Food writing, focusing on the personal experience of food — combining memoirs, recipes, technical information, and history in a literary or journalistic text, is a relatively recent genre, popularized in the 20th century in the USA by the incomparable MFK Fisher — although there have been some notable precursors, such as Marcel Proust. In turn, it has given rise to one of the most creative and remunerative forms of blogging today. A quick glance at Instagram or Twitter feeds will show that we are obsessed with our food and with what other people are eating and cooking. That should be no surprise: a great deal of human history has focused on food.
From a psychological point of view, food is our connection with our mothers, with our most archaic identity as a newborn for whom the very first physical sensation as an independent being is hunger. Food and hunger define who we are.
To write about food is to write about our evolution, our feelings, and our deepest identity, or as some might say, our soul.
Below are seven food writing prompts to investigate your food memories.
Has it ever happened to you to fall in love with a place–your own neighborhood or an exotic locality glimpsed from a train while on vacation? There’s just something in the atmosphere that has an irresistible appeal compounded of colors, scents, sounds, textures, even the taste of the air.
Maybe, taking a wrong turn in a strange city, you have come upon a shady square or a house for sale that captured your imagination, but you can’t really say what attracts you so much.
That row of yellow bicycles parked by a crowded café with live music playing, those red geraniums on a windowsill where a sleek, black cat is snoozing and a green shutter is half-open, the chic nonchalance of people passing by with baguettes tucked under their arms?
The scene triggers a fantasy in your mind: If you could just move there, something truly interesting would happen, and the story of your life would change.
Perhaps there are cherished locations in your past, the view from a mountain peak, a beach house overlooking a raging surf, or a rocking chair by a fireplace that made you feel content and at peace, or empowered and adventurous. Some places, whether indoors or outdoors, make us feel cozy and safe, inclined to daydreams. Others lift our spirits to unthinkable heights, urging us to go beyond our limits, physical or mental.
There are sacred sites that can cause us to weep with remorse and humility, infuse us with joy, even make us feel immortal.
Then there are other sorts of places where we become uncomfortable, on edge, oppressed, even panicky, anxious to get out of there quick—If we stay too long, who knows what bad things could happen to us there?
If you have ever had experiences similar to these, chances are that you have been touched by the power of place.
Some anthropologists suggest that our attraction to (or repulsion for) certain places derives from a deep, unconscious attunement to our environment, hearkening back to when we were all nomads, in search of suitable habitats and dependent on our instincts to lead us to water, fertile hunting grounds, or other sources of food. Back then we had a much more visceral response to our universe; we sensed where we were likely to thrive, and where not.
That instinct is not dead in us today, but we may not pay enough attention to it. Perhaps that’s because much of our lives, at least in industrialized countries, is played out in what French anthropologist Marc Augé has called “nonplaces”: those anonymous, deracinated spaces of shopping malls, airports, computer screens that look the same all over the world.
Yet the desire to be rooted in or connected to a real place on the earth, a community, a physical world of our own, stems from a very basic human need.
The power of place isn’t necessarily life-enhancing. It can be threatening or devastating, pulsing with negative and positive charges that may change valence according to our personal point of view. Architects, city-planners, garden-designers, interior decorators, and before them priests, shamans, and geomancers have always known that our environment can be shaped to elicit certain feelings and moods, promote health or sicken us, or encourage certain behavior.
They have also been aware that in modeling the landscape or constructing a building they must work with a creative force inherent in the land itself, known in the ancient classical world as the genius loci, usually translated as the “soul” or “spirit of place.”
Most people today might define this term as the atmosphere or ambience of a locality or as the emotion or sensation that it evokes in us. To the ancient Romans, instead, it referred to an entity residing in a site and energizing it. It influenced all life forms present on a site and was manifest in everything existing within its range of action, from bodies of water to houses, social customs, patterns of speech, artifacts, recipes, and works of art.
Have a look around your neighborhood, your house, your workplace – what energies are operating there and how does your environment influence you? Consider for a moment a place that you love or hate, or that you feel emanates a power. How would you describe or define its genius loci? If the soul of place had a voice, how would it sound, what stories would it tell?
If you are a writer or artist — how can you feed your creativity by attuning yourself to the soul of place? Here’s a preliminary exercise to try.
WRITING EXERCISE: Discovering the soul of a place
Gazing at green hills and golden wheat fields from the ramparts of an old Etruscan town, D.H. Lawrence remarked that the view not only was beautiful, but had meaning. This English writer, often considered the founder of the modern novel, was a keen believer in the soul of place and thought it derived from biological, chemical, and cosmic influences operating in a site, affecting the psychology and behavior of individual human beings and entire populations living there. In Lawrence’s view, our well-being and creativity depend on the life-force manifested in our habitat, but centuries of technical progress have separated us from that force and shattered our wholeness, resulting in the aridity of modern life. One theme of Lawrence’s fiction is the sacred link between identity and place and the devastation that follows when that link is broken.
