Place in writing and in life: geography, memory, story

Several weeks ago I gave  a talk to the Lit Chat group in Hamilton on the role of place in writing – in memory and in story. This included imaginary and mythical places – the land of fairy tales, “once upon a time,”  “a galaxy far, far, away,”  Tolkien’s Shire and Harry Potter’s Hogwarts  It also included real places we can find on a map and journey to, in our minds or in so-called real life, public places about which we can agree on some features, but for which we each can have our own story.  I was especially interested in places whose names alone tell a story and highlight a traumatic experience of many people and various places—Auschwitz, Wounded Knee, Roben Island, Birmingham (Alabama), Gettsyburg, Flanders Fields, Hiroshima, to name a few.  Even though, for example, the Holocaust and the Nax And I also talked about personal, private places that tell individual stories, often remembered from childhood: the Bird Sanctuary one of my friends remembers from the Baltimore of his childhood –  not an official bird sanctuary but a wooded area behind a church where he and his friends would climb trees, see birds, and have adventures involving pirates and buried treasure.  I had my birch tree with 4 trunks behind the playground fence in Central Park, providing a lap where I could sit, look up at the leaves and sky, and be both alone and part of the nature around me.  I don’t think I had a special name for it, but it was a special place.

This summer and fall, I have been travelling more than usual, so I have actually been to several places, both new to me and familiar, and this has led me to think even more about place and its role in our stories.

Raleigh and the Black Mountains, North Carolina: I have never been here; was going to Raleigh for a wedding and spent a few days visiting a friend who lives in the Black Mountains, near Ashville (about 3 hours west of Raleigh) – crossed the Eastern Continental Divide, just after a thunderstorm, and spent the nights listening to cicadas in the trees outside the house.

Boston: I went to college in Wellesley, just outside Boston, and spent the weekend visiting a group of college friends who have been getting together almost every year for at least twenty years – though I can only join them some of the time.  We took a walking tour of Concord – saw Walden Pond, where Thoreau had his cabin, saw the bridge where “the shot heard round the world” (the beginning of the American Revolution – were fired), looked at the old 17th century houses, and saw the graves of Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott.  We also spent time on one of the group’s front porch, and ate at a sea-food restaurant in downtown Boston.

The trip continued as I took the train to New York, the city where I grew up.  Other people go to New York to see plays and museums – I go to walk the familiar streets, as if I were returning to a small town.  My aunt, age 90, still lives in the apartment across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I used to visit as a child – she’s been there almost 60 years, but only on recent visits have I been allowed in the sanctuary of the kitchen, and her bedroom.  I also stayed with a cousin I haven’t seen for over 30 years, who lives on Sutton Place near the East River, and we visited her mother, 91, who lives in a nursing home in New Jersey.  She remembers my great-grandmother, her Aunt Mary, from her childhood in the 1920’s and ‘30’s – a real pleasure for me to hear her stories, as I remember Mary from my own childhood, 25 years later – Mary died at 91 or so, when I was in college.  Although I didn’t see it this visit, I know the house where she and her family lived when they first came to New York from Russia is still there, a brick tenement on Rivington Street, the Lower East Side – if it hasn’t been torn down since last May in a wave of expensive gentrification.

And now – the final place in this geograph:  Newfoundland, where as I write this I am listening to the wind whipping and whirling through the trees outside my window at the Piper’s Frith writing workshop, and watching the waves and white currents on the Piper’s Hole River as it flows toward Placentia Bay – truly a new-found-land for me, and also a place where I am surrounded not only by nature but by history and community, the stories of people who have lived here for generations, and the older stories of the rocks and geologic formations (not for nothing is Newfoundland called The Rock), written in a language I need to learn how to read.  Yesterday was blue, sunny, warm – today it is wild, cold, grey as certain stones, gold and occasional red leaves shining through like bright mineral streaks, river running high and wavy, ravens and gulls flying past the window on this rocketing wind.


At The Rooms, the wonderful museum in St. John’s, curators are asking people for stories of recent history – World War One, Confederation, cod-fishing, St. John’s history.  In another room, you can see the flint spear-tips, bone needles, and other tools used by the first settlers – up to 10,000 years ago.  And in the adjacent exhibit case, rocks and fossils dating back 500 million (500, 000, 000) years.  The writing mentors at this workshop (Lisa Moore, Michael Crummey, Don McKay) have all written about the island and its past and present –from an oil-rig disaster in the 1980’s to the Beothuk Indians to the ancient rocks themselves.  It is all story, as Gregory Bateson wrote.  I have, over the years, gone to several writing workshops at “the other end of the earth” – New Mexico, Key West, Vancouver Island, Newfoundland:  perhaps the displacement of being in a new place, with different sights, sounds, smells, as well as new people, helps the writing move into new territory, explore new shores, seas, and hinterlands, not to conquer or colonize, but to go fearward , risk new directions, learn new customs and languages, and report back on my discoveries.

So what are your stories of place – real and imagined; your childhood home and haunts, the places you have lived since then, the sites/sights you have seen on your travels?  What would the place say, if it could speak?



About Ellen

I am a member of The Writers Union of Canada, the League of Canadian Poets, and CANSCAIP. I have received grants from the Ontario Arts Council for both writing and teaching. I currently work with Learning Through the Arts and Living through the Arts, programmes run by the Royal Conservatory of Music that enable artists to work in schools and community organizations. I have also taught in many other school and community programs, and have been a judge for various writing contests for both young people and adults.
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2 Responses to Place in writing and in life: geography, memory, story

  1. Ellen, I’ve lived in rural and urban Ontario; I’ve lived in England and Japan. My stories tend to have characters who are familiar with neighbourhoods like Bloor West Village and Roncesvalles and the Annex in Toronto, but then they are thrown into romantic and mysterious landscapes resembling Grey County, Ontario and rural Surrey or Wiltshire in England. I borrow heavily from Japan when things get really tense. It’s not occurred to me until now that my own feelings of comfort/dis-ease are so mirrored by the landscapes I have lived in.

    But I wanted to thank you for coming to The Brantford Writer’s Circle last night (Nov 19). I very much enjoyed listening to you, and have blogged your challenge. The address is here: I have included a link back to your site, and I hope that meets with your approval.

    • Ellen says:

      Hi Jessica, thanks so much for your comments about place and writing. I’m glad you enjoyed my presentation last night, and I appreciate your blogging the writing challenge. That’s fine to include the link to my site. I was moved by your story, and by everyone who read.
      take care,

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