Electrify Your Writing Through the Mysterious Power of Place
In this engaging creative writing workbook, novelist and poet Linda Lappin presents a series of insightful exercises to help writers of all genres—literary travel writing, memoir, poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction—discover imagery and inspiration in the places they love.
Lappin departs from the classical concept of the Genius Loci, the indwelling spirit residing in every landscape, house, city, or forest—to argue that by entering into contact with the unique energy and identity of a place, writers can access an inexhaustible source of creative power. The Soul of Place provides instruction on how to evoke that power.
The writing exercises are drawn from many fields—architecture and landscaping, painting, cuisine, literature and literary criticism, geography and deep maps, Jungian psychology, fairy tales, mythology, theater and performance art, occult philosophy and metaphysics—all of which offer surprising perspectives on our writing and may help us uncover raw materials for fiction, essays, and poetry hidden in our environment.
An essential resource book for the writer’s library, this book is ideal for creative writing courses, with stimulating exercises adaptable to all genres. For writers or travelers about to set out on a trip abroad, The Soul of Place is the perfect road trip companion, attuning our senses to a deeper awareness of place.
By Linda Lappin
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. This magic manifests itself in familiar as well as foreign territories, in the sublime and in the mundane, in the sacred and profane, at work in cafés, churches, temples, tombs, lighthouses, and fairgrounds. 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, external or internal, 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. In other words, a guardian spirit with its own personality, able to interact with human beings. A more modern conception holds that the genius loci is a composite of climate and landscape together with the cultural markings in a site left by its current residents and those of long ago, who shaped and cultivated its terrain, giving rise to multiple cultural forms adapted to that particular habitat. To the ancient Romans, all this was but an offshoot of the genius loci, whose signature is deposited 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.
In their religious view, every person, place, or thing concrete—like a tree or a stone—or abstract—like love, war, or theatre—had its genius, an in-dwelling spark of divine nature through which that person or thing was created. The genius of an individual (for women, thejuno) appeared at birth and accompanied the person till death. Often represented as a snake—universal symbol of time, cosmic energy, and renewal—the genius or juno, similar to the Egyptian Ka, or the Greek daemon, was a sort of spiritual double protecting the health, wealth, development, and success of the person to whom it belonged. The genius loci is specifically the genius abiding in a place.
Volcanoes, fields, villages, temples, public baths, and kitchens all had their genii, who governed and protected the site to which they were attached, determining its atmosphere and influencing the outcome of all events taking place there. If you wanted to build a house or temple in a certain spot, it was customary to seek the blessing of its genius loci or find a way to neutralize any negative influences that might be present there. Similar beliefs in guardian spirits of place have been recorded in such diverse cultures as Africa, Tibet, Australia, Japan, Polynesia, and the American Southwest. Today we might say that thegenius loci is a form of intelligence operating within the environment in synergy with human beings.
Writers, poets, 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?
This book is specifically addressed to creative writers of all genres, but may also be of interest to artists in the visual and performing arts. It’s a guidebook to conjuring the genius loci through observation and writing exercises. The material gathered here is the fruit of many years’ research into what might be called “place-consciousness.” It all began when I first fell in love with Italy more than thirty years ago. The passion I felt was so strong that I threw all my energies into finding a way to move there permanently, which I eventually did, struggling to make a life as a writer, teacher, and translator. The longer I stayed, the more I learned, the more I traveled, the more fascinated I became with out-of-the-way islands like Alicudi or Ventotene, mossy Etruscan ruins, Baroque sculpture gardens, Tuscan farmhouses, and other places that surfaced in my dreams and in my writing, as in my novelsThe Etruscan and Signatures in Stone. I slowly grew to understand how place was the prime inspiration for my work and began to investigate the many ways different locations acted upon my imagination. This research was partly theoretical, but mostly it involved traipsing about different sites and learning to listen to them, and while doing so, learning to listen to myself.
This book invites you on a journey across your personal geography to rediscover the important places in your life: from your present surroundings and your childhood home, to those magical places that may exist only in your dreams or fantasy. The writing exercises collected here will enable you to see all these locations from very new perspectives and find in them a wealth of memories, emotions, stories, voices, imagery, and inspiration. Along the way, you’ll assume different identities; you’ll be a country rambler, a foreign traveler, a pilgrim, a quester, a flâneur, a myth-maker, a homebody, a gourmet, a dreamer, and perhaps a time-traveler. You won’t be alone, you’ll have a guide, the genius loci, willing to lead you to those secret sites where a well-spring of creativity lies dormant, waiting to be tapped.
A Preliminary Exercise
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, contaminated, or exploited for economic gain, as happens in his masterpiece, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. 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 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 writing aside for a few days, and if possible, revisit the sites you described, then go back and re-read what you wrote. Have you learned something new about yourself?