Still, he believed it is possible to reconnect to that power and absorb it into ourselves, if we can just find our spot on the planet. Much of Lawrence’s writing career, which he once defined as a “savage pilgrimage,” was a search for the fountainhead of the life-force: Italy and New Mexico were among the places where he found it.
Are there places that give you a sense of wholeness and empowerment, or where you feel really you? Others where you feel depleted, sad, or even anonymous? Make a list for both categories then choose one from each category to work with. Reflect on the essential qualities of each place and the origins of those qualities, then write a short text of 200 words for each place you have chosen. Describe the atmosphere, narrate an episode that happened there, describe your feelings, or simply make a list of impressions, people, or things you associate with it. Put your texts aside for a few days, if possible, revisit the sites you described, then go back and re-read what you wrote. Have you learned something new about yourself?
I was delighted to see that critic and writing teacher Walter Cummins, mentor to generations of writers, included his review of my first novel The Etruscan, originally published in The Literary Review, in his new anthology of reviews and essays Knowing Writers (2017)
His generous review cuts through to what is for me the essence of the novel: the clash and fusion of the mythic and the temporal, gothic and modernism, romance and reality, Italian cynicism and Yankee yearning for spirit and beauty. My own life plays out, frazzled but energized, in the midpoints of those binaries.
This novel grew out of my exploration of the storied Etruscan landscape and my sojourn in an ancient house. It was nurtured by my literary studies of the Brontes and the gothic, DH Lawrence and Italy, Henry James, Vita Sackville West, and Daphne Du Maurier, as well as by my research into the lives of early twentieth century women travelers.
“Among the pleasures of The Etruscan are a compelling plot, intriguing characters, vivid sense of place, strong descriptive writing. But Linda Lappin’s principal achievement – and greatest challenge – may be found in her realization of Count Federigo Del Re and the strange power he exerts over the novel’s heroine, Harriet Sackett.
Lappin’s task -or that of any writer who wishes to create a Federigo Del Re- is convincing the reader to share Harriet’s complex, almost otherworldly, obsession with the man. In The Etruscan she succeeds.
While the novel has a twenty-first century publication date and a twentieth-century setting, many of its narrative strategies are Victorian, with the Gothic overtones found in writers like the Brontes. Del Re is clearly a Byronic figure in the tradition of Rochester and Heathcliffe. Mystery lies at the heart of the story-for much of the novel the question of what happened to Harriet in Italy and, even after the final page, the nature of what draws her to Del Re.
Two realities are contrasted, that of Edwardian perspectives of Wimbly, the Hamptons, and the Hampton’s housekeeper, Mrs Parsons, and that of Harriet’s immersion in another realm. Lappin presents the attitudes and perceptions of Wimbly, the Hamptons, and Mrs Parsons in close third person. But Harriet emerges directly through her first-person diary, a document like that found in many traditional novels. The physical diary itself becomes an object of contention, with Stephen trying to burn it, Mrs Parsons rescuing it, and Sarah preserving the final, torn out page until its content is revealed on the very last pages of the novel. The Italian settings are certainly Gothic, the ancient homes, the treacherous landscapes, the Etruscan tombs. Because of Lappin’s exact descriptions, they are very convincing” –Walter CumminsKnowing Writers: Essays & Reviews
It’s just like a presepe, people say of the village where I live half the year – a massive hunk of chiseled grey rock on which hundreds of tiny stone houses, domes, and towers have been built, with cellars hollowed deep into the rock face itself. Approaching from the old road snaking through hilly terrain, you catch sight of it, checkered window squares aglow above a mossy canyon.
Presepe is the name given to the Nativity Scene – the Christmas crèche, where by Italian tradition, the figurines of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the wise men and farm animals are placed in rustic settings –with the backdrop of old stone barns and houses, like the ones still standing here. St. Francis has been credited with creating the first presepe in 1223, at the Appenine hermitage of Greccio. St. Francis’ presepe wasn’t a fixed tableau assembled from life-sized figures or miniatures. Wanting worshipers to see “with the eyes of the flesh” Jesus’s birth in a humble manger, he set up a straw-filled crib, placed a portable altar on it, brought in an ox and a donkey, and celebrated mass there on Christmas eve. From there the tradition caught on, mingling faith, folk-art, local traditions, and pageantry, eventually becoming the heart of the Italian Christmas.
