Dear Lily June,
I’ve never been particularly good at writing setting. I know how important it can be, not just as a backdrop to a plot, but as the guiding cultural force behind its characters’ behaviors (hence expressions like, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”)
As Janet Burroway, the author of the text I’d use to teach setting in the classroom (Imaginative Writing) writes,
“Setting is not merely scenery against which the significant takes place; it is part and parcel of the significant; it is heritage and culture; it is identity or exile…”
In a story with three characters, then, the setting itself becomes a fourth, a living, breathing force as much to be reckoned with as any of the characters who actually speak. Again, Burroway says,
“The props of the world—artifacts and architecture, infrastructure, books, food, fabrics, tools and technology—create and sustain identity. People behaving in relation to their surroundings define both space and time, and reveal much more.”
Maybe my hesitancy comes from that writerly cliché, to “write what you know.” Having only lived in three places in my entire life–Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; and Muncie, Indiana–I feel my knowledge is fairly lacking in terms of what makes each place unique. And yet, with each of these places, there are images which get firmed lodged in my brain and which, forever after, come to represent those areas to me.
For Pittsburgh, steel bridges and the moon over snow. For Tuscaloosa, cicadas/cockroaches and humidity. For Muncie, cornfields alight in fireflies.
And I know that with a modicum of imagination and elaboration, you can have the beginnings of an entire story, as I imagine beginning a story about the American South:
The air there hung humid with ghost sweat, and the bodies that fell from the trees every autumn were a reminder of that. Thick, brown cicadas and cockroaches crunched under so many unsuspecting–or unforgiving–feet.
Part of the problem for me with producing setting is that I rarely enjoy reading about it, an experience which Burroway confirms for me:
“…there’s a resistance and even a measure of boredom that greets the subject of setting, and I can think of at least two reasons for this. The first is that tedious and sentimental descriptions of nature tend to be part of our early schooling, operating as a sort of admonishment that we should pay…more [attention] to the (ho-hum) wonders of nature. The other is that in daily life we take our surroundings ninety percent for granted. The world you know is what you’re told to write. What’s the big deal? Isn’t it everybody’s world? Well, no.”
Burroway reminds me that my experience of landscape with all of its geographical features (alongside of the topographical map of the hearts of its inhabits) won’t be the same for you as it is for me. That, to me, is interesting; that if the memories of towns we’d lived in or visited were like postcards, the number of postcards would be as infinitely varied as the number of people collecting them.
One good approach, then, to describing setting can be to imagine your audience as a group of people who have never been where you’ve been. As Burroway explains,
“Your routine, your neighborhood, your take on home, history, climate, and the cosmos is unique, like your voice, and inseparable from your voice. As a writer, you need to be alert to your own vision and to create for us, even make strange to us, the world you think most familiar.”
Another tactic is to begin experiencing and/or imagining the place you’re currently in as if you are a stranger in a strange place. One of my favorite prompts for students was to assign a chapter of Richard Hugo’s Triggering Town called Assumptions (which start on page 10 of this pdf). The assumptions were simple, guiding sentences about a place that could serve as a story’s start.
For example, you could write a story about a place where
“No one dies, makes love, or ages”
“Two whores are kind to everyone but each other”
or even where
“There is one prisoner in jail, always the same prisoner. No one is certain why he is there. He doesn’t want to get out. People have forgotten his name.”
One of my favorite of these assumptions is the second in Hugo’s long and interesting list, and I think it describes not just an approach to fiction, but an interesting way to live:
“The inhabitants are natives and have lived there forever. I am the only stranger.”
That last assumption particularly resonates with me now that I live in Indiana. I have been here several years already, but of the three places I’ve lived, I’ve spent the least amount of time here, and so, in many ways, I still feel like I’m a stranger. I will be interested to hear, Lily, what you think of this place since it will now always be the place where you were born, your stomping ground, the central point to which you will compare everywhere you go or will have ever been across your lifetime.
Of course, I’ll always want you to know that this place was your cradle, but shouldn’t serve as your prison. You may find yourself someday wanting to escape. Recent events in this area have made me question my initial impressions of what they call “Hoosier hospitality” and I see the state’s slogan “the crossroads of America” transforming each and every day into crosshairs, reflecting the worst of our country’s divisiveness and hate.
Inspired by this poem (itself, in turn, inspired by the image of another poem) about the shape and state of South Carolina (literally and figuratively) as well as some of the more horrifying new stories of late, I’ve written the following poem below.
Someday, I hope if you have the time or interest, Lily, you, too, will write about the state we live in. I’d love to compare postcards/notes.
Indiana is a tooth, rotting at the root
like when meth makes smiles drip
into paint, one straight line of picket
fence and then a puddle pooling
around the barn that became a bomb
in your mouth. Isn’t any wonder
the color is white as highway lines
dividing each town into exit sign after
exit sign screaming Don’t Let the Sun
Go Down on You in Hoosiertown
if the man who’s your Daddy is colored
less like the silk of the corn in sun and
more like the ground from which
it sprung. If you think we’ve closed
the bible of that history, you haven’t been
to Campbellsburg lately, where a mother woke
to pure white sugar in her gas tank, and
a painted note on her shed that read, N—Go.
You haven’t visited Fishers where, for tricks
or treats, they’re passing around baggies
of brochures and Hallmark greetings
from the KKK. How’s that for scary
hospitality? They claim immigrants are taking
your jobs, your communities, but nothing
is said about how Governor Pence
signed into law an act of “freedom”
allowing Memories Pizza Place to not serve
slices at a gay wedding, as if any same-sex
couple dreamed of catering to their
love that way. Nothing is said about how
businesses pulled their backing from
the state—Goodbye, Apple; Goodbye
George Takei—ironically since Pence
is just the plural of pennies, which,
if they aren’t raining from Heaven, will be
taken away while Pence enters the race
to become VP of the whole damned country,
unless, of course, we get the courage to reach
into our own wet gums, stinking with
the decay of division and putrid, rotting
hate, and yank the stumps clean free.
Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. Boston: Pearson, 2010. Print.
Hugo, Richard. Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing. New York: Norton,
- By Famartin – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43596921