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“Writing from a Sense of Place”

March 18, 2013

Volunteer Tim tries to attend a literary event.

Last Thursday I hopped down to St. Mary’s College of Maryland to hear nature writer David Gessner read from his work. Gessner has eight published books, most recently The Tarball Chronicles about the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He is a 2006 Pushcart Prize recipient, and his writing has appeared in many magazines and journals including The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe, and The Harvard Review. Gessner teaches at University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where he started the literary journal Ecotone.

Engaging with a professional waxing poetic on writing and nature tickled my fancy all the way to fancy. Beneath my excitement about this specific literary event lurked a certain craft approach that transcended Gessner, but which I’d hoped he’d address: the notion of “writing from a sense of place.” I know you’ve heard it before. Whether in readings, lectures, workshops, literary journals, or MFA program mission statements, the phrase has been turned more than a cliché. If you’re anything like me, the idea of “writing from a sense of place” conjures a vague cloud of identity, place, and infinitely directional influences. I’m all for it, but where’s the cream filling, the cloud condensed? I’d hoped Gessner would offer insight.

The only problem was that Gessner wasn’t there.

Neither was anyone else…

The front door of Daugherty-Palmer Commons closed the fresh sunset behind me. My shoes squeaked on tile as I stopped in the bright foyer, the main room ahead. The sound of tumbling clothes echoed from a small laundry room to the right, and the scent of warm lint floated into the room and up to the white cathedral ceiling. The only other legs in the room belonged to a foldable refreshments table – I love when there’s refreshments – cookies and brownies under wraps and coffee and hot water dispensers with all the fixins. It appeared untouched.

Through to the main room, laundry faded. Rows of stackable, trapezoidal chairs sat quiet, empty, carefully considering the quiet and empty podium in front. I checked my watch, only ten minutes early, yet nobody there. The chairs were meticulously organized into perfect rows. Their edges and angles aligned in all respective planes. Atop the podium rested a fresh white legal pad. On the hidden shelf below stood an unopened bottle of water. From center stage, the chairs still looked beautiful, a work of art. I wasn’t prepared to read a poem of my own to no one, but the idea flickered before I lost it. What became increasingly undeniable was that somebody or bodies assembled this spectacle with a million fleshy arrangements, smudging chairs’ metal frames with the same sweat that dripped from ridged brows to seat cushions. It was all so underappreciated.

Back in the foyer, I approached the snack table. Five minutes until show time. Gessner must have been postponed. Facilities and I must have not gotten the message. I marveled at the array of teabags – four each of five kinds in a small wicker basket – before choosing the green varietal and dropping it into a paper cup. Pushing the big button atop the thermos forced out a spirited rush of hot water; steam gushed over the edges of the cup, a vapor twirling with the air here recently breathed by the increasingly-mythical Facilities, not to mention laundry lint made of dust accumulated throughout students’ lives from their lived-in places – for what is life but this place, right here, the free osmosis between the interior and exterior of the body that renders skin meaningless. The earthy scent of the tea crept into my nose and lungs along with the breaths and powdered lives of others. I exhaled my own concoction, a stone soup cast out into the environment to rest until life again disturbs the place, revising the fabric of space-time. I would have liked Gessner to have been there for that.

The college web site has a new date for the event with no mention of the old, but the local tourism site still shows the old, temporarily validating my sanity.

Let’s take a moment for Facilities, whose work at channeling the chaos of our little, jumbly bodies into organized spaces goes all too often underappreciated.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 18, 2013 12:48 pm

    Clever turn in your narrative — an example of show not tell — another hard-bitten cliche!!

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