Space speaks. Space acts. It is the character that contains all of the other characters—real or fictional—in your work. Yet we too often take it for granted, as a sort of window-dressing to add color to the comings and goings of characters, the machinations of plot, and the Big Ideas of theme. But think about your own life—how thoroughly it is shaped by the intersection of place and time. What is the self without place and time, anyway?
So let’s step back and give place the role it deserves: As a character in its own right:
Take the role of a place and narrate moments of its “life” in first-person, from the point of view of the place itself. How would the place describe itself? How would it describe its own history? How would it describe the things that have taken place—and are currently taking place—in and around it? How do people affect the place? How does the place affect people?
Use your powers of observation and empathy to really see how places act upon their environment, and how the environment—including people and other living things—acts upon places.
On your first try, just write 2-3 compact pages. But bring this exercise into your regular practice, revisiting it every month or so, or anytime you are inspired, bewildered, or even dismayed by a place. You’ll find that you become more sensitive to both the sensory realities and subtexts of place, and that you are even moved to research the place further to get a deeper sense of its “voice” and history and modes of action.
This exercise help you integrate a sharp sense of place into even your more conventional nonfiction reporting!
This exercise is designed to help writers bring together the two essential vectors of creative observation—the external and the internal—discover the connections between them, and learn how to move seamlessly between them:
Choose a place of interest to you and spend 20 minutes staying very still, observing everything around you in as much sensory detail as possible. Take notes, but don’t become too removed from the observation itself—don’t get lost in the notebook. You can also take notes by speaking quietly into a recorder. As you watch and listen, be aware as well of what associations arise in your mind—links with memories, items in the news, historical moments, ideas, controversies, hopes, disappointments, outrages, dreams.
When you get home, write freely for an hour, developing the chronotope—the time and space at the moment you were watching—in as much detail as possible, allowing yourself to cross over into your mental associations—the time-space of the mind—as you go. The key is for the associative links to be clearly motivated by what you’re seeing and hearing, and to make sure to return from each association back to the original, physical time-space. I often call these associative moments “trapdoors in time”—they often summon up memories or history—and they can give great depth and importance to even the most everyday physical moments. The key is to remember to resurface from the trapdoor and return to the story. If you resurface, the association won’t simply be a tangent–it will be a deepening of the meaning of the story.
Remember: The associations often have to be pared down in a final draft, but if you don’t put them on paper, you never have the material to work with in the first place!