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March 15, 2010

I recently assigned my university writing students to write about place. They were to take a laptop or a pad and paper and simply sit somewhere and observe – the place itself, the people around them, the sounds and smells of their surroundings, when possible, even the taste. Some students went to typical places, the mall, a coffee shop, a pub or diner; but others surprised me with observations on the frantic activity at a dog park, the disappointment of the dowdy lobby at a down-at-the-heels ski resort, and the absolute blandness of a workplace cubicle and medical clinic. They recorded how people (and dogs) interacted, what they talked about, how they looked, as well as the physical realness of these places. Was it just my imagination, or were my students eager to hand in these assignments, pleased with the way in which they had looked closely and recorded their impressions?

What struck me about their writing was this: it doesn’t require an interesting place to write an interesting essay. No, what creates interest is the writer’s perceptiveness in revealing what the place – and the people in it — really reflects about our culture. A good writer can make any setting come alive; a poor one will come up short even when describing St. Paul’s Cathedral or the grand quads at Oxford.

England’s on my mind right now because I’m heading there tomorrow with a group of college freshman, most of whom have never traveled overseas. They will be seeing a completely new place for the first time – one with centuries of history and layer upon layer of richness. You can bet they will observe with “fresh eyes.”

But it’s not so easy to see places that way when they are part of our everyday routine or we are creating them for our novels, often out of thin air. Yet we must push ourselves to do the gratifying work of the true writer: to make place come alive for our readers. As William Zinsser says, “Next to knowing how to write about people, you should know how to write about a place…Every human event happens somewhere, and the reader wants to know what that somewhere was like.” In Zinsser’s American Places: A Writer’s pilgrimage to 15 of This Country’s Most Visited and Cherished Sites, he challenged himself to write about the places that have become almost clichés of American travel. In many cases, it was by interviewing people who work daily at these places and observe the minutia of their physicality – from the slant of light at twilight to the view through a certain expanse of window – that he shows us how to see them with fresh eyes. Again, it’s that pairing of place with people that creates interest. How can any place be boring when it is peopled with living, breathing human beings?

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