Thursday, January 27, 2011

Writing about place

Place-based writing has a long tradition, in fiction and creative non-fiction. Place-based writing can enhance your sense of place not only about the specific place about which the piece is written but also in more general terms.

I recently read A Year in Place (W. Scott Olsen and Bret Lott, eds, Univ. of Utah Press, 2001). It’s a collection of essays, stories, poems, journal entries, loosely about a particular month in a particular place. It starts with an essay about January in Northridge, California and finishes with a story about December in New England. I say loosely about because in each case, the month and the place act as the backdrop of a story of people interacting with people; as the lead editor says it’s stories “in the places we find ourselves blessed enough to be.” It’s a good read. I recommend it. You’ve heard the expression that good actors can read the phone book and make it sound interesting. I’m not sure what analogy is for good authors, but the place and time become less important than the story itself. This collection falls into that category.

In Not Just Any Land, John Price lets us follow his pursuit of and growth of his sense of place in the North American prairies and plains as he describes his visits to six specific places across that geography and discussions with four authors who write about places there. It’s a good introduction to the literature of the plains and prairies (a literature I was not well familiar with, but am moreso now) and to some of the people working to conserve those places. It, too, is a good read, and a good story, but with a direct, intentional tie to specific place. I especially appreciated it given my affinity for those places but it may be a good case study for anyone trying to find their place.

Another set of place-based essays can be found at www. This site, sponsored by the Creative Non-fiction Foundation, celebrates the 250th anniversary of Pittsburgh. I have no connection to Pittsburgh and have never really been to Pittsburgh but the essays were still a great read. It also provides an interesting model for other places to follow in collecting writings about a place.

All of the above examples are from professional writers. Even if you’re not a professional writer, there’s value for you and for others in you going to the trouble of putting your thoughts about down in writing. It helps you cement your thoughts about your sense of your place and may encourage others to do so as well. A member of the local writers group here is thinking about getting something like the Pittsburgh collection going for our area. I’d love to see that happen.

SIDEBAR: Using writings to help develop a sense of place
The NorthWest Earth Institute, an organization that develops “innovative programs that empower individuals and organizations to protect the Earth” (, has developed a set of readings to support a discussion course titled “Discovering a Sense of Place.” The book includes excerpts from writings by Aldo Leopold, Wallace Stegner, Wendell Berry and other well-known writers of place and protection of place as well as accounts from less famous writers about their places and actions taken to protect those places. The book is designed to serve as the basis for a series of discussions. The idea is that a group within a community would bring members of that community together for discussions that would spur better appreciation of the place and thus enhanced conservation of the special features of that place. This specific model may or may not be the best strategy for your place, but you will find plenty of useful ideas and ways of thinking.

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