In the past, Christmas trees were a rare sight in Italian homes. The presepe was the household Christmas decoration. You built it yourself, changing it every year, out of brown paper, cardboard, moss, pebbles, and twigs, mirrors, electric lights, star-studded dark blue paper for the night sky. The more ingenious equipped them with running water, mechanical figures, and music. In addition to the main players, dozens of extras were attendance – angels, shepherds, huge flocks of sheep, and often the figures of wood, plaster, or papier maché, were passed down like cherished heirlooms. In celebration of the medieval corporazioni, many statuettes represent the different tradespeople bringing offerings to the newborn Christ: the chestnut vendor, the woodcutter, the laundress, the wool spinner, the weaver, the baker, the fishmonger. Presepi from different regions and artistic periods have their distinctive flavors, with Naples being the queen of presepi, with an entire street, San Gregorio Armeno, dedicated to the artisans who produce the settings and figurines, some still authentic, but most, these days, made in china.
making your own presepe
In Naples, where life=theater and theater=life, the presepe mingles the sacred and the profane, for each year celebrities are added to the crowds of worshipers scattered around the crib. Obama, Sarkozy with Carla Bruni, Osama Bin Laden, Francesco Totti, the football player, are some of the past stars, embodied in collectible statuettes you can buy in the shops along Naples’ presepe street. Most recently, Donald Trump, Pope Francis, and Kim Jong-un have made an appearance, slipped in among the Three Kings.
The presepe may actually have pagan origins, for the figurines are akin to the Penates, the statuettes that the Ancient Romans kept in their kitchens, symbolizing gods of abundance, which they put on the table at dinnertime. They are also related to the Sigillum, literally “small image” of the Lares, the ancestral spirits celebrated in Ancient Rome and Etruria on December 20th in a festival known as the Sigillaria, when figurines representing spirits of dead loved ones were exchanged, and often displayed at home in miniature settings.
The presepe has also been at the center of our Christmas celebrations, too, ever since we rediscovered our passion for miniatures and pageantry after a visit to San Gregorio Armeno, where my husband renewed his connection to his Neapolitan roots. Our presepe is constructed from odds and ends collected over the months, like Styrofoam cubes, soup bowls, candy boxes, and is dedicated to a changing theme related to the year’s travels or place-based obsessions. We’ve had Tibetan stupas, Sardinian nuraghi, Etruscan necropoli, and New Age menhir sanctuaries. For the last few years, though the emphasis has been on the Cyclades!
In addition to the regular characters present at every Christmas pageant, we also have a turtle, a unicorn, a pilgrim from St James’ Way, a tiny elk, several pigs, Saint Michael the Archangel, and an E.T. all gathered to celebrate the birth of the semi divine human spirit, born the very same day as the Mithraic Sol Invictus!
Presepi designed by S. Baldassarre, Photos by S. Baldassarre, Linda Lappin, and Leah Cano
“This is a book about how to enhance our awareness of places and find in the environments around us inspiration and material for artistic and writing projects . It’s very much a personal journey, retracing my own creative process and discoveries as a writer, reader, teacher, and traveler. Its most basic premise is that there is a power or energy at work in certain places that speaks directly to our imaginations and nourishes them.
Many writers, artists, photographers, psychogeographers have recorded eloquent testimonies of the ways particular places have inspired them, and it would take to long to share even a few. They boil down to a few concepts: “Landscape is character,” in the words of Henry James. For Lawrence Durrell, “We are expressions of our landscape.” And the houses and rooms we live in, are analogues for the self. We keep up an ongoing dialogue with the places we live of which we are totally unaware. Houses and landscape inhabit us just as much as we inhabit them.”
The Etruscans are not a theory or a thesis. If they are anything, they are an experience. DHL
Near the end of his life, DH Lawrence returned to Italy in 1927 after a soul-searching journey through Mexico, the American Southwest, Ceylon, Australia, and New Zealand. Gravely ill with tuberculosis, unaware of how little time he had left (he died three years later at the age of 44), Lawrence sought an ideal land where he might flourish as a “whole man alive” and find an antidote for the alienation of industrialized society denounced in his fiction, particularly in Lady Chatterly’s Lover.
Lawrence’s last pilgrimage led him to the Etruscan ruins north of Rome. His idea was to write a travel book about the twelve great cities of Etruscan civilization. Lawrence rejected the contemporary, scholarly views of the time: that Etruscans were inferior to the ancient Romans. Lawrence’s approach to the Etruscans was highly personal and unscientific, yet his book, Etruscan Places, has shaped modern readers’ ideas of this vanished people more than any other text. In the Etruscans, Lawrence found a life-affirming culture which exalted the pleasures of the body and viewed death as a journey towards renewal. This is the main theme of one of his greatest poems, “The Ship of Death.” He also believed that Etruscan culture was based on equality between the sexes, and this idea influenced his portrayal of the relationship between Connie and Mellors in Lady Chatterly’s Lover, his last and best-known novel. For Lawerence, Etruscan culture was infused with the joy of being and and informed by a superior level of consciousness.
