Thursday, February 5, 2015

Do You Know Where You Are?

I was late to my first day of class. My prospects of making a good impression with the teacher decreased dramatically every time I ran up to a building only to discover that the class was no longer where it should be. The community college is a campus of buildings spread across small hills. The hills aren’t big or particularly challenging, except when you are late for a class you are hoping to add. Then it seems everywhere you go, you are either going up a hill or down one.

For the second time that morning, I climbed the steps to the student services building to get some help. This wasn’t the first time I’ve been to the campus or taken a class here, but a few years have passed, and I hardly recognized the school. Large areas, once rolling swaths of grass, were now cut up and fenced off with eight foot high cyclone fences, which gave you a sense of walking through a zoo rather than a school. Everywhere I turned seemed to be in some state of construction. A brand new fine arts building unexpectedly appeared before me. I then passed another new building, almost complete. A construction worker called down to his co-worker who yelled back over the din of jackhammers below. Students were scattered, milling around the bookstore, either reading their textbooks or talking to classmates sitting on the weathered wood benches, or gathered around the short adobe-like walls that
carved out small patches of green turf and surrounded the large oak and walnut trees.

I was told the creative writing class was in another building located in another area of the campus. This time, further east, near the parking lot, in one of the older buildings. I climbed yet another hill. Rather this time, it was concrete ramp, leading to a row of classrooms. The 70’s single story, flat-roofed building was unremarkable, except for its stark contrast to the newest building across the campus, jutting forth above the trees, like a trumpet pointing upward, as if to herald its arrival. Around the corner I heard the dripping of water and wondered, when did it rain? It didn’t. I obeyed the cautionary signs and watched my step.

By the time I reached the classroom, the right one this time, class was nearly over. My abrupt entrance interrupted the teacher, who had been in the middle of reading a poem out loud. He pushed his glasses up his nose to look at me. I recognized him immediately. I'd taken his class a number of years ago. Other than a few more wrinkles and a little more gray, he was the same as I remembered. Out of nervousness, I blurted out that I wanted to add his class.

The teacher asked, “Do you know where you are?”

I answered with a yes, but his question took me off guard. I reflexively looked around. Did I know where I was? The room was small and somewhat cramped. The L-shaped student desks were jammed so close together, there hardly seemed any space between them. A dampness clung to the air. The black built-in bookshelves on the back wall were empty, which seemed sad to me, especially for a creative writing class, but there was also a part of me that appreciated the irony of it. Writing students sat elbow to elbow, staring at me. I felt the heat rising underneath my shirt, and now wished I hadn’t grabbed the down jacket in my haste earlier that morning. 

“Do you like to read poems and short stories?” The teacher asked.

“I do.” Of course I do, I thought. I had the student loans to prove it.

“Do you like to write poems and short stories?"

“I do,” I said, except my voice wavered slightly. When was the last time I actually wrote a poem?

“First take a seat and see if by the end of the class you really want to be here.”

I took one of the seats that was off to the side, like a chair in time-out. I ended up sitting next to someone else who wanted to add the class. The teacher resumed his lesson, and I shifted into a “writerly” state of mind. I eased back against the hard, wooden chair, and listened to my classmates deconstruct a Billy Collins poem.

To be quite honest, I was back in community college, taking a writing class in order to force myself to write. It turns out I’d written more in one semester of grad school than I have in the five years after getting my MFA. My focus had since turned to publishing and my creative outlets were replaced more and more with design, mainly book design.

At the end of the class, the teacher gave me my first assignment, which was to write an edible poem or a poem with a sense of place. I chose the latter because I wrote an edible poem the last time I took the class several years ago (which you can read on Fictionaut). In trying to come up with a place to write about, I realized that one of the first things I want to know before designing a book cover is where the story is taking place. I often go into bookstores or stores with book departments to check out the latest book covers. Many books I found, especially genre fiction, evoke a sense of place on their covers.

 D.P. Lyle-Samantha Cody Mystery Book Series

A sense of place can pull you into the story and place you inside a character's point of view:
My house was at the very tip of the egg, only fifty yards from the Sound, and squeezed between two huge places that rented for twelve or fifteen thousand a season. The one on my right was a colossal affair by any standard-it was a factual imitation of some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, and a marble swimming pool, more than forty acres of lawn and garden. It was Gatsby’s mansion.
 -F. Scott Fitzgerald, from The Great Gatsby

Fitzgerald grounds the scene and situates the narrator with specific, concrete imagery. I’ve never been to a Hôtel de Ville in Normady, but I almost feel I’d recognize Gatsby's sprawling grounds and ostentatious mansion if I did.

Setting or a sense of place doesn’t have to be static either: 
If on leaving town you take the church road you soon will pass a glaring hill of bonywhite slabs and brown burned flowers; this is the Baptist cemetery. Our people, Talbos, Fenwicks, are buried there; my mother lies next to my father, and the graves of kinfolk, twenty or more, are around them like the prone roots of a stony tree. Below the hill grows a field of high Indian grass that changes color with the seasons; go see it in the fall, late September, when it has gone red as sunset, when scarlet shadows like firelight breeze over it and the autumn winds strum on its dry leaves sighing human music, a harp of voices.

I love the forward movement, like a camera lens moving, recording the landscape it encounters. It feels multi-dimensional and teeming with color. Capote adds texture with an element of sound. He also includes character background, history and uses direct address to pull the reader in further.

For the class assignment, I ended up writing a poem about Kauai, but as I wrote it, I wondered if readers would think it was Florida, so I narrowed the focus, bringing it down to road-level and kept moving as if the reader and I were making our way through the tropical trail, then pulling the narrative lens up for a grander sense of the place, a bird’s eye view. I even titled the poem “Bird Island.”

When I handed in the poem, I felt a sort of anxious acceptance. It has been a while since I’ve written something to share with someone else other than my cats. And it was in that moment, in that classroom with other writers reading, writing, and sharing, when I fully understood the teacher’s earlier questions. Yes, I know where I am now. I am exactly where I should be.


  1. Wonderful post! I'm awful with poetry.

    1. Thank you. Just like riding a bike. In my case, one with a half-inflated tire.

  2. It's nice to find where you belong! I spent years trying this, dabbling in that, always flirting with writing but never committing. When I finally settled into the idea, it felt like coming home. And I'd been gone far too long. xo

    In gratitude,

  3. As a writer it's easy to get lost. Great reminder that you can find your place again.

  4. There's so much wisdom here, both in the your examples for giving a piece of writing a tangible sense of place, and in creating one for yourself as a writer. Thank you...

  5. Thank you everyone. Coming back to writing (creatively) does feel like a kind of coming home. I hope to stay for a while.

  6. Welcome home to writing, hopefully you never leave. That was a great story, I really enjoyed it. You never disappoint. I wish I was one of your cats so I could hear all your stories. Please keep writing.