CREATING A SENSE OF PLACE AS A CHARACTER
A Session with Leora Skolkin-Smith
The famous literary critic, Walter Benjamin, in his essay, “Excavation and Memory” once wrote, “For authentic memories, it is far less important that the investigator report on them than that he mark, quite precisely, the site where he gained possession of them.”
All through literature, there are examples of these “sites” taking on a life large as the characters in a book. The city of Dublin in James Joyce’s Dubliners and Ulysses, New York City in a Grace Paley or Paul Auster story, Chicago in Saul Bellow’s long narratives of crimes and redemption, and on and on the list goes. The pulse, the ambience, the scents and architecture comprise a life as palpable as any living, breathing person. For example, take how Grace Paley describes her Manhattan in her poem “On Mother’s Day:”
I went out walking in the old neighborhood Look! more trees on the block forget-me-nots all around them ivy lantana shining and geraniums in the window Twenty years ago it was believed that the roots of trees would insert themselves into gas lines then fall poisoned on houses and children or tap the city’s water pipes starved for nitrogen obstruct the sewers In those days in the afternoon I floated by ferry to Hoboken or Staten Island then pushed the babies in their carriages along the river wall observing Manhattan See Manhattan! I cried New York! even at sunset it doesn’t shine but stands in fire charcoal to the waist But this Sunday afternoon on Mother’s Day I walked west and came to Hudson Street tricolored flags were flying over old oak furniture for sale brass bedsteads copper pots and vases by the pound from India….
In the hands of a talented writer, landscapes and unique corners of both a city’s cityscape and history come alive. The question then arises for the beginning writer: How is that achieved? And the answer can at first seem more beguiling and complicated than it really is.
I once took course with the writer E. L. Doctorow, another writer who masterfully creates descriptive passages of cities, towns, and countries. He asked us to write a minutely descriptive passage, just one passage of a person we knew intimately. The description he said must be precise. No general terms or clichés were allowed. He or she couldn’t have a “big” nose; we must describe that nose precisely. Did it have a specific slant or mark on it, did it perhaps look like a mushroom, sort of squat and squishy?
I wrote an entire paragraph about my father’s eyebrows, and because they were so distinctive, they brought, through that specificity, the unique character of my father. Doctorow read it to the class, praising it highly, so I owe my first burst of pride about my writing to my father’s eyebrows.
In Paley’s poem, look how specific she is, she doesn’t say flowers, she names those flowers: “forget-me-nots”, “ivy” “lantana” “geraniums shining in the window.” She cites details in almost every sentence, and through those details the objects that comprise the city bring the city to us, its colorful ambience and pulse. In almost every line, there is a specific object, mixed in with her feelings, and in memory phrases, she mentions the specifics as well. She brings in the “ferry to Hoboken.” Again, very specific. This is the way a sense of place is built. It can take a lot of creative muscle, but by creating specific, unique descriptive and exact qualities, a writer becomes able to bring to life whole vistas and cities.
How then do we create place as characters in our novels? I would answer first, by acknowledging them as characters and treating them as such. Second, by rendering them with precision, capturing with exactitude their life as palpable on the page.
It is also important to sharpen one’s sense of observance and draw on sense memory. Too often, a writer can become negligent about both.
Everything we perceive, interpret, and ultimately feel in life is filtered through our five senses and stored in our subconscious. That is called in method acting “sense memory.” For example, the feeling of a freezing cold day, a bad pain in our back, or the buying our first adult shoes. Psychiatrists have long since discovered an “emotional release object” that can release an entire emotional event. There are useful techniques that enable writers as well to discover and use their emotional release objects to evoke a place. The writer can revisit one simple image, a sense memory — the sound of a bus on a busy city, the feeling of the hot sun on one’s face, the scent of oranges in the wind from a faraway grove — and immediately begins an entire symphony of sounds. A whole canvas of sights emerges that will bring back the place one had the experience. I found, too, that any relaxation technique you personally have found effective — lying on your couch comfortably or a walk by the river — is the optimal away to become receptive to what will spill out. A piece of music playing can bring back scenes forgotten, and evoke cities visited long ago. All one had to do was play “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and I was back walking the streets of Manhattan in my twenties again. If someone played “Jerusalem, City of Gold,” there I was at twelve in Jerusalem with my mother. Developing a soundtrack is an excellent way to stimulate sense memory response.
As a final thought, I believe that sense memory is a preparation technique to recreate the place that particular part of the novel takes place in. Sense memory is reliving sensations that were experienced through the five senses. I stress the term “reliving,” not just remembering. It’s the difference between knowing something and truly creating it, between a mental activity and living an experience.
The question arises, of course, how does one create a sense of place if one has never visited that place? It is a much harder exercise, utilizing the imagination. For my novel, Edges, I wrote about places I had never been. To do so, I immersed myself in research. I wrote down precise details from the source books, employing the method of precision and exactitude I introduced in the first paragraphs. When I had confidently ingested those details, I let myself draw the places on the paper, as if my keyboards had those strokes embedded in my computer. Arduous research and research of authentic material, not third party materials, is essential. Try to find first-person accounts of a place and event in that place. Look for real photographs.