In Etruscan Places, he wrote: “To the Etruscan, all was alive, the whole universe lived, and the business of man was to live amid it all. He had to draw life into himself , out of the wandering, huge vitalities of the world.” … [The Lucumones were] The life-bringers and the death-guides. But they set guards at the gates of life and death. They keep secrets and safeguard the way. Only a few are initiated into the mystery of the bath of life and the bath of death: the pool within the pool within the pool wherein when a man is dipped, he becomes darker than blood and brighter than fire…”
Traveling on foot and by mule cart, Lawrence explored Tuscia-a wild, wooded area where the center of Etruscan culture was located. He visited the frescoed tombs of Tarquinia and the rougher rock tombs of Cerveteri, as well as the sites of Vulci and Volterra. The tombs Lawrence described are easy to visit today, well-connected to Rome and Florence by a system of trains and buses. In Vulci and Volterra, museums offer informative displays on Etruscan history. In the frescoes of Tarquinia, pipers play on as red-skinned dancers perform to the delight of thousands of tourists per year. And copies of Etruscan Places are for sale everywhere.
The mystery Lawrence relished may best be found off the tourist track-in the rock tombs carved along the ravines at Cerveteri and neighboring areas.
To get a sense of what these sites were like in Lawrence’s time, I recently visited one of the lesser known areas-out in the countryside, off the main road. Covered with ivy, the huge tombs carved in cliffs face out upon a ravine. Wandering through the tall weeds, I approached a tumulus where a tall doorway led into a chamber hollowed in the rock. There at the back stood the fake door, which Lawrence called the door of the soul, as it had no real opening and was only painted or carved on the wall surface. I think of Lawrence sitting in a chamber like this one, contemplating the door of the soul-a barrier for the body, but not for the imagination.
Etruscan Places has been read as Lawrence’s attempt to reconcile himself with his own mortality. For the Etruscans, he believed, death was a continuing celebration of life, or so he learned from studying their tomb art. “What one wants,” he wrote in the closing pages of Etruscan Places, is not a lesson about the Etruscans, but direct “contact.” It is this contact he believed he found and which he now tries to pass on to us.
Lawrence’s vision of the Etruscans in Etruscan Places is among the chief inspirations for my novel, The Etruscan, set in the 1920s, in the era of Lawrence’s visit here. The heroine, Harriet Sackett, a feminist photographer, comes to the Tuscia to photograph Etruscan tombs and finds herself entangled with count Federigo del Re, occultist and self-proclaimed Etruscan spirit. It’s the story of an irresistible attraction between the modern, advanced woman and the archaic-minded, patriarchal male, between America and Italy, and ultimately, between the worlds they embody: the temporal and the timeless.
While working on my novel, I lived in a farmhouse outside the gates of the old town, with a window overlooking a gorge where dozens of tombs have been hollowed out of the rock face. You cannot live in a such a place for long without unconsciously absorbing its mystique. Researching the background for my novel, I soon learned that it was quite common for local people, from aristocrats to farmers, to believe they were somehow in touch with the vanished Etruscans.
In the course of my research, I met dowsers and healers who trace their occult powers back to the Etruscans. I met a controversial scholar who has dedicated a lifetime to studying step pyramids and altars in the woods north of Rome that remain unexplained by the academe. I met a geologist who showed me a hidden spot in the woods where strange magnetic phenomena occur, a tombarolo who invited me to explore with him, a paranormal researcher who has recorded strange echoes in caves, and a painter who studies the lay of the land from a balloon. I met a chef who cooked me dishes he believed were surely of Etruscan origin and the author of a cookbook whose grandmother ran the trattoria where Lawrence liked to dine. I met a woman who leads tours to a secret place where witches gathered in the middle ages. A countess unveiled for me her secret collection of Etruscan artefacts illegally assembled by her grandfather. I met a designer who creates hats based on Etruscan designs and a sculptor who peoples his life with terracotta sphinxes of Etruscan inspiration. I listened to folk tales and dreams recounted, all telling of the underworld, and like Harriet Sackett , I have sat for hours in dank tombs, pondering the door of the soul separating this world from the next. The fruits of all this research and reflection are to be found in my novel The Etruscan, in which I hope readers will discover the same fascination that I have found in the spirit of the Tuscia.
