To what extent do we write out of a place when we write? How much of what is there
, I wonder, beyond the window, is also here
, on the page before me?
I think about this when I sit down to put together an email for friends or colleagues – how even that kind of communication comes with some sense of the location of where I am writing – the atmosphere of the room, the office, the view outside the window, the weather perhaps... I might develop that line of thinking: 'I've just come in from a walk on the hills,' I write. 'There was a hard white frost all the way going up to the loch but when I got there the water, magically, had not frozen over and was lively with birds. I still have the sound of them in my head, and the clear pale sky and bright blue of the water, as I write this to you.' Yes, my immediate environment, the world around me, enters into the space of my composition, for sure.
Yet though place finds a way of taking place, as it were, in our writing – establishing who we are in the world, where we live and what we come from – to what extent do we consciously think about this when we come to write a piece of fiction, a made up story, after all, with its own landscape and world?
Some narratives are forged from the ground up. Their stories depend on the writer inhabiting the setting, using the experience and research of it to help create the story. In this kind of work, the place where the writer is can be as much a character in the fiction as the characters themselves – and in a great deal of non-fiction, nature writing, travel writing... This goes without saying. But what about the invented, dreamed worlds that constitute so many novels and short stories? The made up cities and streets and rural towns and villages? What of the synthesised communities and landscapes constituting real and remembered places, that are also enlivened by pure invention?
You might say that where these kinds of books are written has little to do with where the writing desk is, or the view outside the window – but then that might be to miss out on a powerful aspect of the creative process. For even if the place we are writing about is a faraway land, still there is the world we live in now, while we are writing, affecting us and moving us in deeply interesting and affecting ways. That loch, those birds, the feeling of being out there in the frosty world... None of it goes away.
Place is part of who we are. And because who we are is in itself a long and complicated narrative – everything around us an experience that is named and spoken of and written about – it makes sense that that narrative becomes interwoven with the short story there on the computer screen before us, or the chapter of the novel we've just printed out to go through and edit. There, in the pages I've written about an English woman who tends a very English walled garden, I can perceive the spaces and vistas of Sutherland at the story's back, as though a Highland sky and hills can be glimpsed beyond its village confines. And here again, in the tale of a Maori girl lost in the New Zealand bush, I can trace the river I last swam in, dark and deep and edged by heather and peat. My here emerges all the way through the there of the places I write about.
Where I'm Calling From
was a collection by the late short story writer Raymond Carver, which addresses place as place of mind as much as his own environment, growing up dirt poor in the midwest and living in one rental home after the other, surrounded by broken down cars parked in the driveway and yard sales. Carver's stories draw on these sorts of contexts in particular, but his writing in general is seeped in a familiar and experienced landscape. In all his work, and in his essays about writing and literature, there it is, so clearly marked out. The sense of his place in the world.
In his collection of essays that riff on Carver's title, Where I'm Reading From,
Tim Parks circumnavigates the same sort of territory. To what extent does the experience of country and its language influence and adjust how we understand its literature and literary history? When we read Italian, do we become, in part, Italian? And what happens to us in the no mans land of translation? Place and intimacy with it can't help but be written into a text.
The novelist and short story writer Meaghan Delahunt and I have been talking recently about these themes of location, of environment, of weather and temperatures, the second by second slip of days, as according to whether one is located here or there. The very understanding of where we are when we write fiction – owning that feeling of our place in the world as part of creative process – is behind a new writing programme we've put together that we call WordPath. The idea is that we can help people who want to write but are maybe not sure of how to go about it, or those who have got stuck somehow, find a path through their imagination, through their ideas. So to find a way to locate and then finish the stories and dramas and moments that make up a piece of fiction.
'We use the place where people are writing from as the beginning of their writing journey,' is how Meaghan puts it. 'And because ours is an online course, we start with everyone sitting there in their own homes, surrounded by their own worlds. To recognise where we are in the first step in making that leap of the imagination.'
So, I am here in Sutherland, with the hills and skies outside the window, Meaghan is at her desk in Edinburgh, surrounded by rooftops and chimney pots and the cobbled street outside her front door. Our students might be from all over the place, but bringing their worlds into our collective writing space to energise and inspire. Scotland, this particular country, containing so many worlds, is where all our adventures begin.
More details about WordPath and how place is part of our writing lives can be found here: www.wordpathscotland.com
, along with information about a special rate for newcomers
who want to start out on their their own creative path from where they are to where they want to go.
Professor Kirsty Gunn teaches modules in Writing Practice and Study
at the University of Dundee. She previously taught Creative Writing at Oxford University and at a number of writing seminars and schools