The World’s My Oyster and Other Thoughts on Place

by Matilda Butler on June 25, 2012

catnav-alchemy-activePost #54 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Memoir, Oysters, and the Influence of Place

Kendra and I spent the weekend giving our forthcoming book Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep one more going over. This time we were working with page proofs and thought it would be a breeze. We just needed to make sure that our last changes had been put into the book.

Of course, you already know where this story is going. We spent Thursday, Friday, and Saturday working long hours. No author can look at a manuscript and not want to make just a “few, tiny changes.” Well. Okay. So we significantly rewrote most of one chapter and found dropped words, etc. All has been noted and the book designer is back working on it.

Actually, we’re quite excited. The few little points that we knew needed additional work now have been polished. In addition, the new feature we added is working beautifully. More about that soon.

What Does This Have to Do With Memoir, Oysters and Place?

With the release of our book rapidly approaching, Kendra and I have promised to write at least once a week about one of the five essential elements of writing covered in Writing Alchemy. There will always be new books that contribute ideas as well as articles that we read.

Today’s inspiration comes from a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article entitled Profits on the Half Shell. If you’re interested in oyster farming, you can check it out. The point that fascinated me was found in these words:

Each oyster has its own “meroir”… You’re tasting the region and salinity of the water, just like the terroir of a wine, where you can taste the soil and the grapes.”

If oysters take on the taste of the water that surrounded them as they developed, and if wine takes on the taste of the land that surrounded its grapes, then it seems like a short step to think that we took on the marks of the place where we grew up.

Place in Memoir

Many memoir writers have a laser focus on the story they want to tell. And that is a good thing. However, it is important to look at the influence of place — the location of your story.

Those of you who know me or who follow me on this blog are aware that I grew up in Oklahoma City. I am the person I am today because I grew up there. The flat plains seemed to stretch forever. I saw the rain coming long before it arrived. The wind that swept across that flat land, its progress unimpeded by mountains, often caused me to tug at my scarf, securing it tightly to protect my hair.

I remember the story of a French couture designer who said upon arriving in town for a fashion show, “Women in Oklahoma look terrible. The scarves they wear make them look frumpy.” A few days later, a reporter caught up with him and asked what he thought of Oklahoma. He responded, “Now I understand why women here wear scarves. The wind never stops.”

So while I endured the wind (actually, much like a fish not knowing its environment is wet, I didn’t realize how windy it was until years later after I married and moved to Boston), I also was inhaling the pioneer spirit and the enthusiasms of a state opened by The Run of 1889.

I grew up knowing about Boomers (those who promoted the opening of the state) and Sooners (those who sneaked across the line before the official gun was fired to start The Run, to secure some of the best land). My elementary school teachers emphasized the youthfulness of the state, and I took away the notion that I could do anything I wanted as I didn’t have to worry about long-held traditions that would limit me.

As sixth graders, we even reenacted The Oklahoma Run. I played the role of a mother in our family unit, probably because I volunteered to bring my Radio Flyer wagon, complete with an arched cover that my father helped me configure from metal hoops and a worn-out white sheet. My doll Hannah was the stand in as my baby, and my duck (in a cage for safety) was part of our household.

To this day, the land of Oklahoma lives on in my psyche. I don’t like twisty roads, feeling most comfortable on a flat straight road just like the section lines I was raised on. Once, on our way to look at a possible home in the California hills, I realized how much the road curved this way and that. Partway there, I suggested I could never live on a road like that. We turned around and never bothered to see the property.

Think About the Ways Place Influenced and Influences You

Although this post isn’t a memoir writing prompt, I’d like to urge you to write today about the place or places in your memoir. If you are looking back at your childhood, then your memories of place will be influenced by your age. Perhaps you are writing a story of your adult years and need to determine how you will define place. Place can be a state or a city or a neighborhood or a house or even a room. Think of the ways that you can bring place into your writing.

And What About the Oyster?

You’ve probably used the phrase, “The world is my oyster.” Ever wondered where it came from? Look to Shakespeare in The Merry Wives Of Windsor Act 2, scene 2. Falstaff and Pistol are speaking when Pistol threatened Falstaff who won’t lend him money.

Falstaff: I will not lend thee a penny.

Pistol: Why then the world’s mine oyster,
Which I with sword will open.

Falstaff: Not a penny.

Over the years, the original meaning has changed. No longer does the speaker imply that he or she will rob people to get riches. However, we usually mean that there are numerous opportunities to choose from.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

barbara sparks July 1, 2012 at

I’ve been doing research on women and place for some time so appreciate this piece and partucularily like the scarf story. At a deeper level consider how historical place plays out in current life attitudes and beliefs that inevitably make their way into memoir and our interpretations of past events.

Matilda Butler July 1, 2012 at

Hi Barbara:

Thanks for your comment. We agree with you completely. We ignore part of ourselves and our lives, when we leave place out of the picture. Your research sounds fascinating. How you share some of it with us as you go forward.

-Matilda

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