The Etruscan was originally published in July 2004, by Wynkin deWorde, a small literary press in Galway, Ireland. Released in the USA in 2006 under the FRANK imprint, made available for the first time on kindle in 2010, The Etruscan was runner-up in fiction at the New York Festival of Books in 2010, a finalist in the 2011 Next Generation Indie Awards, and received honorable mention at the Paris Book Festival of 2010. Kirkus reviews called it “Haunting, Vivid, Entrancing…”
In 2014, I was invited by the Center for North American Studies at Christian Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany to participate in a creative writing project sponsored by the Jubilee fund. Among the special events organized to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the founding of the university was an undergraduate literature and writing course in English, focusing on Writing the City, taught by Prof. Barbara Röckl and teaching assistant Dr. Tristan Kugland. I was brought in during the last phase to help students create a literary guidebook to their town, featuring places, itineraries, and atmospheres of particular interest to the student population.
Kiel, not far from Hamburg, and previously a Danish city, was quite a discovery for me and September proved to be an excellent time to visit. Lonely Planet’s description of the place as grottenhässlich — ugly as sin – just doesn’t do justice to this vibrant and hospitable university town, which hosts both the world’s largest sailing event as well as one of Europe’s most prestigious universities. Kiel is a fascinating patchwork of ambiences. From the dizzying heights of the rathaus clock tower, as straying gulls dip near your nose, you may enjoy a view of the naval yards, the harbor, the new town, and the countryside – while in the lower depths of the building, you may meditate on somber sculptures commemorating the suffering of the people of Kiel under the allied bombs which destroyed much of the town during World War II.
The university’s sprawling, modern campus is well-connected to the city center with buses, which unlike Rome’s transport system, seem to have been made in heaven. Its quiet neighborhoods are interspersed with lush nature parks inhabited by boar and bison. In its traditional coffee shops, ladies meet to sip hot beverages and taste delectable cakes made with chocolate, ginger, berries, whipped cream — Barbara and I sampled a few during my stay.
But the port is the main attraction. Splendidly situated on the Kiel fjord, the sea front area seems to stretch to infinity, mingling sea and sky. In the harbor, antique sailing ships, cruisers, and ferries bound for Sweden, Norway, and Russia, energize you with their constant movement and promise of imminent departure: you just want to grab your bag and hop aboard for adventure.
During my stay, the class met every morning to work on materials, prompts, themes, and exercises drawn from my craft book The Soul of Place, to ferret out the heart of this Baltic sea port, producing pieces of flash fiction and memoirs deeply imbued with the genius loci. I was very impressed by the students’ superior linguistic skills – by the unique range of their talents, backgrounds, and interests and by the quality of their prose, which speaks highly of the standards maintained by the German scholastic system. Beyond that, their knack for writing, powers of observation, curiosity and enthusiasm were truly extraordinary. Some students were already skilled writers — poets and journalists. One or two discovered they had a talent for writing in English which they had not expected.
A brewery haunted by a medieval monk, a bar resembling the entryway to the underworld, a treacherous labyrinth beneath the rathaus where we thought we had lost one of the students during our guided tour, windswept beaches, a stadium where the local team always loses, a laundromat where the rhythm of the washers produces its own poetry, a flea market, a no man’s land of squats and gardens torn down to build a megastore, lonely bus stops, old salts hanging around the port reminiscing on old times, the fishy salt tang of kieler sprotte or mouth- puckering desserts made of sugarless plums only for connoisseurs, a tower where a lover dreams of flying – these were among the subjects of the pieces written during the course.
The students kept working for several more months, followed by a phase of long-distance editing and selection of only 36 pieces from among many more for the book, coordinated by Prof. Röckl. A search for a publisher followed, and thanks to Barbara Röckl’s persistence, arrangements were made with Wachholtz Murmann Publishers to publish FEEL KIEL the Ultimate Kiel Guide for Urban Explorers in 2016. The photos by Finja Dirksdóttir blend sleek, post-modern street photography techniques with stunning landscapes and elegant architectural shots. Each prose piece is accompanied by a photo and a short description of the place and its role in the town.
This highly subjective, elective, personal, and even quirky guide charts out a tour of Kiel, which visitors and long time residents alike, won’t want to miss, in search of that unique quality– the true essence of place. I was delighted to be part of this project and immensely proud of the students and the book they produced. Thanks again to Barbara and Tristan for including me, and to the students for their fabulous work. Order your copy from amazon de https://www.amazon.de/Kiel-ultimate-Guide-Urban-Explorers/dp/3529051314
Again this year, I had the great good fortune to lead the Creative Writing Workshop organized on the Cycladic island of Andros by the Aegean Arts Circle founded by artist and writer Amalia Melis. This year marked the fifteenth anniversary of the summer workshop, first held in 2002. Given the climate of uncertainty pervading so many cultural endeavors and institutions in these times of economic crisis, it is remarkable that the Aegean Arts Circle has continued to thrive, and attract writers from all over Europe and the US. Past instructors include Dorothy Allison, Thomas E Kennedy, David Lazar, and Robert Owen Butler.
