come out write about the experience, trying to recreate in your journal what your visit was like. A couple of days later reread that entry, see if you recall things that didn’t get into the entry or if your first impressions have been altered by time, then return to the locale and walk through it carefully again, this time looking for what you might have missed, trying to discover the significance of your having overlooked or dismissed or avoided certain sections. On this walkthrough keep notes on what you’re seeing, on the arrangement of its parts, on the relationships among various elements or components. The recurring visits will help you understand your habits of observation and also sharpen them; they will also lead you into a deeper understanding of what you react to about this place and why you react to it.
Writers who write often about nature and the environment or about travel and foreign locales need to take in the setting, watch what’s happening around them, record in field notes what they observe. The prolific American naturalist Edwin Way Teale took copious notes whenever he went wandering and made a point of copying and cataloguing the notes when he returned home, so that he was continually accumulating observations that built an expansive sense of place. The deeper and broader his understanding of the terrain about which he wrote the firmer and more solid the foundation of his writing. In his case the notetaking produced voluminous background material he could consult and adopt in his later composing, but even without that intention notetaking is often productive simply because it helps anchor information in the mind—when the time comes to write it may not always be necessary to review the notes because the information has become so firmly lodged in the writer’s memory—and it also makes the writer better prepared to connect the next day’s outing with the one before.
Working from the perspective of an earlier text, an entrance into place through the doorway of another writer’s work, alters your perspective on what you’re seeing. Some of my favorite books are those in which the writer travels in the company of a book written years, even centuries, before. Ivan Doig’s Winter Brothers: A Season on the Edge of America was a very influential book of this kind for me. In it Doig wanders around the Pacific Northwest while reading and quoting from a diary kept by James Gilchrist Swan a century earlier. The effect on a reader of this kind of work is not unlike a documentary that crosscuts between recent footage of a contemporary explorer with first-person voice-over narration and stock footage made up of old still photographs and grainy silent film with an actor reciting the words of an historical figure. For the writer the effect is like time travel, watching him- or herself move through the immediate present and shadowing another person in the distant past.
This kind of experience can be another experiment or training exercise for the writer of place. Simply find a locale in someone else’s writing that it would be possible for you yourself to visit in company with that author’s prose. Having read about it, how do you imagine the place will be? When you get on site what do you think is the same or different than you imagined it? Consult the other writer’s text and look for whatever might stand out and see what you can find in the landscape that confirms or refutes what’s in the prose. What you discover in the landscape that the prose has prepared you for will help you appreciate how the nonfiction of place recreates terrain for a reader; what you discover in the landscape that hasn’t been in the other writer’s prose will prepare you to be a sharper observer on your own.
All of these approaches feed into one another whether you are inhabitant, interloper, or reader/pilgrim. You write a nonfiction of place by using whatever means you can to enter into place as completely as possible. All of these perspectives are valid because all writing is really from the writer’s point of view—“This is what I saw and experienced”—and the reader has to be willing to meet the writer on those terms, the conditions under which the writer experienced the place (“I accept that you are a wayfarer” or “I respect that you are a denizen” or “I know that you are a pilgrim too.”). This is true whether you intend to write a nonfiction of place or not. Readers will find empathy or understanding in an honest story but nonetheless they need to know where they are. Whether by drawing on long experience in a variety of ways or utilizing strategies of close observation over a limited time or entering the writing of others as a way to animate a personal perspective of one’s own, writers can’t generate a sense of place in readers until they’ve generated a sense of place in themselves and found ways to project it onto the page.
Entering Place in Time and Text: Developing Approaches to Writing About Place
The Insider (denizen) Perspective—exploring familiar terrain
The Outsider (interloper) Perspective—exploring unfamiliar terrain
Take your journal or daybook into unfamiliar terrain and record what you see. [Ex: Walk carefully through a locale you haven’t visited before and afterwards recreate in your journal what your visit was like. After an interval reread that entry, see what you recall that is unrecorded or whether your response has changed, then return to the locale in search of what you might have missed, overlooked, dismissed or avoided. On this walkthrough keep notes on site about arrangement and relationships of various elements or components.]
The Reader (pilgrim) Perspective—exploring terrain across time with an earlier text
Find a locale in someone else’s writing it would be possible to visit in company with that author’s prose. Prewrite how you imagine the place will be, then on site observe what is similar or different to what you imagined. Consult the other writer’s text and look for whatever might stand out and see what you can find in the landscape that confirms or refutes what’s in the prose.
Robert Root, Department of English, Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant, MI 48859
Dillard, Annie. An American Childhood. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
Doig, Ivan. Winter Brothers: A Season on the Edge of America. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.
Ehrlich, Gretel. This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland. New York: Pantheon, 2001.
Holmes, Richard. Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. New York: Viking, 1985.
McPhee, John. Coming Into the Country. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1977.
McPhee, John. “From Birnam Wood to Dunsinane,” Pieces of the Frame. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1975: 127-137.
McPhee, John. “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” Pieces of the Frame. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1975: 75-89.
Sobel, Dava. Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. New York: Walker, 1995.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. Travels With a Donkey in the Cévennes. 1878; Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. ed. J. Lyndon Shanley. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.
Tompkins, Jane. “At the Buffalo Bill Museum,” West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
White, E. B. Essays of E. B. White. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.
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