Blogstitute Week 4: ‘No detail is too small. Tell about the place’

July 16th, 2012

If you participated in last year’s Blogstitute, you might remember Maureen Barbieri’s post about her unlikely writing group. This year Maureen agreed to write about her group again and talk about how a place can shape our writing. Have you had a chance to visit a new place and write about it this summer? Share with us in the comments section!

Loving the Landscape

In her beautiful book Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels’s characters have to move to another country. The older man comforts the boy, who is reluctant to leave what has become home to him, with these words: “If you have learned to love one landscape, you will learn to love another.” It was this line that my NYU students inscribed in the book they gave me as a farewell present when I left New York four years ago. Missing my beloved city, I have tried to keep the lesson in mind. And Maine is a gorgeous landscape indeed.

We are surrounded by water here on Cutts Island. I wake up to the sound of waves and, in the spring, birdsong. Every day, wherever I go, I pass the Atlantic Ocean, Chauncey Creek, and Pepperrell Cove. If I’m heading to the University of New Hampshire, I peer over at the white church steeple in Portsmouth, from high atop the I-95 bridge, which spans the Piscataqua River. I proceed across Great Bay on my way into Durham. Sun, rain, or fog, I am grateful.

Last summer my writing group and I took a ferry ride over to Star Island, off the coast of Portsmouth, to spend the day wandering and writing. We strolled around examining the wildlife and the old buildings, trying to imagine who had walked there hundreds of years ago. It is a timeless place, and we found it easy to let our imaginations run wild. Beth sat next to an old tombstone and mused about the short life of the woman buried there. Had there been a love affair? Were the winters brutal, with the waves crashing and the wind howling? Was the loneliness hard to endure? 

The beauty and quiet of Star slowed us down. We loved the big old hotel, of course, with its wide wraparound porch. We sat on the rockers and listened to the slap of the water on the rocks and the shouts of children playing soccer. (Eavesdropping, we realize, is an essential skill for writers.)  Meandering around to the back of the hotel, we watched teenage employees throw freshly folded towels into the waiting arms of their colleagues, who were leaning out of windows, two and three stories up. Then from the gazebo came the lilting sounds of a trumpet, unexpected but somehow appropriate.

We wrote about all of it, the gulls and the driftwood, the sound of dishes being stacked in the kitchen, and the trumpet music. We wrote about how fast our lives move these days and how hard it is to lose people. We wrote about circles, moving away from homes we’d loved and coming back, only “to know the place for the very first time.” On the ferry ride home, we shared what we had written and felt that deep satisfaction derived from taking a chance and being surprised at what emerges.

It was such a memorable writing day that we’ve decided to make it an annual excursion, already looking forward to what we’ll write this summer when we go again. There is something seductive about the place, that particular outcropping of rock, jutting out of the sea as it does, with the rose hips wild and rampant everywhere you look. The weathered old cottages and the little stone church seem testament to fortitude and courage, invitations to speculate, to consider possibilities.

Always hoping for inspiration, our group went to hear Anna Quindlen speak recently at the Portsmouth Music Hall. She had us laughing and cheering and blinking back tears. She’s been writing for more than thirty years and told stories about her work at the New York Times and Newsweek, about raising her three children, about her girlfriends, about growing older and not minding too much. But mostly she talked about being a writer. She told us that if she hadn’t been writing, she wasn’t sure she would have survived the days in New York right after September 11, 2001. Writing, of course, is the way we cope with whatever happens. As I listened, I realized what a quintessential New Yorker she is. Living there has shaped her, given her moxie, wisdom, and grace. In her memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, she writes, “I came to live in the city that seems to suit my metabolism the way hot fudge suits vanilla ice cream.”

And we have come, wherever we are right now, to our own place. We become part of it, and it becomes part of us, part of our consciousness. This is our moment to take notice, to attend to what’s going on around us. Is the foxglove early this year? Is that really a bird’s nest under the drier vent? Is the paint on the barn peeling already?    

Celia Thaxter planted gardens on another of the Isles of Shoals, Appledore, and Childe Hassam went with her to paint and capture its splendor. When her gardens were flourishing, Celia wrote poems. Like those two old souls, my friends and I try to pay attention, to notice, and to celebrate being here, being together. I remember Annie Dillard’s admonition, “You were put here for this, to give voice to your own astonishment.” I want us to continue to be astonished.