Half of the workshoppers were “returnees” coming back to a setting they loved in order to move forward with projects — one participant had even been present at the very first workshop back in 2002. Others instead were newcomers and some had never been to Greece before.
Our group of gifted writers included a professional British journalist working on her first novel, in the dystopic vein. We also had a professor of philosophy from a prestigious US college working on a memoir about his teaching experiences in an exciting experimental school, an inspirational blogger writing hilariously about her life as a pet sitter, a diplomat writing an autobiographical novel that hinges on a search for mysterious origins, a poet with a background in science who started her first novel at the workshop, a survivor interned during the Second World War, writing of her childhood in the camp, the daughter of a sea-going family of many generations writing about her love affair with boats, a Greek-English writer working on a multivoiced novel entwining two generations of islanders, and Greek American writer working on a second novel, set in Greece.
As usual we were hosted by the Andros Holiday Hotel, a magnificent structure with spacious, air conditioned rooms and huge private terraces overlooking the water, wifi, salt water pool, private beach, and a first rate chef who prepared luscious traditional Greek meals accompanied by lots of salads, vegetables, and fine local wine.
During class time, we critiqued two manuscripts per session submitted prior to the workshop, did free writes, and shared writing exercises done as homework. The focus for the workshop was “World Building” in the larger sense – how we translate, transform and reconstruct the world around us in our writing. We took some inspiration from Virginia Woolf’s essays “Life and the Novelist” and “A Sketch of the Past,” to examine our own writing process. From where do our new ideas , stories, characters and imagery come? We also took a few tips from T.S. Eliot’s essay on the Metaphysical Poets to enquire into how our minds select random details from our experience and reassemble them in meaningful ways.
We began by scrutinizing our immediate environment and recent experiences to find imagery or stories we might otherwise have overlooked, calling all the senses into play. Woolf says that although writers “can no more cease to receive impressions than a fish in mid-ocean can cease to let the water rush through his gills,” they must learn to master their sensibility and make it serve their purposes. Our first day, we discussed the ways the creative impulse first manifests when we start writing a new piece – for some it begins with one or more characters suddenly piping up in the mind’s ear. For others places and settings generate stories and characters. Others found that intensely personal stories worked themselves out through imaginary characters and plots in exotic settings. For yet others, a striking image set a story in motion.
CHARACTER was another area of intense investigation. We looked at Woolf’s idea in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs Brown” on the challenge of rendering a complete character
PLACE was another major topic. “Fiction depends for its life on place. Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of What happened, Who’s here? Who’s coming? And that is the heart’s field” writes Eudora Welty. We discussed the ways places can express emotion, manifest consciousness, or become a character as Lawrence Durrell suggests.
Lawrence Durrell “Landscape IS character”
Eudora Welty “Fiction depends for its life on place”
Early on in the workshop, we remarked how so many of the stories we were telling hinged on the Quest Motif and we explored the ways that pattern fit our projects. POINT OF VIEW , PLOT STRUCTURES, DUAL TIMELINES, and BACKSTORY were key issues.
Workshop events included group gourmet dinners attended also by local writers and friends of the Workshop, private readings in the evening from work-in-progress, a public reading at which I read from Signatures in Stone: A Bomarzo Mystery, winner of the 2013 Daphne Du Maurier Award, and a public showing of 2 video shorts by Sergio Baldassarre – The Professor’s Teeth and his newest SF fairy tale, The Cosmic Omelette.
It was sad to leave our island. After nine nights and eight days of intense work, we had formed a real community and we all had made headway on the projects we had come with.
TWO EXERCISES FROM THIS YEAR’S WORKSHOP
From Homer’s catalogue of ships in the Iliad, to James Joyce’s inventory of the objects in Bloom’s drawer in Ulysses, lists are tools for world building. List-making also can be a dynamic generative exercise when exploring characters or settings. Novelist and critic Umberto Eco has praised lists as the origin of culture, for they impose order on chaos; we love lists, he claims, because we don’t want to die.
MAKE A LIST – fiction writers : choose a character and make a list, using the ideas below for inspiration. Memoir writers, focus on a setting or episode and make a list related to it.
contents of a drawer, medicine chest, kitchen cupboard, pocket, purse, tool kit, mess kit, trunk
articles of clothing for a special occasion
mistakes, lovers, enemies,
births, deaths, illnesses
Free Write: The Keys to the Kingdom Free associate. What does this expression mean to you?
