Journaling for Memoir: Writing About Place

by Amber Lea Starfire on June 9, 2012

catnav-journaling-activePost #56
Memoir Writing, Journaling
by Amber Lea Starfire
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Place

All stories occur in place and time, and though the location in which something happens may be mere backdrop to the event itself, for memoir writers it is often much more. Place plays a vital role in the story, providing the context—and therefore understanding—for what the narrator experiences. In fact, Place can play such an important role in some stories that it is a character, acting upon other characters and the narrator.

In Gretel Erhlich’s wonderful collection of memoir essays, The Solace of Open Spaces, Wyoming is the acting force which transforms the narrator. In Jamaica Kincaid’s My Brother, the contrast between her life in New York and her life in Antigua provides a thread of tension winding between the events leading up to her brother’s death. And think of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods! How, without the character of the Appalachian Trail, could Bryson reveal so much about human nature? Without Place, there would have been no adventure.

So Place, while adding context, may also add movement and meaning to your memoir—provided that it is portrayed as roundly and deeply as the its importance in the story.

Think about a scene you are writing about or planning to write about for your memoir. To deepen your understanding of this place in your story and its impact on the mean of events, get out your journal.

  • Name your place. Where did the events occur? What was the “micro location,” such as a yard, a room within a house, or ocean beach? What was the name of the larger geographical area that surrounded it? How did the larger area affect the smaller area—construction, size, colors, lighting, and so on? Write what you know about the history of both the micro and macro locations. (You may want to do some research and return to this prompt later.)
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  • Freewrite for ten minutes, starting with the question, “What does [name of place] mean to me?”
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  • List 100 characteristics or attributes of the place. Yes, 100! As I advised in my WritingThroughLife.com post, A Sense of Place: “Write down every minute concrete and sensory detail you can remember, especially, smells, sounds, tastes, and sense of touch (leave sight for last). all the details that make a place a place; they include climate, flora and fauna, people, architecture, and culture. They include both the natural and human-made or influenced attributes of a location. And they give one a feeling that that spot of earth is unique in some way, special, endowed with specific, recognizable qualities.”
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  • Complete the following prompt ten times: “It was the kind of place where …”
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  • What is your relationship to the place? If it were a person, who would it be? How do you feel about the place?
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  • Write a letter to the place as though it were a person in your life. Be open and honest with it, writing whatever is on your heart.

Finally, mimic your favorite authors. Browse your best-loved memoirs with an eye to Place: How did the authors portray the places in their lives? What techniques did they use to give you a sense (not just description) of Place? Which of those techniques might work for you? Jot your thoughts down in your writing journal, and even practice a few of those techniques outside of your memoir, just for play.

Share your riches with others by leaving a comment—How have your favorite authors made Place a rounded character, and what works for you?

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For creative ways to use your journal, as well as writing tips and prompts, be sure to connect with me onWritingThroughLife.com.

Related Articles:

Writing Tips: A Sense of Place
5 Memoir Tips for Writing about Home
Journaling for Memoir
Journaling the Sensory Details

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Image Credit: Louis Vest

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ronda Armstrong June 21, 2012 at

Thanks, Amber, for reminding us to mine the richness of place. Too often we let it slide at the expense of the fullness of the story.

Amber Lea Starfire June 24, 2012 at

Ronda, I agree. We often forget—or rather, take for granted—how important place is to our story.

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