Sunday, June 6, 2010

Writing in Place, Writing to Place

Julia Cameron, in The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life, talks about the importance of “placing” a piece of writing in its context, that “placing” is one of the things that makes a piece of writing real to a reader.

One of the writing exercises in the book is to list every place you have ever lived, and then to select one and write as if you are there in the present tense. For me, developing the list turned out to be surprisingly easy, and rather than list all 16 places I’ve lived, I’ve grouped them by city:

New Orleans, Louisiana (four in 18 years)
Jacksonville, Florida (one in 15 months)
Baton Rouge, Louisiana (four in four years)
Beaumont, Texas (two in nine months)
Houston, Texas (three in four years)
St. Louis, Missouri (three in 31 years)

Two places on that list have had the most impact on me as a person and a writer. It’s no surprise – they are the two places I lived the longest – the house in suburban New Orleans where I lived from age 4 to almost 18, and the house I’ve lived in St. Louis since 1986. Not counting the three earliest homes (age 4 and under), I have been writing in all of the other 13 places, not to mention various hotel rooms, beaches, airplanes, airport gate waiting areas, parking lots, restaurants and just about everywhere else I might have access to computer or pen and paper.

The place I chose to “be” and write in the present tense is my college freshman dorm room, the day I arrived at college.

It is Sept. 14, 1969, and I have just turned 18. I drive from my home in the western suburbs of New Orleans to LSU in Baton Rouge. I am driving my graduation present – a 1970 candy-apple-red Ford Maverick (the 1970 models were out in mid-1969). It is packed with everything important for me to have in college – clothes, books, sheets and pillows, personal stuff, and a black-and-white portable television. I arrive at my dorm, check in to get the key to room 114, and unload my car.

The room is at the end of a hallway, with a 14-foot ceiling and pale green walls. With two closets, two metal-frame beds and two metal desks, the room is a mirror image of itself. With no roommate yet in evidence, I choose a side and plop my stuff on the bed. I stick my head in the bathroom down the hall, with its six stalls and six shower heads in a communal shower. I finish unloading the car and park in the designated area for students.

In my room, I’m unpacking when I’m visited by an upperclassman who urges me to sign up for fraternity rush. I decide not to, but this meeting will turn out to be a crucial event – in a few months I will pledge this fraternity and my life will change dramatically. He leaves; I glance at my watch and realize I have to run to make an advanced placement test in math, followed by one in how to use the library (“Books and Libraries,” which students shortened to “Books and Berries”).

I finish the tests, check my room (still no roommate) and then walk to the student union to eat dinner. I’ve been in the union building many times before – any time I visit LSU I go to the union and the bookstore. I notice a lot of other solitary freshmen doing the same thing I am – eating by themselves and looking rather overwhelmed. Returning to my room, I find my roommate and his parents have arrived and are unpacking. He has a lot more stuff than I do.

I turn out to be fortunate indeed – my roommate is a great guy, a walk-on for the freshman football team (so he’s big). He belies the stereotyped football player image because he’s smart, too.

We talk late into the night. Sharing our backgrounds and family information, what we’ll be studying, what we like and don’t like. Even though he’s from a small town and I’m from the big city, he turns out to be far more worldly and sophisticated than I am.

We will get to be very good friends this year. Many months from now, he will hand me a glass of cheap wine to drink while I’m struggling to write a paper on Gothic architecture in France, and I will ace the paper.

Over at the High Calling Blogs, Laura Boggess is leading a discussion of Cameron’s The Right to Write. Take a look and see what others are saying, commenting and posting. Last week’s discussion was about connection, being an open channel and integrating. This week’s discussion is about credibility, place and happiness.


L.L. Barkat's Happiness Beyond Writing.

Nancy Kourmoulis' Makin' A List.

What Were We Waiting For? by Marilyn Yocum.

Melo's Missed the Boat.

Cassandra Frear's A Page at a Time.


Rebecca Ramsey said...

That's a great exercise, and I enjoyed the peek into your freshman year. You've made me think about the first night of mine, when some random boy walked into my dorm room, sat down on my roommate's bed and passed out, his chewing gum falling out onto her pillow. I remember thinking, I'm not in Kansas anymore. It was then I got determined to find like minded people to hang out with. And to keep my door closed! :)
It's great to find your blog!

Louise Gallagher said...

You are such a great story-teller Glynn.

I love hearing your stories of place.

I had a nomadic youth -- I grew up outside of Canada -- and have always searched for that sense of place. Your writing reminds me how easy it is to find myself, no matter where I am, when I just sit down and ... write it out.


Anonymous said...

that flowed like melted butter onto popcorn.

really good.

Maureen said...

A good look back.

All of us carry place with us; writers just have a special way of bringing it to others and fixing it back in themselves.

Unknown said...

You placed me right there with you.

Laura said...

As others have said, you took me there. I pictured you driving that brand new car and I felt that feeling we all have when we are young and have our lives ahead of us.

Wonderful, Glynn.

Jeff Jordan said...

I kind of feel like Laura. I can see the car and taste the cheap wine...oh, the awful taste. Not so bad when your eighteen, though.

L.L. Barkat said...


I didn't even notice this exercise in Cameron, but I'm glad you did! :)

H. Gillham said...

As a retired teacher, I always looked for ways to get students to write freely. There was nothing they liked better than writing about a place they went or a memory of their younger days.

We all do.

I loved this piece.... only I don't remember packing any books for college except a dictionary. LOL

When I left for college the first time, my parents said, "See you Thanksgiving." They meant it. :)

H. Gillham said...

"Many months from now, he will hand me a glass of cheap wine to drink while I’m struggling to write a paper on Gothic architecture in France, and I will ace the paper."

I meant to tell you that I LOL at that line. !!!!!

Melissa_Rae said...

I felt like I was watching this instead of reading it. Thanks for sharing the memory, Glynn! :)