Here I am, in my classroom at Webster University, in Geneva. It’s a beautiful, fresh day in this part of Switzerland. Its the first day I can actually see the tops of the Alps.
I can’t think of a better place to teach Writing About Place, which I’m doing as part of the Geneva Writer’s Conference.
I’m rather passionate about this subject. When I was at university, the Deconstructionists were just coming into the study of English Literature. I used to run away, escaping to the Geography department and do modules in Human Geography. Which is how I accidentally ended up with a minor in geography.
But I don’t think I’m passionate about place because I did geography. I think I did geography because I was passionate about place. Because I was a writer.
Before you write, you need to be able to notice. Writers notice things and then write about them for other people. If you don’t notice things, you don’t have anything to write about. But sometimes it’s hard to write about environment, about the culture of a place, about the economy of a place – when you know it so well that you don’t notice it any more.
There’s a reason why Joyce and Hemingway and Fitzgerald wrote better about home in Paris than they did at home. There’s a reason why great writers often set their work far away. It’s much easier to see something when you are seeing it fresh.
Your setting is not just how pretty the trees look when they’re in blossom. Your setting is why the old women wear black. Your setting is who is up and working already by eight in the morning and why. Your setting is who is in charge and how things are for your character, their family and their community.
Look again at your world, at the amazing complexity of it. Notice it again. And let it breathe and grow and struggle on your page.