Below are two examples from Edges, where I used precision, exactitude of details, and sense memory to evoke a sense of place. I remembered only the scents of orange trees, and that sense memory brought back all of this landscape and all this novelistic action. I was also playing a classic Jewish freedom song, “Jerusalem, City of Gold” hour after hour to get the right feel of the place, to creates emotion.
A few soldiers, some in jeeps, some on foot with their machine guns slung over their loose brown shirts, their morning beards on their chins, stood under the bus shelter. I could see that the military police had set up one of their sandbagged mobile posts further towards King George Boulevard. White lights were flashing on stanchions, and there were border troopers inside stalls. Some of the soldiers in loose formations along the street were looking through binoculars at the West Bank hills. Mobile posts went all the way up the street to where I couldn’t see, all the way to the plazas of the new city and its modern buildings. But, the houses on Metaduleh Street were still shuttered. I trekked up the street, searching for an opened gate and courtyard. The dawn’s yellow sun forced itself upon me, already the heat was intensifying. By Mr. Haggittee’s tiny grocery shop, a crate of oranges lay squashed outside, their insides flat as the stone. Yesterday’s rain had beaten what was left of their rinds and pulp, and for a second, I thought they were a flock of birds, all fallen together to their death in the rain and drowned. The wrought-iron gates of the still-sleeping houses and the real birds I saw now streaming down from the far away hills to sit in the dawn sunshine reminded me that there was another world I could pass into, far from the mobile military guard collected with the semblance of William’s face painted photographically on billboard posters, the new demands of another Jerusalem morning and its political anguish. I walked down the road. I reached the unlocked gate of a deserted courtyard behind one of the old houses and walked in.
The morning was deep and bright. And everywhere a sweet unseasonable tamarisk hung in the air. I did not know why I wanted to touch myself. But, it was my country this body, I thought. The only power I will ever have. It felt like heaven except for a tiny sadness that circled outside me in the wind and entered, gently, under my skin.
I hoisted myself over a stonewall fence at the end of the courtyard. I climbed, onto a way that would lead me to the back of my grandmother’s house through the back fields. I heard the squawking of birds, a fluttering group of feathered refugees, white and blue, pecking at the berry-less shrubs.
In order create a sense of place I had never been, here is another example from Edges where I studied research books depicting Jordan in 1965. I found tons of photographs, and studied the specifics: the limestone and desert terrain, the wadis, and specific cacti and shrubs. Details help writers recreate landscape and make it their own.
The monastery was built of sun-seared limestone blocks. A water tank stood outside the entrance gates, the tank’s rust and emptiness giving the walled garden inside the complex a disreputable feeling. The garden was filled with shreds of litter, errant vines. The dilapidated chapel above our heads might have been the hideaway of a gang of thieves, with its cloistered vaults, and grottoes.
Here in this spot, I thought, there must have been a Village of Lepers, too. Long ago maybe. Sometimes I believed I could smell the mold of a thousand years in these cellar walls.
Listlessly, I studied the writing on a pill bottle William picked up for me in the village for my headaches. It lay on its side, a few meters from the mattress on the floor, near the plates of Muscat grapes William and I washed this morning after the farmers dropped us off from the back of their wagon. We picked the wild grapes in the fields. I read who the prescription was made out to: “Dorian Karchimer.” We had changed my name from Liana Bialik. What had the T. stood for? I forgot now, and then, just as abruptly, remembered. “Tree.” We had given me the new middle name “Tree” when I changed the rest of my name.
The first headline in the Israeli papers appeared the first Monday in July. William bartered with a Palestinian merchant to bring us some Jerusalem Posts when the man went furtively across the borders to sell his farm goods. “American Girl Suspected Killed By Jordanian Sniper,” the first headline read. Could I have let this go this far? I took in the must of the evening now. Into six weeks? Of everyone really believing I was dead? The air smelled like goats and sour plums. In the early evenings here, the lizards that skated through the bushes looked almost translucent. We had hiked four miles into the Jordanian territory to find a place to camp. A decrepit sign had been left in the jasmine garden of the deserted monastery that appeared to us the first night of our sojourn. The sign read: “WARNING: YOU HAVE LEFT ISRAEL.”
Exercise 1 Create a place you visited as a child in one paragraph, by remembering a a specific smell, or a specific sound or sight you experienced there.
Exercise 2 Create a place you have never been by your familiarity with the specifics of its geographical details.
About the Author…
“Skolkin-Smith’s alchemy is to inhabit her characters even as she crafts a riveting story that is nothing short of brilliant,” said Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You. Reviewers and readers agree that Skolkin-Smith’s work is a remarkable blend of literary mastery and profound observation. It is a combination that must be experienced to be fully appreciated.