Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Jumpstart VI: Place, Space and Time

Poetry. I've always held the belief that more people write poetry than who read poetry. Unfortunately, in this Jumpstart we will not write poetry. We are fiction writers for worse or for wear. Although it should not be without its place. We can learn a great deal from poetry. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is one of my favorites. So is Elizabeth Bishop. Both them make use of place and space and time in their poetry. The sense of place in many of Ferlinghetti's work takes to a mood, a quality of light and San Francisco. “In Golden Gate Park that Day...” (A Coney Island of the Mind, 1958) we meet a man and his wife, a meadow, and terrible depression. Sure, we know a man and his wife, and we know depression. Yet, when this poet anchors them to a beautiful place like Golden Gate Park, the situation changes. The poet here gives us a place and a space within it.

Get your composition notebooks ready:
Deconstructing Spacial dynamics of Elevators. Can you do this? I've given you a place: the elevator. The Space: maybe? You must deconstruct it. The Time: the length of eternity from the first floor to the seventh. What a task, right? Try it. If we've talked about plot, and characterization and dialogue, what can you write about now with the place, space and time?

It took me years to be able to pick up Henry Miller. And even now, it makes me feel sort of sheepish and weird afterward. I don't know if I want to run away to Paris, or fuck, or bring rise to the end of government. Some readers love the aimless meandering he gives through pages or the search for sex or a free meal. But in Quiet Days in Clichy, I found so much more. In the opening pages the writer is comparing and contrasting two cities: New York and Paris. He writes from the point of view of a man walking the streets of New York and a time of day he would normally love. His reflection, of course, is Paris. We've talked about juxtaposition before, and if there is any confusion to its meaning, it should be clarified here. Miller juxtaposes Broadway in New York to Montmartre in Paris. Here he gives one space, the city; but he gives two places. The time, a gray afternoon, which is exciting in Paris, but perhaps depressing in New York.

When we write about our favorite place, which we'll do now, what is it we write? The Baseball Park? Yeah, great place in August during a game with friends and beer. But is it still a favorite place December when it's filled with vacant seats and snow? And the next prompt, our least favorite place. I don't particularly care for hospitals, but when I was in the Army and stationed overseas, I loved our barracks which were in a World War One vintage hospital. This is an exercise in place, yes, and the space within. But it is also an exercise in time.

John Knowles in A Separate Peace has the place, space and time. In the opening pages, Gene goes back to the prep school fifteen years later. He has changed. The school which seemed one way in his past, and another in his memory is completely different when he sees it again. His space within the school changes too. And time? Come on, this is age visiting youth. Youth is uncertain, confusing. Not to mention World War II happens in the interim.

Thomas Pynchon in The Crying of Lot 49 gives a wonderful description of Southern California:
San Narciso lay further south, near L.A. Like many named places in California it was less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts—census tracts, special purpose bond-issue districts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access roads to its own freeways.

In this we definitely understand the place. After all, in 1966 when the book was published, L.A. was developing at such a rate that towns (or suburbs) were planned as a concept and the whole rest of the country followed suit. Place and time, yes.

Still in California, and to visit my favorite writer, John Steinbeck we have to look at Cannery Row. Cannery Row is not only the title, but the stage for the whole story. The preamble is a description of the place and the people. He likens the entire ordeal to the collection of sea life. Many of Steinbeck's novels are set in California. They were his modern day California which his youth is now a hundred years past. We can know the California of days of old just by reading his work which is so place heavy. Cannery Row today is shops, restaurants and tourist stalls. Very different stuff indeed. What we learn from Cannery Row is how to develop setting.

The last example I'll give is Willa Cather's My Antonia. The life Steinbeck brings to California, Cather brings to Nebraska. The place sets the mood of the people, it defines their lives, it molds them into the landscape. Cather's love of the prairie is her success in the writing of it. These last two examples are very specific. A reader of either book has an innate knowledge of these places which is so intimate and thorough. Much like the execution of good dialogue or character development, putting a story to a place is work. Make that reader know your place, space and time.

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