You’ve seen them sitting in cafes or on park benches, or streaming along in high-speed trains, young travelers, earnestly bent over their notebooks or Ipads, writing intently as the cup of coffee at their elbow grows cold. Maybe there are maps spread on a table beside them or a little pile of postcards. You envy them – they have found their focus. They are succeeding at what you meant to do, but didn’t – attending to their travel journals.
And yet you came prepared. Here in your bag, you have your moleskin notebook along with some colored pens and your smart phone is full of stunning photos and amusing selfies. On your walk this morning, you stumbled upon three interesting things to write about: a political protest in the piazza, a puppet theater in the park and some discarded mannequins in a trash bin behind the bowling alley. But when you finally sit down to write, the inspiration evaporates. You gaze at the blank page then put the notebook away, thinking there will be another opportunity for this later.
Very likely when your trip is over, your notebook will return home still virgin. Next summer, next year, when you want to remember something of your journey, you will curse yourself for not having had a more disciplined approach. Sound familiar?
Keeping your journal
Failing to keep up your journal is a special kind of writer’s block – here are some tips to overcome it and turn your blank-paged notebook into a scintillating record of your trip– even if you are not a writer.
Firstly, consider “Why?” you want to keep a journal before you consider “How?” Remember your intention is to create a document that will reflect authentic glimpses of your experience. Encapsulating experiences in words of our own is different from snapping a photo. It casts a warmer, more intimate light on a fleeting moment. Think of it this way; you are writing a letter to the most important person in your life, your future self, to preserve precious memories that will otherwise fade away and vanish.
When rushing off to airports or out to see the sights, it can be tricky to schedule writing time, especially if you are traveling in company and must accommodate other people’s rhythms. Perhaps, when you finally have a moment alone, you’re just too tired or overwhelmed by new impressions to collect your thoughts. Try opening your notebook throughout the day, whenever you have some downtime, even if you aren’t intending to write. You might be surprised to find yourself inspired.
Experiment with different settings – try writing in an art gallery or historical museum, on a bus or in a taxi, at a shopping mall, train station, hairdressers or restaurant. Explore the city streets as a flaneur, jotting down the bits of life swirling around you as they happen, or take your notebook on a slow nature walk, pausing to study and describe in detail the wild life you encounter.
Remember, you aren’t writing a novel. Don’t worry too much about grammar and form. Take it lightly, start with a ten-minute assignment with this sure-fire prompt: make a list.
Lists are a very evocative literary device. From Homer’s catalogue of ships in the Iliad, to James Joyce’s inventory of the objects in Bloom’s drawer in Ulysses, lists are tools for world building. Novelist and critic Umberto Eco has praised lists as the origin of culture, for they impose order on chaos; we love lists, he claims, because we don’t want to die. Through lists we reconstruct the contents of our mind and environment.
Here are some ideas for list making while traveling:
Five ways the local people look, dress or act differently from you
Five items (clothing or other necessities) you should have brought but didn’t – and why you need them
Five foreign words or local expressions you learned and the circumstances in which you learned them
Five children you have encountered on your trip
Five unfamiliar objects you have come across and what they are used for
Five doorways you have passed through or windows you have looked out
Five place names with a story to tell
Five appealing/unpleasant smells, tastes or sounds you experienced that you wouldn’t find at home …
Once you start the process, you will see that one list leads to another and every item on each list can grow into a longer, richer narrative.
If list making got your creative juices flowing, go on to the next step. Choose some items in your list and turn them into “ tweets.”
Even if you don’t have a Twitter account, you can still use the 140-character format as a guideline for producing short, pithy texts resembling haikus, superflash fiction, or even koans. To compress an experience in 140 characters is no small feat. The formal discipline will help shift your prose into a poetic mode.
Try to draw a picture in words, render an atmosphere, zero in on a detail that speaks for the whole, chart an itinerary, capture an action, frame a portrait or landscape. Experiment with understatement, overstatement, humor, surprise, the quirky and the uncanny.
Combine each tweet with a photograph or other visual accompaniment. Your journal will sparkle with these shards of observations and, if you use social media, you can share them with friends and readers.
Lastly, bring it all together with a unifying device – a deep map.
The term “deep map,” was first coined by Native American Writer William Least Heat-Moon to describe his research method in writing a book of travel essays, PrairyErth. “Deep map” is now used by geographers, travel writers and urban planners to describe a multilayered map of a space, collecting information from multiple sources, time periods and perspectives.
Heat-Moon made his map by staking out a county in Kansas and exploring it from every possible point of view: by hiking and driving across it, interviewing locals, studying legends, scientific research, historical archives and old newspapers – even by dreaming about it. He matched his findings with the quadrants of geographical survey maps and then wrote about his journey section by section.
