The Soul of Place: a writing exercise

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?

stairs-quay

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.

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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.

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Typical ugly nonplace

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?

Adapted from  The Soul of Place A Creative Writing Workbook: Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci  (Travelers Tales, 2015)  by Linda Lappin.

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The Christmas Presepe

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.

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it looks just like a presepe!

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.

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!

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Our presepi reflect our yearly travels and place obsessions. This was inspired by Santorini!

 

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Another Presepe in Cycladian style.
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This presepe commemorates our 2 trips to Ikaria. Baby Jesus rocks in a little red boat and the star of Bethlehem comes from the beach of  Faros.

 

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!

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characters from our presepe

Presepi designed by S. Baldassarre, Photos by S. Baldassarre, Linda Lappin, and Leah Cano

 

 

6 Place-Writing Prompts from my American Library in Paris Presentation

I had the great pleasure of presenting my book The Soul of Place -A Creative Writing Workshop:  Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci  at the American Library in Paris  this fall, where I conducted a small place-writing workshop.  Here are a few excerpts from my talk – and some writing prompts chosen for this particular venue.

“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.”

Here are 6 prompts from the workshop I gave:

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1. Write about stairs —  you stand at the top or at the bottom of a stairway, and you know that when you reach top/bottom   you will enter a space where something life-changing will happen

 

 

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2. Write about a tree you have never forgotten.

 

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3. Write about your first kitchen in a foreign house –an object in that kitchen that manifests its “foreignness” and what you did with it.
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4. Write about a  place where “silence” had a new meaning for you.
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5. Write about a statue you would like to talk to

 

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6. Recall a window, door, or drawer in a place you no longer live. Take hold of the handle or door knob. How does it feel in your hand? Now open it and describe what you find there.
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For more prompts, please see my craft of writing book The Soul of Place – A Creative Writing Workbook , by Linda Lappin, Travelers Tales (2015) ISBN-13: 978-1609521035

 

Paris Expat Paints the Soul of Place

On a crisp Paris morning some years ago, my friend  P. woke up in hospital after collapsing in a diabetic coma.  Am I in prison?  were reputedly her first words upon opening her eyes as she stared at the unfamiliar grey  walls around her.  A doctor reassured her that she had not been incarcerated, however, she had just had heart surgery and several stents had been put in place. After a short hospital stay, she was allowed to go home.

At that time P. and her husband had been living in Paris for several years, occupying a fourth floor apartment at an enviable address along Boulevard Saint Germain. From the balcony of her flat  jutting over the plane trees below, you could just catch a glimpse of the Eiffel tower. A retired journalist from Florida who nurtured a creative streak, P. had always been very active in the expat writers community in Paris, attending the readings, workshops,  and Shakespeare & Co. events that fill the datebooks of  literary-minded expats. She is  well known for the emotional and practical support  she  has generously offered to her many writing friends, including the feeding of hungry crowds at holiday time.

Her period of recovery entailed the reorganization of priorities, cutting back on some social events and on her expectations.  Prior to her surgery, her main form of creative self-expression had  always been  writing. Her assignments as a journalist had often involved social issues and required field research.   The rational side had always been in charge.

But as she adjusted to  her new lifestyle,  an unexpected passion was born: painting. She began to feel hunger to express herself through  shapes and colors. Words were too grey. They weren’t enough.

She found an artist who kept an open atelier and joined the group of older French women who were  attending lessons there once a week.  Her progress has been astonishing.  Her technique is instinctive, naif, and impressionistic. Her verve and sense of color are an explosion of joy, and her compositions have a satisfying focus, balance, and movement.  Rather than representing an image as a pre-constructed idea, she recreates a feeling connected to her subject – a landscape, portrait, or still life.

I have often thought that P. would have fit right in back in the 1920s on in the late 1960s, two art-loving eras which have much in common.   Part pixie, part southern belle, part bohemian and yet a practical soul, with artless aplomb, she sports sparkly, knitted caps, voluminous vintage coats, and pastel socks. Her personal style expresses  an artist’s underlying playfulness.  Certainly she never dreamed of becoming a visual artist when she moved to Paris, but by some miracle that has happened.  Now making pictures is as vital to her as writing once was.

One of my  favorite pieces of her work is a typically Parisian scene:  A bridge and houses along the Seine.  In the foreground, dark  trees composed of daubs and swirls form a proscenium  through which we view a row of houses  à la Hundertwasser .  The river flows red and orange along a quai, where two tiny figures with umbrellas  are swept along a powerful diagonal towards the point where the quai and river join.

I never tire of looking at this painting which is a celebration of life and of what I love best about Paris,  just the flaneur’s pleasure of walking around and looking at things. The fiery Seine is the great creative energy, like lava,  flowing through this city and through all those who have been touched by it.  This painting, like many of P.’s others,  testifies to the creativity and capacity for joy that we often hold inside, unbeknownst to ourselves.

It also brings me back to ruminations on the soul of place. Certainly, an appreciation of beauty and the compulsion to make art are deeply rooted in the genius loci of Paris which draws thousands of visitors every year, hungry for artistic experiences at many levels.  Sometimes,  as in P’s case, contact with the genius loci can be life-transforming.  Paris has bestowed upon her the gift of seeing as artists see and has given her the basic means to express it.

Who wouldn’t envy that?

Who knows what talents might be unlocked  if we opened our doors of perception to the soul of place?

For more on the soul of place and creative expression see Linda Lappin, The Soul of Place Creative Writing Workbook: Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci (Travelers Tales, 2015)

The Soul of Place

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?

stairs-quay

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.

dsc00631

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.

13442358_10154120181917900_8645722365510674931_n
Typical ugly nonplace

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 it influence you?

Writers and artists, whose job it is to interpret and recreate reality,  have long been intrigued by the concepts of the genius loci and the power of place. Through different artistic media, they have sought ways to capture the qualities or mood of a location, to find the links between landscape and identity, to show how places can shape our personality, history, and even our fate.

At the same time, many literary and artistic movements have tried to illustrate how the outer environments of human beings mirror their inner ones. Writers and artists know that whether we are looking outward or inward at our surroundings, they have a lot to reveal to us about ourselves, our present, past, and future.

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 NURTURING PLACES

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 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 site you described, then go back and re-read what you wrote. Have you learned something new about yourself?

(adapted from The Soul of Place, by Linda Lappin)

 

Read more in The Soul of Place A Creative Writing Workbook: Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci  (Travelers Tales, 2015)  by Linda Lappin.

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