As I bid goodbye to the elementary schoolchildren I’ve worked with all year, I remind them to read lots of books—we make lists—but I also ask them to do some writing. Will they travel over the summer? If so, I hope they’ll jot down their impressions in journals I’ve given them. How is Ohio different from Maine? What do they notice about the people in Quebec City? What kinds of flowers are indigenous to Idaho in July? What is it they want to remember about this new place? I tell them about postcards, how people love to hear specific details about particular places: “Don’t say, ‘Wish you were here’ and let that be all; share something you’ve noticed. No detail is too small. Tell about the place.”

Entry Filed under: Blogstitute,Writing

11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Beth Leahy  |  July 16th, 2012 at 5:22 pm

    Wonderful memories. I so look forward to our trip next month! Here’s to writing and to seeing the beauty of WHEREVER we are.

  • 2. Yi zheng  |  July 16th, 2012 at 10:14 pm

    Maureen, you are always so good with noticing little details about a place and can make the reader feel so connected and appreciative of being in a place. Thank you for reminding me that no detail is too small. With the things and events that are happening so fast around us these days, we seldom stop to notice the beauty around us, or to remember to breathe. I will have to remind myself to do that again. Thank you and I miss you.

  • 3. Mrs. V  |  July 17th, 2012 at 6:09 pm

    I love the aspects that you mentioned you highlight for students before leaving for summer. I like that your comments will prompt then to pay more attention to details and to reflect on their experiences.

  • 4. Tracy  |  July 18th, 2012 at 7:52 pm

    When I read this on Monday, I thought “Okay, I’ve got to make a real commitment to writing for myself everyday.” I also wondered if I could wrangle a group of colleagues and friends to form a writing group. Today I was sitting on the beach and thinking about this post. I pulled out my journal (I had put it in my beach bag just in case) and wrote! Thank you Maureen for the inspiration.

  • 5. Megan Sloan  |  July 21st, 2012 at 7:32 pm

    Maureen, What a lovely piece. I loved reading about all of the sounds you heard – especially the dishes being stacked in the kitchen. I remember campeing when I was young – looking out to a beautiful landscape and still hearing that regular sound of the dishes being stacked in the kitchen. I wished I was with you on that writing trip! I love writing about places too. This confirms the amazing stories we can tell when we focus on the places we spend our time.

  • 6. Sandy  |  July 22nd, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    As a student (again) in Montessori training this July in San Diego, I have the privilege of living in La Jolla for a month. As I was visiting Cabrillo National Monument (again) I remarked to my husband how interesting “snippets” of conversation one hears in passing at such a public place with visitors from far and farther, and how I intent to record them. Finding your blog reminded me of my intention, and also to include my observations of details about this amazing city.

  • 7. Cathy Mere  |  July 24th, 2012 at 8:58 am

    Your post helps me to think about the significance of place in writing. For years I have tried to capture in words or pictures how much I love the land our home was built upon. I can never capture its beauty across seasons. The way the stars look at night, the birds that stop by, and the variety of trees my husband has planted seem to be beyond my grasp.

    Writing about all that is familiar is important, but as you remind us going to new places can also spur our writing. I am always struck by how much I notice when I go somewhere else. I wonder, “Do the people who live here ever notice ___?”

    Place is important for our students too. I think The Goodbye Walk (Ryder), Where I Live (Wofe), The Hello Goodbye Window (Juster), and Let’s Go Home (Rylant) are among strong mentor texts for young writers.

    Thanks for sharing the beauty of your places and your thinking about noticing.


  • 8. Kelly Mogk  |  July 24th, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    This reminds me how important it is to have a group of writers together in a place that inspires detailed writing. Looking forward to creating these moments with my NWP friends and students this year!

  • 9. Maureen Barbieri  |  July 31st, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    I’ve been deeply moved by all these comments, and I’m reminded once again of how vital writing really is. We’re setting out to Star again next week, and I’ll be carrying your insights and passion with me. I hope all those who took the time to write here are finding moments to savor this gorgeous, generous summer.

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