Thursday, July 10, 2014

Writing about place

beneath bracken ferns, during hide & seek with Julien

It's impossible to write about place.

I was chatting with my friend Ian the other day and he mentioned in passing, "writing is impossible." We had been talking about how hard it really is to write clear coherent prose. It is. Difficult, I mean. Just try following your thoughts and sensations for five minutes, and putting them into neat prose.

Then you add a topic, or god forbid a 'theme', and it gets harder still. Focus, attention, word by word, sentence to paragraph. Logical propositions. What was I talking about again?

It's impossible to write about place. I've been thinking about this book I want to write about the little corner of Michigan where I'm from, the Leelanau peninsula. Part nature writing, part memoir, part environmental theory, I want the book to be both a testament to this place and to reflect the reading, thinking, and teaching I've done on literature & environment over the past decade or so. Every spring I get excited and inspired to work on the book when I leave New Orleans and arrive for the summer.

Then I get up here and I am almost instantaneously overwhelmed by the borderless expanses of the place. I'm not referring to its geography, so much. I mean it's bigger than Walden Pond but not that big. I've walked a portion of its shorelines (at least on the west side of the peninsula), and have meandered through its various woods and meadows, during all hours of the day and at night. And anyway, people have written good books about entire National Parks and other such privileged or delimited zones before. That's not the problem.

There's something about the saturated quality of this place, all the personal psychological inroads as well as two-track off-roads, the cultural hotspots and weird spaces beyond the grid. I have thought of this book as a 21st-century Walden, or perhaps better an anti-Walden. "Anti-" in the dialectical sense, trying to locate some of the contradictions and tensions within the thinking that Thoreau so well tied to a specific place and its natural registers. But so far, I keep running into nearly impenetrable thickets of things, thoughts, and otherwise thorny obstacles. I suppose it is a good thing—there is a lot I want to write about here, even as it pushes back on me.'s impossible to write about place.

Now that I think about it, maybe this is why I often begin my freshman writing courses with a seemingly simple assignment: write about your room. Just describe it as best you can. How long? I don't know, see how much you can notice, what's around. Two pages, three, four—how far can you go? It's an exercise in attention to detail and sustained focus on a single, bounded place. But the boundaries quickly become blurry and elastic. I recall one student last fall who ended up lingering on his dorm window and gradually came to the realization that inside and outside were not as a clear and distinct as he'd assumed. He wondered, did the screws that bolted his window closed count as part of his room? The glass? And if so, just the interior side, or the weather-beaten exterior, as well? Impossible to decide.

I'm having similar conundrums as I play hide & seek with Julien in the valleys, as I canoe inland lakes shrouded in mist. What is this place? How can one draw a perimeter around it, in thought? When does the writing begin, from where should it take off?