From Hot to Cold and All the In-Between

In twenty-four hours I went from swimming in a pool, to walking on a glacier.  In twenty-four hours I went from wearing a tank top and thin sweater shirt to three layers and a winter-time beanie. Within two hours I went from snapping pictures of a waterfall to that of the snow covered hills.

How is any of this possible? I found myself asking in my head as I stuffed my hands deeper into my pockets not willing to admit that I should be wearing gloves.  I was just walking up hill away from a waterfall, sweating in my long sleeves, and that was even after I had removed my coat, but now?  Now we are etching GENESEO into the snow as we make our way to a glacier. 

We file back into the car and I rub the redness away from my face. It blew my mind how quickly the climate and landscape could change in just a little bit of time and some strips of pavement, or in our case- dirt roads.  The car bumps and shakes as I stare out the window.  It is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  I have been to both coasts of the U.S. and I have unknowingly walked on inactive volcanos and lived on old glacier beds but that was nothing compared to what Iceland holds.  There few places in the world that have glaciers and even fewer where volcanos sit nested near them and hot springs spill out of the same mountains. It’s almost as if nature is an artist who took their best paintings and smooshed them all together into one large canvas, somehow it fitting seamlessly.

Sitting with wet socks and muddy shoes from when the glacier water had tried to suck us down, we stop and file of out the rain streaked car, pausing to take photos of the rainbow that had appeared connecting the dirt road of the glacier to the dirt road of home.  In a few moments the rainbow is gone and in awe I board back in the car imagining what the next section of nature’s masterpiece will be.

Grateful for Isolated Iceland

To me, it would seem that current events have been especially grim as of late.  Life has taken on an uneasy undertone as the frequency of mass shootings committed in America reaches an all-time high, and the political climate appears to destabilize more and more with each passing day.  Perhaps it is not the case, and I am being melodramatic, or perhaps it is just a product of my relatively newfound devotion to keeping up on things, especially American politics, but I mustn’t be alone in having these thoughts.

After waking up yesterday morning to yet another mass shooting, things seemed to fade to greyscale, as they often have a way of doing in light of such tragedies.  The only solace to be found was in the fact that it was not committed by Islamic extremists, and that alone I interpreted as an illuminating factor of how hard these weeks have been.  After the Orlando shooting, the worst in American history, I was left with a heavy heart, just as most of you were I am sure.  It hurts to see so many of our fellow countrymen and women needlessly stripped of their basic right to life, and to see so many others divided by the fear these egregious actions aim to cause.

After kind of a rough morning, I finally got myself out of the room and into the city of Reykjavik.  If I had known how much it would help my spirits, I would’ve done it much earlier.  Seeing other people carrying on with their days, smiling, laughing, eating, walking, taking pictures, just living their lives in general, helped me enormously, returning color to my life.  It almost feels like cheating, watching events of this nature unfold from afar in the comfortable isolated safety of Iceland, but I am relieved nonetheless.

Finally, in my extensive reading about these morbid affairs, I came across an old quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that outlines the problem with this trend perhaps better than anyone can, and I think I’ll conclude this post with it.  The United States could greatly benefit from another prophet of Dr. King’s caliber.

I’m not sure if it was a product of the website I took it from, but it is spaced in a way that is rather poetic, and I have elected to keep it in that same format below.

Thanks for reading.

 

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Plot, enclosure, fishpond

Five minutes into writing for this prompt, and I’m thinking about fish tanks instead of place. So let’s talk about fish tanks. Wikipedia, the origin for most of my CNF inspiration, prefers to call fish tanks aquariums. Apparently, they were developed in 1850 when a chemist figured out that, by adding plants to an underwater environment, you can produce enough oxygen to sustain a small number of fish, and the idea caught on pretty quick. By 1853 the London Zoo had an aquarium installation, and the dude who installed it was writing a book whose title was The Aquarium: An Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep Sea. Of course, before the guy who “invented” the aquarium, other cultures existed that had ways of sustaining sea creatures in tubs or marble boxes, so the origin story of fish tanks isn’t all that clear cut. Most origin stories are not very clear cut.

Aquariums, as it turns out, are actually a specific type of vivarium. A vivarium “is an area, usually enclosed, for keeping and raising animals or plants for observation or research.” In a way, then, we can think of settings as vivaria. We create settings as a way to ground our characters, our readers, and our selves. Settings are our foundations for scene, but they are static boundary. The interest, for the reader, is never the fish tank, but the animals inside of it. Our characters, our ideas, our wordplay is what makes the glass worth staring through, and the setting serves to hold everything together.

