Candice: Good morning! I’m pleased and delighted to introduce Linda Lappin, an American writer living in Italy, author of four novels: The Etruscan (Wynkin deWord, 2004), Katherine’s Wish (about the life of Katherine Mansfield, Wordcraft of Oregon, 2008), Prisoner of Palmary, and Signatures in Stone, and a writing book The Genius Loci: A Writer’s Guide to Capturing the Soul of Place (all forthcoming). She teaches American language and culture at the University of Rome and divides her time between Rome and a medieval Italian village where she organizes writing workshops dedicated to spirit of place.
Grab a cup of tea or your latte, a biscotti, and take a seat. Linda, the floor is all yours!
Linda: I want to thank Candice for inviting me to contribute a guest post to her writing blog. I am a writer living in Italy–a place which has provided endless inspiration for my work. These long years I have had time to research and absorb the local spirits of place and to investigate the ways in which certain places and atmospheres feed my imagination. I have been working this material into fiction, memoir, and poetry, and have recently completed a book of writing exercises called The Genius Loci: A Writer’s Guide to Capturing the Soul of Place, a section of which was published in The Writer magazine in November, and was mentioned here in Under the Honeysuckle Vine. Candice has invited me to share a couple of exercises with you and ask for your feedback. If you feel so inspired, try the exercise and post your comments or questions here. Feel free to pass this material on to friends in your writings groups–but please cite where you got it from.
The topic I’d like to suggest is maps.
Maps, like novels or poems, are replicas of the physical work, models of the human mind, and in some traditions–diagrams of the soul. For me they have always been a source of inspiration: one of the earliest toys I remember is a jigsaw puzzle map of Europe. My favorite piece was the yellow boot of Italy–prophetic perhaps, since that country was to become my home.
Maps to buried treasure, star charts, city plans, architectural blue prints are forms familiar enough to us. But maps may appear in other guises: in the Buddhist tradition, mandalas are maps of states of consciousness; in Persia the patterns of carpet designs sometimes charted the unfolding of the cosmos or the pathways of paradisiacal gardens. Maps need not take a visual form and may consist of words or music. In Australia, the songlines of the aboriginal tradition investigated by Bruce Chatwin are actually word maps of territory, transmitting both topographical knowledge necessary for human survival: the whereabouts of springs, trees, vital resources, and sacred knowledge concerning the mythic origins of human beings and the cosmos. Maps may also be imprinted in the circuits of our neurons. French philosopher Gaston Bachelard has noted that we carry the map of our first environment within us as a bundle of buried reflexes developed through our earliest movements within our first home.
Some of the 20th century’s greatest novels are actually structured maps. Critics claim that to get the full enjoyment out of Joyce’s Ulysses, one should read the book with a map of Dublin and a clock in hand. Similarly, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is, in a way, a map of London, while Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye of New York City. In more recent times, Thomas E. Kennedy’s masterpiece The Copenhagen Quartet, incorporates a map of and even a guidebook to that magnificent European capital. In my own novels, maps have played a significant part–I included a sketch of one in The Etruscan–the map followed by Harriet, the protagonist of the novel, on her photographic explorations of Etruscan country. (That map is viewable here.)
Mary Butts, who has been hailed as the "last great undiscovered novelist of the twentieth century" had this to say about maps in her celebrated short story, "From Altar to Chimney Piece":
"As it happens to people who become imaginatively conscious of a great city, he came to have a private map of it in his head. A map in which streets and groups of buildings and even the houses of friends were not finally relevant, or only for pointers towards another thing, the atmosphere or quality of certain spots . . . These maps are individual to each lover of a city, charts of his translation of its final significance, of the secret working of men’s spirits which through the centuries have saturated certain quarters, giving them not only character and physical exterior, but quality, like a thing breathed. Paris is propitious for the making of such magic maps."
We might substitute the term "soul of place" for "quality," as Butts is using it here. Since time immemorial all over our planet, people have believed that the accumulation of human presence in a given spot together with the influences emanating from the land itself saturate that place and influence human activity there.
We all have our private maps of the neighborhoods, houses, rooms and other places where we have lived. Butts suggests that in the creating of those "mental maps" the physical features of the place are less important than the atmosphere, which is created partly by the secret workings of the spirit–that is of imagination and creative processes. Such maps are uniquely individual to each lover of a place. No two will be alike. Our private maps attempt to localize and identify the "quality" or spirit of place as it has interacted with us on an indivdual basis and influenced our lives.
EXERCISE: Your Secret Map
Choose an environment OR a time space continuum. It may be a city, town, neighborhood, landscape, house or a period of consecutive time, such as: "The winter I lived in Florence" — or cyclic: "The many summers I spent at my grandmother’s house on the lake when I was a child." Quickly write down a list of five to ten significant spaces/places in the continuum. Interpret "space" freely–it can be as small as the space in a box or as large as the Grand Canyon. You may also list dates if you wish for each space.
Next, circle three to five "spaces" from your list and for each one make a "sub" list using the ideas below. Your list may be as long or as short (even a single item) as you wish, and may include:
- Objects or people related to the spaces (landscape features, furnishings, food, clothing, etc.)
- Sensations connected with specific places and objects
- Feelings and emotions connected to specific places and objects
- Events that happened there to you
- Seasonal indications if applicable
Now draw the map as detailed or sketchily as you wish:
- Give each place a personalized name
- Connect the places with lines, showing some progression as you experienced it. Interpret this freely; it need not be chronological or logical.
- For each line, make a notation which includes a verb.
This is your secret map–now use this to structure a narrative or lyric prose piece of memoir or fiction.
I welcome questions, comments, and feedback.
Copyright Linda Lappin
Candice again: Well, Linda has certainly made the Honeysuckle Cafe an enchanted place today. My mind is reeling! I plan to work on my exercise this weekend and post it right here on Monday. I’m working on a memoir (third version, twenty years) and I need this exercise to get me started. Thank you so much, Linda. No wonder your workshops are in such demand. Now if I could just get to Italy . . .
Tomorrow novelist Linda Lappin is coming to the Honeysuckle Cafe to give us an exercise from her forthcoming book, "Genius Loci: A Writer’s Guide to Capturing the Soul of Place."
I’ve received Linda’s guest blog entry and let me tell you–we are getting a portion of her workshop, not just an exercise! Not only that, Linda has kindly offered to give us another exercise later. Woo-hoo!
Linda has asked if you would do the exercise and give her feedback. I plan to post my exercise here.
For years, I have struggled with plot. I come up with characters and situtions pretty quickly but plot . . . I’ve discovered the hard way that if I begin with place and add character, plot will come. Josip Novakovich, who wrote Fiction Writer’s Workshop, has boiled it down to a formula: Setting + Character = Plot. So simple!
Theodore Roethke once said, "We have failed to live up to our geography." I try very hard not to let my characters fail their geography. I want them to understand how they fit in their families, communities, and the natural world.
The Honeysuckle Cafe is delighted to announce its first-ever guest author! Linda Lappin will appear here on Friday, March 19. Linda is the author of many short stories, travel essays, and novels, notably the award-winning Katherine’s Wish and The Estrucan. Linda is also the co-director of Centro Pokkoli in Vitorchiano, Italy.
You know how I love to write about place, setting, and landscape? Well, Linda has my dream job: she teaches workshops on "Tapping into the Spirit of Place." In June she’ll lead her workshop in Vitorchiano, where writers will listen and write and eat and learn and make lifelong friends in a setting backdropped by castles and labyrinths. Later this summer Linda will lead the workshop in Crete, Greece, where "our myths were born."
In 2009, Linda taught an online course on the soul of place. Oh, how I wish she’d teach it again. I’d be the first to sign up.
Linda has written a book (making the rounds) called "The Genius Loci: A Writer’s Guide to Capturing the Soul of Place." An article based on the book appeared in the November 2009 issue of The Writer. I blogged about that article here, at the opening of the Honeysuckle Cafe.
I want very much to go to the Honeysuckle Cafe for lunch today. I’d like to take a notebook and pen and have a nice tuna salad plate on curly lettuce with a sliced hard-boiled egg and Carr’s Wheat Table Crackers (taste like the best graham crackers ever!). Instead of tea, I’d have pink lemonade in a cute vintage juice glass.
When I cracked my eyes open at 5:30 this morning I heard two birds singing. Well, one was the mockingbird, who has just found his voice in the last week or so, so it was hard to tell how many birds were actually singing. This weekend the temps hit 60, finally. Our dirty rags of snow are about gone. The yard still looks brown and icky and 60 degrees isn’t exactly a heat wave, but there was the tiniest turn in the air. Spring is on its way. Definitely. Birds singing to impress mates and mark territory have nothing to do with the weather. It’s all about the light, the lengthening of days.
So what will I be doing instead of having a pleasant lunch at the Honeysuckle Cafe? Grabbing a hasty turkey sandwich while I wrestle with the second draft of this nonfiction book. It’s due March 15, but I need to deliver it this Friday because I must begin researching the second nonfiction book, due April 15. (Still want to be a "famous children’s book writer"?) It gets worse. I have scheduled to have the floors done in my office beginning April 19. I must move every single piece of paper and book from my office, plus furniture (did I mention I have no place to put this stuff?), hallway, and kitchen, which are also being done. And the office must be painted.
Meanwhile, the back of my mind is desperate to relax at the Cafe and take notes on one, two, three new books–two novels and my revised memoir. I have wonderful titles, great characters shaping up (no plot but that’s par for me), fabulous settings . . . but these projects will have to wait.
Sometime around the end of April, my office will be finished. Painted, floored, new furniture in place. I will be collapsed in a heap somewhere under my desk. But then I’ll hear the mockingbird outside my window . . . and I’ll get up, take my notebook to the Honeysuckle Cafe, and have a glass of pink lemonade. And at least two refills because I plan on sitting there a long time.
Recently, Laura Salas did a post on Sallie Wolf’s new poetry book. The book is based on Wolf’s sketchbook on birds, the kind of project I’d love to do myself if I kept a sketchbook (which I don’t). Anyway, I checked out Sallie’s website and learned that she met the designer for the book in a Starbucks. I thought, "No wonder I never meet anyone. I don’t drink coffee. And I never go anywhere."
A few days later I stopped in Panera’s to pick up lunch. As always, many tables were occupied by people pecking away on laptops. I wondered how they could concentrate in the rackety restaurant. Lots of writers say they work better with some activity around them, some background noise. I can write standing in line at the post office, but I’m only taking notes or jotting down ideas as they come to me, not deep, serious coming-from-the-gut writing. Still, I felt a little left out.
So I’m creating my own place-away-from-my-office. The Honeysuckle Cafe. It’s less a trendy WiFi bread-bowl-soup-fancy-coffee-drinks place, more of a downhome quirky cafe. The Honeysuckle Cafe is based in part on the Whistle Stop Cafe from Fannie Flagg’s novel (one of my favorites). "For lunch and supper you can have: fried chicken; pork chops and gravy; catfish; chicken and dumplings; or a barbeque plate; and your choice of three vegetables, biscuits or cornbread, and your drink and dessert–for 35 cents (note, the "cents" symbol is no longer on the keyboard–what does that say about the world today?). "The vegetables are: creamed corn; fried green tomatoes; fried okra; collard or turnip greens; black-eyed peas; candied yams; butter beans or lima beans. And pie for dessert."
The Honeysuckle Cafe is decorated in thrift-shop finds, but not the artificially themed artifacts you find on the walls in Applebee’s and Cracker Barrel. My cafe has shelves of old books and old tea cups and saucers. You pick out your own cup and saucer to suit your fancy and read an old book while you’re nibbling on the pie of the day (today it’s butterscotch meringue).
While you’re in my place, you can mull over the place in your current project. I feel "place" is the one of the most important elements in fiction, right up there with character and plot. From an article in the November 2009 The Writer, Linda Lappin says, "In the ancient Mediterranean world, people believed that every physical place–from an individual room to a continent–had its unique in-dwelling spirit, its spark of sacred, individual identity, called the genius loci . . . The spirit of the place determined the development and vitality of all life forms . . . and influenced the character and destiny of human activities unfolding there."
You can think about all that heavy stuff in the Honeysuckle Cafe. Or you can just doodle in your notebook and sip your tea. If you sit here long enough, the atmosphere of the cafe may wend its way into your project. Not the actual booths and rooster-patterned curtains and scratched formica counter, but the idea that place permeates all aspects of your book, especially your characters.
In the movie version of "Fried Green Tomatoes", narrator Ninny Threadgoode reminisces during the final melancholy scene of dead leaves blowing across the porch of the ghostly Whistle Stop Cafe: "When the train stopped running, the cafe shut down . . . everybody scattered to the winds. It was never more than just a knockabout place but now that I look back on it, the heart of the town stopped beating . . . It’s funny how a little place like this brought so many people together."
The Honeysuckle Cafe will never close because it’s in my mind–and in yours, I hope. Stop by for a cup of Lipton’s tea or plain coffee–in the mismatched cup and saucer of your choice–and the pie of the day. Be sure to make a wish when you eat the pointy end of the pie first. You’ll always find somebody to talk to here. People won’t be isolated in headphones and their own laptop screens. Let the spirit of the place influence the spirit of the place in your book.
Or you can just sit and watch human activities unfolding.