Monday, September 27, 2010

From Life to Fiction: Part II Geography

Let's ask this this question: what is geography? Well, I would think we all know what it means. But if we didn't know, and had to deduce its meaning, we might be inclined to break it down into smaller parts. First, with our knowledge of words and the English language, we recognize this word as being two things: a compound word, geo- and -graphy and we know it to be of Greek origin. Right? Second, taking it as two words we come to geo- first meaning earth or of the earth. -Graphy: the act of recording, writing, describing a process, an action, or a study of such as biography, oceanography or in our case geography. The study of Earth? What does that have to do with writing? Good question.

I can map out every step between the Commissary at Camp Dietler and Silver Cliff, also known as staff camp. I lived at Camp Dietler in 1997 and 1998 for ten weeks each summer. The place made enough of an impression on me and I lived there at a time in my life that I can still recollect the entire walk. Geography? Sure. But I'm not making a scientific break through. This walk is the best possible example. I left Camp Deitler in August of 1998. I went back sometime in March of 2008. I parked my car at the commissary and made the walk. The walk had changed. There had been some trail erosion work done in the interim, the old trail covered up with slash and a new trail built. So what, right? Things change. In the geography of my memory the walk from the commissary to Silver Cliff will never change. The walk seemed somewhat shorter in 2008 than it had been during my tenure at Deitler. It was quieter in March of 2008 since I was alone and all the people I loved, those I spent my time with in the past were all elsewhere. The trees seemed aged. The light was different. Yet, the feeling was the same. I was still so grateful to be there, and in a way the gratitude was all a recollection not of the trail's topography, the geography of Camp Dietler, but of my memory.

So where does this leave us as writers? Often times we get so mired in description we may lose track of what we need to convey. A general description is simply not enough. Even the utmost description of every object in every nuance and every shadow is not enough. If nothing else, that may prove boring to a reader. How do you feel about a description of place as a painting of feelings and sensations? It seems like geography class in high school may have been tremendously more interesting if feeling and sensation were the learning objectives rather than borders and rivers and capital cities and government structures. How about if in a description of the trail at Camp Dietler felt like an end to a long summer day of swimming, throwing spears, singing songs and telling jokes. How about this: Percy Walker captures loneliness superimposed on New Orleans in The Movie Goer. I love the geography in the opening pages of Henry Miller's Quiet Days in Clichy where the geographic descriptions are a comparison and contrast of Montmartre in Paris and Broadway in New York City. These descriptions are snap shots of a certain place at a certain time seen by a certain person, in this case the aforementioned writers. I've been to New York and New Orleans and Paris. The descriptions these writers give are of a very different geography than anyone else can give us. So, should I set about the task of the staff camp to the commissary trail of Camp Deitler, I too will give a very different account than anyone will see, even those familiar with the place.

At this point, I invite you to think about geography for a moment. First, take a place you know well, and take a place you haven't seen in a long while. This way you have a perspective on it that has enough distance so that you'll be inclined to write about something deeper than what one may simply see. Write through the place, the room, the house, the neighborhood, the high mountain trail, how do you feel, and how do you want a reader to feel?

This is a great exercise to get going. This is life, your account of it, or your account of a place and then your translation of it into fiction.

Some places are fiction even to begin with and the writer becomes so accustomed to the place that it is real enough, both to the writer and the reader. Didn't William Faulkner do this masterfully? Garrison Keillor did the same thing. The geographic notations of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County or Keillor's Lake Wobegon most certainly have basis in real places. I'm certain there will be critics and fans and aficionados of one of these writers or the other who are appalled I'd put them in the same paragraph. Please understand that these geographic places are real enough in the fiction of either author.

Occasionally, we lapse into poetry. As fiction writers we can learn so much from poetry. Hell, as human beings, we can learn so much from poetry. The two poems I'll mention today have contours of geography in them. Elizabeth Bishop's “Questions of Travel” has some beautiful images of geography. And Lawrence Ferlinghetti's “In Golden Gate Park That Day...” takes us to a more specific place and puts us there. Ferlinghetti takes us to a specific place, Golden Gate Park, and that doesn't seem to different from the first exercise we did today. Elizabeth Bishop takes us away to any number of places. She does take us to a gas station, but that as a geographical landmark isn't much. She is more broad.

Next, let's try all this again. Let's think about geography as something we must first manufacture. Any place we manufacture as writers exists somewhere before, or perhaps everyplace we've ever been before. The geographic contours of this next exercise must have more feeling, more sense, more thought than the last place. This place is a description of feelings of your narrator or character more than the a report of the place and the location of things within it.

The last examples are geography of the manufactured and the narrator/character response. “FUBAR” in Kurt Vonnegut's 2009 Look at the Birdie, we learn about Fuzz and his place of work “the General Company Response Section, Public Relations Department.” We know that this place is the last building on the lot. Everything in this company and everything on this lot is far more important. It doesn't sound like a great place to work, nor does it seem like a hospitable place to be. But as we read on and get to know Fuzz, things are looking up. The sheer contrast of this place with the last word Fuzz mutters is almost unbelievable. “Eden.”

The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz is all geography. It is the mythologized world of the narrator, the young Mr. Schulz. In the chapter titled: “The Cinnamon Shops,” we see the entire town in the starlight imagination of the narrator. We can almost recount the steps from the theater to the narrator's home by way of the old town and the shops that sell strange wares just by his description. It's potent. It pulls us as readers right into the story. I would think the act of writing geographic contours whether it's from memory or imagination is just as riveting to the writer.

Since the title of this series is “From Life to Fiction” please think of geography as a beginning of setting, location or time. Think about the mundane and make it heaven. Make memory the map of your characters' world. Write ten vignettes set in ten different geographic locations. And I'll leave you this, a definition I pinched from the dictionary:

“The arrangement of features of complex entity: the geography of the mind.”

1 comment:

  1. My favorite part of the geography was learning about Europe. My favorite is France. Regards from Hotel Orly.