Place, I think, is less like a fish tank and more like a lake or an ocean. It’s contained within a larger sphere, like setting; however, they are the main attraction of their own accord. I think the difference between setting and place lie within this train of thought. Place is what can grab a reader all on its own. It’s dynamic. It demands its own story, and anything else the writer throws in (quotes, plots, alliterations) is an addition to an already exciting party. Place is what encourages the story to happen instead of being a backdrop to it. In that way, I think that place functions as an amorphous combination of setting and a character. I’m not sure if that’s how it actually functions in my writing, but I think that’s how I would like it to.

Writing and Place

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     When I think about writing and place, I think about a change in place. Some of the times when I have been most inspired to write were when I was experiencing a new place. Our surroundings have a significant impact on the way we think and feel. A change in place can make us see the world in a way that is completely foreign. Visiting a new place with a different culture, landscape, language, and way of life can be a bewildering experience. It allows us to gain a deeper understanding of the world we live in as well as seeing ourselves and our home from a new lens. Writing gives us an outlet to reflect and react to this new understanding. Every life experience can influence the way we write and think about the world, but a physical change in place can inspire us to write with a fresh perspective.                                                                                                                      

        As we begin our journey to Iceland, I think of Seneca’s saying, “Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” A change in place can be renewing and stimulating by changing our outlook. It is easy to get caught up in daily routines and the same way of thinking when you stay in the same place for an extended period of time, but a change can provide a break from the ordinary. New experiences and places contribute to our “toolbox” and can enhance our writing in profound ways. Visiting Iceland will be unlike any experience I have had before, and as I get to know the land I am confident I will improve as a writer. 

Why does place matter to my writing?

Within the broadly-defined practice of creative writing exist many distinct disciplines.  One such discipline, formally known as creative nonfiction, focuses on the recollection of that which we as writers have experienced in our own lives.  As a writer who has much more luck putting his own life into words than bringing the words themselves to life, nonfiction is an area of great interest to me.  In my limited study of the subject, one place-related term I came across frequently was “distance”.  “Distancing” yourself from the event you wish to write about can often grant a fresh piece, a reinterpretation in a new light, a recount which has shed the suffocating emotions that hinder true discovery and development.  Writing is anything but static, and I would argue that moving not only through time but also through space is important in providing necessary “distance” for crafting a creative nonfiction piece.

 

Throughout my life as a young adult, I have traveled a great deal.  Almost yearly, my family takes trips to the Carolinas, Ohio, New York City, and the Adirondacks.  Less regularly, I have been up and down both coasts of the United States, (from Seattle to San Francisco in the West and from Montreal to Orlando in the East) to Spain, to the Midwest, or to Canada.  My memory in and of these places has always been good, but as I age it is being ruthlessly worn by the incessant flow of time.  I have felt on multiple occasions as though my memories are continuously slipping through the cracks, escaping me forever, helplessly lost in the ever-growing void between myself and my childhood.  However, I am granted solace by the way these memories tend to return to me, appearing spontaneously in my mind’s eye as if they had never left, entirely intact.

 

Oftentimes I have observed this event to be triggered by a related experience.  I’ll see someone or something that spurs contemplation in my subconscious, firing a chain of neurons at a moments notice, and before I know it, a memory previously forgotten is at the forefront of my conscious thought.  I marvel nearly every time it happens.  Naturally, traveling aids this somewhat haphazard process.  Something about experiencing new things tends to help in uncovering the old, and too often is it that I feel the bland monotony of a well-scheduled life weighing on my creativity.

 

Although I may not know exactly how these memories return, or be able to predict when they will, their appearance grants me a superb opportunity as a writer to revisit pieces of my own history.  It is my hope that the more I travel the world around, the more I will be able to rediscover memories forgotten.

“Why does place matter to my writing?”

montauk2                    Breckenridge

Place carries a strong influential factor with it. The context of a place can change the decisions we make about many aspects of our daily life. Consider the two images above, each place requires a different type of preparation to be comfortable. At the lighthouse, maybe you brought a beach chair and a bathing suit for the day, while in the mountains you could be wearing snow gear with a pair of skis attached to your feet. These places call for different physical items, but also can bring about a number of different thoughts and emotions. Imagine yourself at each location. How would you feel? What thoughts and emotions could you be experiencing? Some would be more comfortable on a beach relaxing, while others enjoy the rush of skiing down a mountain.

