The Soul of Place – A Creative Writing Workbook

Feb 2, 2016 |

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Thanks so much, Charlie, for asking me to add a post about my new book The Soul of Place — A Creative Writing Workbook: Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci (Palo Alto: Travelers’ Tales, 2015, isbn 978-1609521035).  You describe me in a comment as a travel writer, but  I think of myself  more as a writer of place. I write fiction, poetry, memoir, travel and biographical essays, all of which do  deal with place, displacement, travel and travelers.  [The three novels I have published (Signatures in Stone (2013), Katherine’s Wish (2008), The Etruscan (2004) – are all set in the 1920s and all begin with a journey].  But I am not much of an adventurer-into-the-wilds or a destination writer,  I am more of what Lawrence Durrell called “a residence writer.” I write about foreign places where I have settled for a while and have had time to absorb local language and culture. The Soul of Place – A Creative Writing Workbook isn’t a travel writing manual or recipe book for travel essays, it’s a creativity handbook of ideas, techniques, exercises focused on the awareness of place. Some of the basic concepts I discuss in the book: pilgrimage, quest, flanerie, deep maps, labyrinths, postcard narratives, landscape narratives will be very familiar to the students in your program, as will many of the literary sources I draw on. Some of the exercises however may be new to them, as well as some ideas for combining exercises and approaches in larger projects. The Soul of Place is also in part a fragment of my own itinerary … a deep map of my writing life, if you will.
The core of this book is the Genius Loci – or “soul of place” — that indwelling spark of identity enshrined in every physical place. Although in modern usage, the term “Soul” or “Spirit” of place is often a synonym for “atmosphere,” in the religious thought of the ancient Mediterranean area, the term Genius Loci referred to the guardian spirit of a place whose energies influenced the lives and events unfolding within its sphere of action. Most people have had experiences of places which have “good or bad vibes,” as they say, places which are awe-inspiring, spooky, or holy, which put us at ease or on edge, landscapes or buildings that seem threatening, nurturing, seductive, or desolate. We sometimes sense force fields coming from trees, mountains, houses, landscapes, churches or temples – certain places attract us in some powerful and inexplicable way. The ancient Romans would have said that such experiences are produced by our interaction with the genius of the place. As a traveler and a writer, what interests me most is sensing that “force field” – those particular qualities, atmosphere, texture, energy, of a place and somehow rendering or capturing it in my writing.
The project of this book got its start with two very different literary travel writing workshops I was teaching: one was a semester-long course for students in a US study abroad program hosted by the University of the Tuscia where I was a lecturer in English for over twenty years. The second was a series of intensive workshops with adults visiting Italy during weeklong summer creative writing workshops. In both cases I found myself needing to gather materials and writing prompts to help my writers organize the overwhelming influx of new impressions they were receiving in the unfamiliar environment, discern shapes and patterns in those impressions, and focus on details, objects, situations which had the power to encapsulate their experience and convey it in literary form. The Soul of Place — A Creative Writing Workbook is the result of those materials worked and reworked with my students. The former group, the undergrads, were a motley assortment. Some were tourism majors, others from natural sciences, art history, studio art, Italian language studies, one or two from journalism, very few had had  any experience with creative writing, so I found myself having to introduce them to some very basic literary techniques which were completely new to them. In some ways, The Soul of Place is a book for beginners.
One of the concepts we had the most fun with is the deep map – a stratified map of a place inscribed with our personal itineraries, landmarks, timelines, discoveries counterpointed against more official, authoritative, or objective maps. How is it that Paris is like the map of a brain? — Julian Green asks in his extraordinary book Paris, the essence of flanerie . How can the whole of the city be contained by a human brain? With these questions in mind, he set out to reconstruct his Paris during a long absence from the city in the war years, not by rebuilding its grand monuments in his memory, but by retracing the odd, out of the way places where he loved to waste time. Every lover of a city carries his own map of the city she loves in her mind, no two are alike, says Mary Butts in “From Altar to Chimney Piece.” For Joseph Brodsky, the map of Venice evoked two grilled fish on a plate, or so he says in Watermark. Reconstructing our inner maps of places, actually drawing them on paper and attaching notes, snippets, post-its, drawings, prose poems, story snatches, images, can help trigger our memory and unearth intriguing connections and combinations we didn’t know we knew. The deep map is matrix for story telling and a tool for generating material. Some people may find this very obvious because it is such a simple idea, but it is in taking time to actually make a map and mull over it that you see how revealing it can be.
I saw your map of Nantes in your blog … It’s a perfect skeleton for a deep map.

By the way, I will be teaching a  workshop on the Greek island of Andros based on this book from July 7 -13th, 2016.  Details here: Workshop on Andros
The Soul of Place – A Creative Writing Workbook: Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci is available from The Guardian Bookshop
And from amazon

Tim Hannigan replies:

The Soul of Place – A Creative Writing Workbook
Thanks for this piece, Linda. I came across your book via a random online recommendation, mentioned it on here, and here we are. I’m wrestling with a double deadline at the moment, and The Soul of Place has been sitting on my tottering to-be-read pile since before Christmas (alongside the final volume of Tim Robinson’s Connemara trilogy, which is possibly the most extraordinary exercise in deep place writing in recent years, by the way). I’ve dipped in, though, and what I’ve read so far has been intriguing. I run quite a few travel writing workshops, and I although I like to nudge people towards using the definition “writing about place” as a way to take in all the possible manifestations of “travel writing” (which fits very nicely with your description of yourself as a “writer about place”), I’m always a little unsure of how, practically, to give pointers on how to capture that Genius Loci. My usual solution is simply to deconstruct examples (the first three sentences of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines is always my favourite piece for this end). Mainly I find myself sticking to hard craft practicalities, or dragging everyone off into my pet subject area of travel writing ethics (not necessarily what people sign up for in a travel writing workshop!). I think there’s a great deal for me to learn from your book. – Tim.

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