Writing about place is writing about everything

Hi friends.

This newsletter is called Craft Talk for a few reasons. One of them is it’s a little bit of a joke for me. I didn’t get an MFA, which is generally where a lot of craft talks are given, expert writers sharing their expertise. When I first got asked to give one eight years ago, I said I would be happy to do it because honestly most of the time I say “yes” to things when people offer to pay me, but then I had to google the definition, where I found…a lot of websites about scrapbooking. But surely they did not want me to talk about that? Finally, I sucked it up and asked a more educated writer friend who laughed at me, but how could I have known? I had no access to the information.

I am trying to give you access to the information.

I still don’t know if I really know what a craft talk is, though. Maybe we’ll figure it out together.

A thing people love to contemplate is the idea of writing about place. Writers get asked this in interviews and at conferences and during the Q&A portion of events, now during zoom readings, in the little box at the bottom of the screen which we are told to notice at the beginning of every event. Put your questions there. This summer I even did a conversation with my dear friend Kristen Arnett on the idea of place for the Tin House Workshop which you can watch here.

I have been thinking about it more after that conversation, writing about place, in particular during this hurricane season, which lasts from June through November, and more broadly through this pandemic season which lasts March through…forever? Mostly it is because I have been walking these streets, these same streets over and over, and living in this house, staying in this house, staying put for the first time in years. I am starting to see things differently, as there is nowhere to go but here.

I was thinking that I needed to learn the names of all the plants I admire. Mid-September, with all this rain we’ve been having, and the sun, and the hot, hot heat, all the trees and foliage and lush green life is overgrown all over the place, spilling out from backyards and sidewalks, up through every crevice and onto these streets. It’s wild here right now. I should learn the name of every single plant if I want to know this place, to write about this place.

I was thinking about how I never met the people who lived in my house before me. I knew a few things about the last tenant, an older woman. I know that she lived in the house for years and years before her son came and sold it and moved her somewhere else. That she had cats, and was known as the “cat lady” in the neighborhood. (Am I now known as the “dog lady” in the neighborhood? Perhaps.) I also know that she went to high school in upstate New York, because I still get alumni newsletters from her high school, but the class is shrinking, the older they get. And I know that my house was built in the 1890s, so there were people who lived there before her, and of course this land belonged to someone else even before that. This house, this land, this place, it holds a lot in its present and past, and I need to remember that.

And I was thinking about how I never paid attention to the weather report so religiously as I do here, in this city, this state, during hurricane season, during this critical moment in climate change. I lived in New York for a long time where things were so dense that it almost didn’t matter what the weather was until it was the dead of winter, which is when everyone I knew got sad. But here I study weather reports and forecast maps, images of storms swirling off coasts. I message my friends who have lived here for decades and ask them to predict things, because they are all basically professional weather people at this point. I read about how the storm names have gotten to the end of the alphabet and are now on the Greek alphabet which is only the second time that has happened, but now it seems it will surely happen again. On this coast. In this place.

I was thinking more than anything else that writing about place is writing about everything.

Some Housekeeping

I appreciate your lovely emails. In general, I do not have the capacity to answer them. I am responding to comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans. This week I made donations to Ashé Cultural Arts Center, 826 New Orleans, and Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC).

A Prescription

A friend of mine who is a songwriter admitted to me that she hasn’t written a song since the pandemic began.

I said, “Buy a notebook, not a big one, because those are threatening. Buy a small one, maybe even one that can fit in your back pocket or the pocket of your dress.”

I asked her where she walked her dog and she named a park in Brooklyn, and she went on for a minute happily about the walks she takes with her dog. (She loves her dog, too.)

I said, “All right, you must not walk there with your notebook. You must walk to another park, that will be your park, for you to sit with your notebook. Or you will go to a cafe, you will take your notebook and you will go to a cafe, and you will sit there for forty-five minutes, and you will write.”

OK, she said.

“Do it a couple times a week,” I said. “You have to make yourself do it. It will not happen unless you make yourself. Basically all you’re doing is writing in a notebook. And I know you have plenty to say, but you have to be by yourself.”

All right, she said.

I continued, “You will not take your dog. Your dog is not a part of this. This is for you, this is your time to write. You will not take your phone. NO PHONE. This is crucial. Pen and paper, that’s it.”

She said that sometimes she has difficulty making the time.

I said, “Are you currently a homeschooling a child in the year 2020 in America?”

She said that she was not.

I said, “Then you have all the time in the world.”

She agreed to try it. New notebook, walk, write, no phone.

That is my prescription for her.

Do you need a prescription?

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You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram.