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.
Let me say up front that it is all Jama’s fault that I am now a "Gilmore Girls" addict. But the setting of the show itself would have won me over anyway. I’m a strange person (this is news?)–when I go to a ballet or a play, I pay almost no attention to the dancers or actors. I fixate on the stage setting. (My all-time favorite version of "The Nutcracker" is the old version with sets designed by Maurice Sendak).
So when I got an eye full of Stars Hollow in the first season of "Gilmore Girls," I spent my time scrooched in front of my small TV, studying the backgrounds. My first impression is that Stars Hollow is indeed a storybook place. The name made me think of Tennessee or Kentucky or Arkansas, but the show is definitely rooted in blue-blooded Yankeeland. The romantically-named town seems to exist with no visible means of industry. Where do those people work? How do they support the pricey Doose’s Market, the flower shop, Kim’s Antiques (okay, she gets a lot of out-of-towners), the bookstore, etc.? Everyone seems to have loads of free time to eat in Luke’s or stroll on the green.
In the background of several shows are improbably happy people trundling hotdog carts or pumpkins or armloads of bunting, ostensibly to put on a town-sponsored event. The way the show is shot has a stage-y quality: the camera follows Lorelei and Rory down the street, past Miss Patty’s dance studio where little dancers are framed in windows that seem to have no glass. We hear bits of conversation from passers-by and then there’s the town troubadour who acts sort of like a Greek chorus. Every town has one of those, right?
We hear about a mall but we never see anything as crass as a McDonald’s (at least I haven’t on the episodes I’ve watched so far) or a WalMart. The illusion is seamless. If only we could make our readers believe in our fictional settings so completely.
So . . . could Stars Hollow be moved to, say, Arkansas? I don’t think so. First, towns in the South have a component that’s missing in Stars Hollow. The church. Southern community life centers around the church and the high school (sports!). Not a snobby prep school, but a regular high school where the kids have acne and the girls are all taller than the boys (for a while).
What is it about Stars Hollow that gives it its magic? The characters. In his book, The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maas says that setting is just a place. It is nothing without characters to bring it to life.
While I think he’s right, I also believe that characters are nothing without setting. Setting enables them to act on the stage we create, gives them space to play out emotions. In her book Write Away, Elizabeth George advises writers to use setting to its fullest. "It’s that commitment to place," she says, "that elevates what might be an ordinary scene in an ordinary place and makes it unforgettable."
Pay attention to the stage settings in your writing. What does the room look like? You don’t have to describe it in minute detail–just a quick camera pan across, focusing on a few key details. In one episode of GG, Lorelei and Luke have an intimate discussion in a corner of the diner, a former hardware store owned by his father. They are discussing a handwritten order his father had scrawled on the wall. This throw-away scene is fraught with emotion–about Luke’s feelings for his father, the growing feelings between him and Lorelei–while they are actually saying they won’t paint over his father’s writing. It’s a small scene where the characters are physically crammed in a corner, but layers of emotion loom large.
I’m going to work harder to give my characters settings that will allow them to shine, give them star quality, whether they are in the rarified atmosphere of a prep school (not likely in any of my books!) or in a greasy spoon, chasing pork rinds with an RC Cola.