The following musings were sparked by a post on Nieman Storyboard brought to my attention by APH president Pat McNees earlier this year.
In it Andrea Pitzer lauds author Robert Caro for recognizing the power of place, acknowledged as a key component of literature, is often overlooked in biography.
Think about the books that held you in their thrall when you were a young reader. Don’t the places leap out at you? Whether it’s Winnie the Pooh’s 100 Acre Woods or Miss Havisham’s cobwebbed dining room, Black Beauty’s stable in flames or your first encounter with wintery Narnia beyond the coats in the closet, aren’t those places as vivid as the characters you encountered in them? (Substitute your own titles for my childhood bookshelf.)
Now follow along as Caro ports that idea over to biography (and by extension, your memoir.)
“If the place is important enough in the character’s life; if on the most basic level he spent enough time in it, was brought up in it or presided over it, like the Senate, or exercised power in it, like the White House; if the place, the setting, played a crucial role in shaping the character’s feelings, drives, motivations, insecurities, then by describing the place well enough, the author will have succeeded in bringing the reader closer to an understanding of the character without giving him a lecture, will have made the reader therefore not just understand but empathize with a character, will have made the readers’ understanding more vivid, deeper than any lecture could.”
Yes! Show us the place in which your life unfolds.
Here’s The Brick at Winona Lake last Monday as my cousins leave for their winter home in Florida. On seeing the photo my brother wrote, “I’m glad the tradition of having Cadillacs in that driveway has gone on without interruption – I certainly remember Uncle Tom’s cars back in the day… His was the first car I ever saw with electric windows, I thought that was pretty special.” To understand my family you just have to understand Winona Lake–the power of a place.
Good stuff. Thanks for the inspiration.