April 9, 2012

Writing About Place

 I'm going to put on my teacher hat here for a moment.

It was during my third semester in grad school that much of what I thought about and everything I wrote began to revolve around the notion of place. My classmates and I crafted critical theses that term, and mine focused on Minnesota writers and how these men and women rendered my state so convincingly. That paper was a labor of love, time, and too many notecards, so I'm grateful that a revised (and much shorter!) version of it is being shared with other writers and teachers of writing in the most recent issue of Minnesota English Journal. If you're into that kind of thing, then by all means give it a read.

Here are the first few paragraphs:
"Landing: Writing About Place in our Flyover State"
When I went off to college, I knew about Toni Morrison and Ernest Hemingway and Harper Lee. I loved literature, so much that I wanted to both teach it and write it for the rest of my life. But it wasn’t until I took a regionally focused Ethnic American lit course two years later that I realized I’d never heard of Robert Bly and Louise Erdrich, Patricia Hampl and Joyce Sutphen, Sinclair Lewis and Paul Gruchow and Bill Holm—writers, every one, some more established, all talented and passionate, who wrote about the place I came from: Minnesota. 
It was later still that I understood why: the Midwest was considered “flyover country,” a producer of literature too localized to be of much interest to those on the coasts, the locations where, I realized, the makers of literary canons and national textbooks most often reside.
When I consider my high school students now, I feel a deep need for them to not only know of these writers and be familiar with their work, but to understand the importance of place—their place, in particular. One of the best ways to stress this lesson is by studying the work of these writers, certainly. But we should also lead students to pay attention to their own backyards and then render them with their words. As writing teachers, we are consistently asking students to be more specific. So what a perfect, accessible, and potentially challenging thing it is then for us to insist, “Here. Right here. Tell me why this place matters.” 
For more about Bly, Gruchow, and a few of my classroom practices, read on, friends. If not, hope you get outside today and enjoy where ever home is for you!

19 comments:

  1. Very cool, Emily!!

    Side note--I lived in VT for a while too. Beautiful place. But the sun set too quickly for me there. ;-)

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  2. Sense of place is one of the least explored areas of education, much less literature. And what could be more important in understanding who we are.

    I've been reading you for a while Emily, loving every minute of it, and I have gained a lot from your explorations into your native Minnesota.

    You are lucky to have Minnesota, and Minnesota is lucky to have you.

    By the way, the Sinclair Lewis/Minnesota connection was a surprise to me.

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  3. Enjoyed this post. Congratulations on your publication. I'm off to read the rest of it!

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  4. Thanks for reading, you three.

    Amy, isn't Vermont gorgeous? You know me and Minnesota, but it was pretty easy to be inspired in the Green Mountain state, too.

    Yes, Bill: Lewis' Main Street was actually based off of his hometown of Sauk Center. He doesn't paint the most flattering portrait of small town MN, but the way he describes the fields... it still rings true for me. I agree with you about place in education, absolutely.

    And hope you found the rest of the essay useful, Andee. I couldn't be happier to have something I wrote for school grow legs and walk on out into the world.

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  5. Congratulations, Emily! I've been wanting/meaning to read your essay for years, now. What a wonderful early-April treat!

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  6. Thanks, Robin. The length of the publication process (years!) has been a bit eye-opening for me...but no less sweet.

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  7. Many congratulations! (especially, as I'm coming to see, that "publication process of which you speak...surviving it is an achievement in and of itself!) ;-) I really enjoyed this essay, and have long thought of the meaning of "place." And you write of it so beautifully...giving meaning to the present and to being conscious and aware within.

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  8. Thanks for reading, Erin. The awareness piece is really what I want my students to take away. THAT is how we learn from the nature world.

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  9. Emily, first, congratulations on publication of that "place piece." I intend to fully read it after a hearty breakfast.

    I'm so glad that you're emphasizing Minnesota writers who pen with a strong sense of place. "Main Street" by Sinclair Lewis has always ranked as one of my favorite books, even though, as you say, he does not paint a flattering picture of Main Street in Gopher Prairie.

    I believe the ability to notice details allows writers to write with that strong sense of place. For me, place weaves into almost everything I write. I read it in your work, too.

    This is a great post. Thank you for sharing.

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  10. Thanks, Audrey. It's been wonderful to connect with other Minnesotans like you who value place, too. And yes, good ol' Sinclair. I have a love/hate relationship there (well, maybe not HATE. I am Minnesotan, after all). My bet? I think he loved his home state more than he let on.

    Hope you enjoyed the essay. I look forward to finding those "just right" details in your own place-based writing.

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  11. Congratulations on your publication. Totally awesome. Thanks for posting it on your blog for us to read too. As a speech-language pathologist at a high school, I fully agree with your thoughts on helping students find themselves in literature and the materials we use in the classroom. It makes for such a stronger learning (and teaching!) experience. Again, congrats!

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  12. SPT -- Didn't know you were an HS speech-language pathologist, and I'm glad I do now! I value all of our specialty people in our high school so much, so it's great to have your insight here and find that you're a supporter of this kind of place-work, too. It has no limits! I'm always pleased to see the science classes walking around outside with magnifying glasses.

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  13. Oh, how apropos for me, this post is, at this particular time. One of my favorite writers is Louise Erdrich; her book Love Medicine I've read several times. In my work as a speech-language therapist, I've traveled to many Indian and Eskimo villages in Alaska & drawing from those travels, I'm writing fiction about the Native American experience in our state. Thank you, Emily. You've got a new reader.

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  14. Monica,

    Between Neruda and Erdrich, it seems we have similar literary tastes. I'm thrilled that you found "Landing" useful (and that you too write about place). If you're up for more craft essay reading, check out "The Geography of Sentences" in the March edition of The Writer's Chronicle. It's a sort of love letter to Love Medicine (and syntax...which I promise will make sense if you get through the first few paragraphs). So glad you're here!

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  15. Very nice article Emily. It is a great thing to value, and to teach sense of place.

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  16. Thanks, Peter. It always makes me happy to find other place people.

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  17. Does writing about place make a difference? Absolutely. If you do it well, you open a door into a new world for your readers - perhaps even a world they're rejected or ridiculed in the past.

    Sometimes, it's even possible to help the "people of the place" reclaim it as their own, celebrating it in a new way.

    The more I write about place - places rooted in geography, or in the heart - the more response my writing evokes. But not just any writing will do. You surely know Chekov's line that's become one of my touchstones: "Don't tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass."

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  18. I love that quote, Linda. I have heard it before, but I haven't thought about it recently. That Chekov. Such a good model to follow.

    As you might have guessed, the way you explore and handle place in your writing was the first thing that made me add your own blog to my Reader. And I think "evoke" is the exact right word. The land presses strong upon some of us to be its stewards, so it feels right that when we hold it out in careful prose, it calls up feeling in others, too.

    That must be one of the reasons I love it: connection, it's a small world, lalala.

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  19. Great post Emily, thanks.

    I love your question, "Tell me why this place matters."

    Be precise she said. Hmm, what place exactly...

    Every place is that place between our ears. Yes, that place.

    This place between our ears matters to me, because it's the key that unlocks and opens the door to every other place.

    Any place is a great place, if we're willing to really be there.

    Do keep reminding us please.

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