Practicing Topophilia

Bentley: What is it, Major Lawrence, that attracts you personally to the desert?

Lawrence: It’s clean.

You might think of the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia as an adventure story, or an epic drama, or even a hagiography of colonialism, but try thinking of it, instead, as a romance between a man and the desert.

It’s a story grounded in topophilia.

Topophilia, perfectly illustrated in the above exchange between Peter O’Toole and Arthur Kennedy, is a profound and deep love for a landscape, a location, a geography. It is a love for place.

Are you thinking of grandma’s kitchen, or your college campus, or the street corner where you fell in love?

Yeah, that’s not it. That’s place attachment, which is love for A Place. Place attachment is “a cognitive-emotional bond individuals develop toward places.” It’s love borne of experience and memory.

Topophilia is more mysterious and more challenging to describe. It doesn’t require much experience, and memory is optional. It defies logic and explanation, as love so often does.

And it’s so rewarding, and fun, to write.

Start, of course, with the landscape that brings you the most joy. Again, not a place you love because of special moments, but that you love, because it exists. Maybe it’s the plains, or the Sawtooth Wilderness. Maybe it’s Michigan. Maybe it’s anywhere with a waterfront.

Next, take novelist Chuck Wendig’s advice, and avoid describing the terrain and the climate and the feel or smell of the breeze. Instead, “Think of setting as just another character. It looks and acts a certain way. It may change over the course of the story. Other characters interact with it and have feelings about it that may not be entirely rational.”

Sarah Broom did this in her Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir The Yellow House, describing summer in New Orleans: “The malicious New Orleans heat could seem to crawl inside, affecting your brain so that walking felt like fighting air. New Orleans humidity is a mood. To say to someone ‘It’s humid today’ is to comment on the mind-set. The air worsened the closer you came to the Mississippi River and wet you entirely so that by the day’s end, my hair was zapped of all its sheen and my clothes stuck to my body in all the wrong places.”

Last, don’t explain; swoon.

“For most surfers…waves have a spooky duality. When you are absorbed in surfing them, they seem alive. And yet waves are of course not alive, not sentient, and the lover you reach to embrace may turn murderous without warning. It’s nothing personal. Wave love is a one-way street.” — William Finnegan, Barbarian Days.

Your turn, writers. Write us a love letter to your favorite place. Tell it happy Valentine’s Day from me.

Kelly Caldwell,

Dean of Faculty

Nutrition Facts for Hermit Crab Stories

Nutrition Facts
for Hermit Crab Stories 

Serving Size: One writer, one at a time
Number of Servings per container: Infinite
One subject the author feels moved to write about;
One desire to experiment or play;
One familiar form of writing that the author can
borrow for their story;
One imagination.
Calories (spent while writing) — 350 to 500*
Calories (consumed while writing) — 350 to 500**
Percentage (%) daily values
Subject                                                          15%
(These are flash stories, so keep your focus narrow.)
Borrowed Form                                            75%
(You want your reader to recognize the form immediately, but you should also feel free to play around, take literary license.) 
Narrative Arc                                               100%
(This is still a story with a central character and a clear beginning, middle, and end.)
Voice                                                              50%
(You’ll want your hermit crab to sound like the form you’re borrowing, but don’t abandon your own voice, either. This is still your story.)
Creative Exploration                                    50%
(Your borrowed shell is firm and imposes some limits; but wearing it enables you to wander further afield, play more, and find a fresh take on something familiar.)
Subject to Shell Matching Ratio                 ??%
(You might generate a nice frisson of resonance when subject and form share some symmetry. But it’s not necessary. Authors have written about romantic break-ups as auction item catalogue listings and WebMD entries, and I’m borrowing an FDA-regulated label for packaged food for a work on creative writing, so who knows, really?)
Key Sources of Inspiration
Flash fiction as obituary                                   100% ***
Flash essay as resume                                      100%
Flash fiction as Facebook group rules      100 %
Further reading                                                   100%              

† “A hermit crab essay borrows another form of writing as its structure the way a hermit crab borrows another’s shell. Its subject might be something soft or vulnerable, (like the crab) that seeks the form of something harder or more rigid to encase it. The form must be written but … something less literary and more utilitarian such as a list, recipe, field guide, instruction manual, address book, multiple-choice test, horoscope, Web MD entry…” — Randon Billings Noble

* Will vary based on how angsty a writer you are, and how many times during the writing process you stand up, pace, walk the dog, go for a bike ride, and clean your kitchen.
** See above.

*** If you recognize Deesha Philyaw’s story “Mayretta Kelly Brunson Williams Bryant Jones (1932-2012)” from last June’s Writing Advice, you get a gold star! If you don’t, because you didn’t read it then, consider this your second chance and take the hint.

Kelly Caldwell,

Dean of Faculty

Writing as a Loving Thing

Last week, my Memoir II writers offered up some of the many ways other people try to shut down our work:
It’s disrespectful to joke about such a serious subject.
What will your mother think?
Sounds like maybe you’re still too close to the material. Maybe you should wait a few years.
You’re not a real writer if you don’t put words down every day.
Yes, but what about your mother?

What struck me about all this advice is that, while often well-meaning, it does not indicate possible harm, so you can avoid it. It presumes that writing is harm.
Luckily, author Jill Christman, who just published a book of love stories, was in the room, too.
“Having people tell you that you can’t tell your story, even if it intersects with theirs, that’s not a loving thing to do,” Christman said. “It’s not a loving thing for them to do to us.”
Or to ourselves.
In her book If This Were Fiction: A Love Story In Essays, Christman recoils from nothing. She writes about all the terrible things, which I won’t list, only to say that she doesn’t flinch from the ways that life beats you up. But she doesn’t leave it there.
Each essay finds a new answer to the question, when you know how much suffering the world can inflict, how do you love anyway?
An answer: You laugh. You love your people. And you write your stories.
As life philosophies go, we could do worse.
It’s often said, writing is cathartic. The author Brian Doyle said “writing is a time machine, writing resurrects, writing gives death the finger. And so amen.” Novelist Walter Mosley says writing is revelation.
What would happen if we thought of writing as love?
I’m not saying, write with love, or from a place of love. Because I believe it’s more than OK to write with or from fury, humor, sadness, delight, curiosity, spite. Rather, what if we thought of  the practice itself as love, the way, sometimes, making someone a peanut butter sandwich is love, regardless of how you feel about that person, or about peanut butter, in the moment.
Would it make our stories better? Maybe. Maybe not. But it could turn down the volume on the censors who are always nagging at us. It could perhaps quiet the unreasonable expectations we heap on ourselves.
Such a shift in thinking could, I believe, free us, to let our stories take us to the surprising, unexpected places they’ve always wanted to go. Which is why we were moved to write them in the first place.
“Writing automatically, by its practice, feels like a safe place to me no matter where I’m going,” Christman said. “If I’m being honest, writing really is my safe space.”

Kelly Caldwell, Dean of Faculty