To make your deep map, find a map to paste into your journal or use Google maps or other apps like Story Map or Scribble Map to create and annotate a digital one. Trace the rough outline of your itinerary and then add layers: lists, tweets, quotes, journal entries and other texts, photographs, sketches, drawings, and vintage maps. If you are using a paper or plastic map, add mixed media: cut outs, clippings, receipts, postcards, tickets, menus, money and any other talismans of place. Do this as you go, or just gather pieces in a plastic envelope to assemble when you return home. As you flesh out your deep map with layers, stand back to reflect on the bigger picture. Themes, patterns, cycles, and changes will begin to appear, and your trip will take on new meaning. Use these insights to write a final entry on what you have learned and how you have been transformed.
London, 1971 found me clad in floral granny skirts and red hiking boots, spending several hours a week washing dishes for my work scholarship in the underground kitchen of the Eckerd College Gower Street student residence, staring through a window at feet shuffling by. My many free hours were taken up with rambles on Hampstead Heath, nights at the Paris Pullman, countless visits to the British Museum and V&A, and general street haunting. Russell Square and the adjacent area were packed with Oriental booksellers and antiquarians which drew me like a magnet. I acquired an Arabic dictionary, a Buddha statue and a map of Tibet. I also purchased Overland to India by Douglas Brown, the hippy guide to land travel across the Eurasian continent through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to India. Although I dreamed of dropping out of college and making that journey – a few of my friends had done so, I only got as far as the eastern tip of Crete, before backtracking to Italy where I have been based ever since. I didn’t have the guts or the funds to undertake such a trip alone. But Shelley Buck, author of EAST: A Woman on the Road to Katmandu, did.
Her book opens with a bizarre coincidence right out of a fairy tale. Researching material for this memoir of her 1972 journey, she searches for the out-of- print Overland guide which she had once owned but discarded. The densely annotated, used paperback she finally locates turns out to be her very own copy, which launched into the ocean of time, now washed up at her feet. What more proof could you want that synchronicity –the mysterious quality of time which fuses unrelated events into cohesive, magical meanings –actually exists?
Being in the right place in the right time — traveler’s luck — is important in her story, embodied in the talisman she picks up : an ancient coin stamped with the blurred face of Alexander the Great. And luck will follow her as she sails unharmed through danger– clashes with border guards, interrogations by secret police in Iran, unwanted attention from grabby men, hepatitis. Like Alexander, she is moved by a deep yearning or Pothos to go east, to see palaces and princes dreamed about in childhood.
While saving money for her trip, the author worked in a lab in California, studying diseased tissues from cadavers. One day it’s a breast she must dissect, and she is struck by how much it resembles a Tibetan stupa. This epiphany is a prompting from Kali, the goddess of great transformations, urging her not to delay, and underlining the nascent feminism in her journey. Stunned when a young man refuses to travel with her—because he is afraid they will be hassled, she sets out on her own to prove to herself that she can do it and indeed she triumphs — like Alexandra David Neel on her harrowing trip to Lhasa, she shows the world that a woman can make it through.
Throughout her travels, Buck is sensitive to the condition of women in these eastern countries, of the physical and mental freedom she enjoys as a westerner. In Herat she buys a decorative strip of a nomad’s veil, patterned with geometrical figures representing dancing women. This handwoven textile, testimony to women’s work and status, invites her to interrogate her own place in the dance and her kinship with strangers. She asks: “Was I somehow in that dancing line, too, though in so many ways my life was so different from the lives of women who tended camels and tents? ….Was I at core so different?” Later, trying to communicate with a Tibetan woman across the language barrier, she writes “For a few seconds, we gaze at each other across about a thousand years.”
Shelley Buck writes with immediacy, wit, vivid color, and verve weaving in strands of history alongside wry observations on herself and her traveling companions. East is a compelling and delicious book to take along on a journey, or just while armchair dreaming, evoking exotic atmospheres and the joys and mishaps of traveling very rough. This was all long before the advent of special garments and accessories, like the she-wee, made life a bit easier on the road for women travelers. The squeamish will squirm at some of the sanitary conditions she describes with humor, and also graphic details.
Many of the places she visited with such freedom are inaccessible to most western travelers these days, and dangerous for men as well as women. Wandering into territories explored by Peter Levi in The Light Garden of the Angel King, Buck sweeps you up on an exciting vintage adventure, in the heroic days of backpacking when young people struck out on solo adventures in a world where borders were thresholds to new experiences, not locked doors.
— Linda Lappin
Title: East: A Woman on the Road to Katmandu. Author: Shelley Buck