Writing About “Place” – The Power of Geography and Metaphor

For those of you considering writing an essay for this year’s Essays on Childhood: A Sense of Place, I wanted to share an excellent example of how only a few words in a literal place description can have a powerful double impact as both metaphorical and literal reality.

Silas House is the author of the novel Eli the Good and a co-author of Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal.  He is, as they say in elite circles, the schizzle.  Consider what the man does in these few words from this February 19, 2011, piece in the New York Times,  My Polluted Kentucky Home – NYTimes.com:

Graves, 25314

As a child I once stood on a cedar-pocked ridge with my father, looking down on a strip mine near the place that had been our family cemetery. My great-aunt’s grave had been “accidentally” buried under about 50 feet of unwanted topsoil and low-grade coal; “overburden,” the industry calls it. My father took a long, deep breath. I feel that I’ve been holding it ever since.

In the NYT piece, House is writing about the toll that coal mining takes on not only the land, but the people who are so intricately and intimately a part of that land.  We don’t know anything about his great-aunt, his father, or even exactly what he is seeing.  But the layers of pain are palpable in the image of a family grave literally buried in waste from an industry that dismisses such action as collateral damage.

In this image, and these few words, we understand quickly that his great-aunt, this woman who was a member of his family, is being lost a second time to her loved ones.  The cost of this grief is a ripple effect of a tightened chest in the next generation below her, and now in the author as the third generation.  All are suffocating and suffering from the legacy of certain mining practices on sacred family ground.

As you consider your essay, think about things you have seen in the landscape, house, fairground, school, play yard, or other place that had a strong influence on your childhood.  Do you have a particular scene or memory of a physical reality that might serve to inspire your writing about your childhood?  How do the emotions that rise when you “see” this place serve to generate adjectives, verbs, and nouns that may flow from your pencil and eventually  become an outline of your story?

Image credit:  Elizabeth Gaucher, small grave sites at the corner of Bridge and Loudon Heights Roads in Charleston, West Virginia.

Essays on Childhood – The 2011 Project

The Essays on a West Virginia Childhood project was a complete joy for me.  I found the diversity, talent, honesty, and insight in each submission quite amazing, and worthy of ongoing development.

This year Esse Diem will continue the essay project, as well as maintain the theme of reflections on childhood.  The evolution will be to expand the pool beyond growing up in West Virginia to include any place where the writer spent his or her formative years.

What is unique about the place where you grew up?  How do you as a writer define a sense of place?  It might be a geographic definition (a region of a country, for example), but it might also be the house where you were raised, or even smaller, such as the room you occupied in that house as you grew up.  How has “place” influenced you as you grew into an adult person?

Essays submitted that focus on a West Virginia childhood will continue to be categorized as such; all additional essays will be categorized as Essays on Childhood: A Sense of Place.

Anyone having initial interest, please comment so I will have your e-mail address for future private correspondence as the project develops.  Interest at this early stage in no way obligates you to participation, though I surely hope you will consider it!  Please also share this opportunity with people you know who may have an interest in exploring his or her own writing and expression of childhood experience.

Image credit: 1001 Image