The place we are turns into the places we have been, and ultimately shapes our lives. Each experience is different that the last, while each place offers its own array of sights, smells, sounds, textures and maybe even tastes. I believe that my writing is impacted by my mindset. I also feel that my state of mind can change when subjected to different places. Since place can impact my mental state, as well as shape my experiences, it can be very important to my writing.

The Significance of Place

Place is typically defined as a point or position in space. Obviously, place is all around us. It is the backdrop of our existence. So if place expands infinitely and connects each of us, what separates this place from that place, my place from your place, a good place from a bad place? What are the components of a place? How do these affect place? How does place affect us?

The easiest pop-culture go-to for any argument regarding place is rap. I’m willing to bet money that even your grandmother sensed the rumblings of the East Coast/West Coast rivalry of the 90s, spearheaded by Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, both giants of the industry, and heroes of their hometowns. Following the untimely death of these artists, the violent tension has settled, but still there remains a divide in a genre that is typically viewed as one of unification and empowerment, and a particular emphasis on place. From Westside rapper Vince Staples’ Norf Norf: “Real Norfside nigga, never went to Poly, Wilson or Cabrillo… From the city where the skinny carry strong heat, Norfside Long Beach, Norfside Long Beach.” From the East Coast, ASAP Rocky’s Purple Swag: “I’m sitting high, I’m tipping slow, I’m Texas trill, Texas trill, but in NY we spit it slow.” From Chicago-based Chance the Rapper’s Hey Ma: “7-7-3, Oh, since Kanye was a three-old, Down the street from D. Rose, was practicing his free-throws, Shout out to that Gulf Shrimp, shout out to King Gyro, Shout out that Ms. Moody, auntie Toni them my heroes.” Place for rappers elicits pride. This is not a rap phenomenon, but a human one. Place is more than a point or position in space. It is every action and reaction in the world converging onto a single point and pressuring it into a slightly new form with each passing second. Place is the home of my culture and my beliefs, and my most important steps happen in my place. It has every right to be a point of pride. My place is MY place. It suits me, and it constructs me.

“Gaze long into the abyss, and the abyss shall also gaze unto you.” A cliched quote, but one still with impressive magnitude. Writers write what they see. What they see is dictated by their place and so they attempt to communicate place by writing, but place affects the writer as much as the writer affects place. The core difference between the West Coast and the East Coast comes from geography. Speaking very generally (perhaps even offensively so), the image of New York gleaned from rap songs is one of a shaded, foggy skyline against a gray sky. It has a rich and electric culture, but there is a cynicism and sense of impending doom. Perhaps this is why New York rap has in recent years tended away from themes of material excess and towards spiritual and personal fulfillment. From Joey Badass’ Unorthodox: “See with your eyes dilated for the sake of the Gs But keep it sacred G, fuck a rat race, we take the cheese..Cause money ain’t a thing if I got it I won’t spend All I got is my Prose, I don’t need no friends Feel like this glory road is coming to an end The only soul that won’t sin No he won’t give in.” The West Coast on the other hand has always seemed more optimistic in its prognosis, fueled by sunny weather and the dream of Hollywood and celebrity just over the hills, but still showing struggle between wealth and fulfillment, and work and entitlement. From Kendrick Lamar’s Money Trees: “A silver spoon I know you come from, ya bish, And that’s a lifestyle that we never knew, Go at a reverend for the revenue, It go Halle Berry or hallelujah.”

Place affects everything, from your appearance to your walk to your talk to your outlook. The significance of place is that it is a single immobile point or position in space, yet every place you’ve been to stays with you forever and is communicated through everything you do.

Why Place Matters to My Writing

The same walls, the same faces, the same everything, day in and day out, all equates to the same writing.  With no change in environment or with no new concepts or ideas flooding in, it is hard to create something new.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can easily lead to repetition. Sure some places, cities, for instant with their hustle and bustle can lead to an ever expanding well of creative ideas.  These ideas though, would be primarily centered on city life.  This is not to say that someone living in a city can’t write about farm life, it’s more to say that with little firsthand knowledge of an environment the accuracy of the writing is in question.  Yes, one can read book after book and soak up all written ounces of a location, but there is such a difference going that route than actually breathing in a place’s air.  There are aspects of life that are so hard to put into words and even harder to completely understand even if written with accuracy.

