Craft Essay: Landscape as Character

The environment affects the readers, as well as your characters, storylines and the atmosphere. It’s all related; you can’t split one from another, the sky from the dirt below.

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There is chapter in Tell it Slant which tackles how and why we need to consider the role of place as character within our work. It’s a theme for me, one I want to improve upon. When I’d applied at VCFA, I’d sent in some essays on loss, dealing with grief in Wales, in Ireland, in Guatemala. Once accepted in the MFA, Julianna (Baggott) had emailed me to say she’d seen my landscapes as characters within the narratives. It was the first time I’d  considered it like that and the idea resonated. It also makes me more aware and therefore self-conscious of how I write of place. It’s a good thing.

“If you live in a place – any place, city or country – long enough and deeply enough you can learn anything, the dynamics and inter connections that exist in every community, be in plant, human, or animal – you can learn what a writer needs to know.” (Ehrlich)

The idea is that places react to us, inform us, and affect us even subtly. It becomes a character like the regular at the cafe that you’ve not spoken to directly but miss when he’s gone.

The chapter offers advice on how to develop a stronger sense of space and reactions by paying attention. What is both inside and outside of the space you are in right now, reading this? Are you somewhere that feels familiar? Comforting? Or is it a place that will never be home?

Our responses to place come from our ideas and reactions to/ for visual beauty, a drive for comfort, home, psychological, physical needs. We need to imbue our writing with place in fiction and nonfiction. The environment affects us and characters, storylines and atmosphere. It’s all related; you can’t split one from another, the sky from the dirt below.

Home is loaded for all of us; it’s where we learned about the world, the dynamics inside the family, and the relationship to homes, towns, and neighbours. The details matter, the smell of a garden, the sight of a meadow full of cows, mountains at sunrise and oceans at sunset, what’s comforting? What is home? Fight or flight response in you? In the characters? In the readers?

These are personal and everyday connections we can only hint at and can’t control how readers react though but might give a sense of narrator or protagonist.

The challenge is in the how, how do we get it across to the reader? Verbs, adjectives, similes, metaphors, details. I think for me it has to be the details, what I choose to describe, and in what terms. Tenderness or toughness? Texture or sounds? How do I take on the landscape?

“I left one kind of home to find another, to discover what resided in me and where I resided most fully, and so to better appreciate the home I had left.” Pico Iyer.
Why have I done that? Home, Bromsgrove never felt good to me, too much baggage, too different an interest in life kept me seperate from everyone but my family. I had to leave to find a sense of home elsewhere, people with similar interests, a shared focus on travels and stories.
The gift though as a writer is when the details, the textures and people described are done in ways that makes the personal into the universal. The place is much more than the land itself, it is in the conversations, dialogue, food, sights, locals, smell of cooking, and songs in the air and the radios in the houses. All the things that make life itself. And it’s done with generosity. Writing can engage the reader in that specific landscape, to stand at the window with you, and see what you and only you chose to show.

Gretel Ehrlich’s Solace of Open Space, is suggested to me for help writing about my physical reactions to the open land of New Mexico. I’ve ordered it already. How could I not? It’s here. I’ll review it next, it was worth waiting for.

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A few suggestions:

  • Think of a room and jot down the elements in as much detail as you can remember, quickly, no editing, just put yourself in the room, and then come back and fill in an emotional tone for each detail. Let your essay function as an emotional camera.

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  • Free write on an interaction with a wild animal. Was it personally meaningful? How? How did it resonate with you as a metaphor for your life at the time? Did it change how you looked at something happening then? What haunts you about that interaction?
    Free write on your favourite place. Put yourself in the scene. Jot down all the sensory details, what did you just eat there, drink, see, smell, touch, tickle? What happened before and what happened next? What mood does this place put you in?

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  • Play with your environment as a character. Get to know it. Feel it in your body.
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Salwarpe, Worcs, UK.

Author: Sarah Leamy

Sarah Leamy is a freelance writer, a novelist, and cartoonist. She is a MFA student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is on the editorial team at Upstreet, Hunger Mountain, and Wanderlust-Journal. She is currently writing a collection of short stories as well as a novel called Buzzed, Busted, and Broke. She has lived in England, Germany, Spain, Guatemala and the Southwest of the US. Sarah lives in Vermont.

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