I’ve never lived anywhere else but my split-level house on Long Island.  I’ve never travelled abroad, or been skiing, or on a cruise.  So I can’t, in a clear mind, write about them.  I can’t tell you the troubles of culture shock, what it feels to be racing down a mountain or to sail around on a slow moving boat.  I can’t tell you, because I simply do not know.  I’d just be guessing and rambling hoping someone won’t spy a hole in my tale.

But I can tell you what it’s like to live ten minutes from the water.  I can tell you all about life in suburbia, where everyone’s grasses are green and the neighborhood adults play tennis on Fridays.  There is more that I can write besides the place I’ve grown up in, I can write about experiences and places I’ve been.  I can write pages after pages of farm life, or at least what I know of farm life from my annual visits to a bed and breakfast dairy farm.  I can write how streams of light are scattered through the corn fields and how the air has an earthier scent while Long Island air is salty.  These aspects, these tiny details, ones I wouldn’t think of, that is unless I had lived it.  I can write short stories to the mountains and valleys I’ve climbed from Yosemite and Sedona to Acadia.  I know how the serenity of Yosemite and Sedona are almost destroyed by the constant flow of tourists with hiking shoes who have learned that feeding the squirrels gets them close enough to pet.  I have rejoiced in the memory of the magic of timing when give the opportunity to board the steps of the watch tower in Acadia, a privilege only open to the public a few times a month for two hours a piece.   I can only write and imagine what I know from the places and experiences I’ve lived. 

Writing, most writing, builds on the truth adjusting only aspects to create a new story.  Maybe it’s the setting that is real, or a situation, or character, but it all comes back to where you are.  It’s where you are and where you’ve been that gives you access to new ideas and new experiences.  It’s the film in your head that records your sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that allows you take pieces of it to create something new. It is with the smidgen of reality that the inspiration for a story comes alive.

why does place matter to my writing

Why does place matter to my writing. Because all writing has a place. The place you wrote, the place the writing brings you, the place the writing sits while waiting to be read. Place is what allows you to write and feel like a part of the writing. In a less literal sense, place has no effect on writing because you can be anywhere, and still write. Location can be anywhere or anything and the writing will still exist, so long as

My favorite place in writing.
My favorite place in writing

there are readers and writers. So I guess place can be the foundation of all writing or it can be utterly meaningless.

Writing is also a superb way to explore a place. In this sense, the place is pivotal to the writing but it also can be done in any place. You can write to better understand how you feel about a place, what you see in a place, or how a place effects you as an individual and your view of the world. Place has a huge impact when it comes to us being people and when being a person that is a writer, we use place to understand that impact.

Why Place Matters in Writing

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https://www.hawaii.hawaii.edu/tlc/wwwwriting

 

While looking for a little bit of inspiration for this first blog post, I simply googled the terms “place” and “writing” separately to see what might come up. “Place,” obviously, came up with pictures of places with the image name “place.” Not very helpful. “Writing” was equally unhelpful, giving me pictures of pens and paper. But then I stumbled across this word cloud. I remembered doing these in elementary school, and so I checked it out.

I couldn’t help but notice that this word cloud didn’t include the word place, and that’s why I have chosen to add it here. At first I thought perhaps this word cloud simply had more literal terms and ideas in mind, words and concepts that are involved in the act of writing. “Skill,” “help center,” “abilities,” “university” seem very practical. But then I saw “people.” Surely the term “place” is just as general as “people,” so why isn’t it included?

I don’t know the answer, but I thought that I would use this blog post to figure out why. The way I see it, place informs every other concept in the word cloud, whether we know it or not. Place informs our subject matter, fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, because everything happens somewhere. And even if you are writing about a concept in some meta fashion, without any setting, you are still in a place when you write. And that place still shapes your opinions and your work, be it the people in your place, or the sights or the smells or the sounds.

We often think of writing as a tool to take us other places, a way to escape where we are now. I think of it this way too, but in writing this post, I have realized that no matter where the writing takes you, real or imaginary or somewhere in between those two, all of those places in our writing come from places we have been and the place we are in while we write. Place does not have a single effect on writing, but it is always there, just as the place you are in is always there, in the background, whether you are thinking about it or not.