Geography and Inspiration

“A truly powerful story comes from the centre of the writer’s soul.”

- Henry Argyle

We have such a vibrant and inclusive writing community where I live . There’s so much going on, and a strong story-telling tradition here going back hundreds of years.

Last week I attended the Atlantic Ink: Writers Festival keynote address. It was delivered by one of my personal favourite authors of all time, Alistair MacLeod, who has written two of the finest short story collections in the English-language (“As Birds Bring Forth the Sun” and “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood”). He spoke quietly and in great depth about Geography and Inspirationand so struck was I by his words, I took four pages of notes. In a nutshell:

- People often write about what worries them. Different geographies give us different languages, different occupations, different immune systems, different worries. Imagery and language grow from their regions.

- In northern climates, we prepare for November (ie furnace cleaning, snow tires, shovels, warm clothes). We’d better prepare, or November will kill us. In hot places, when we try to describe winter to them it seems like a myth. To someone in Havana, ice is what’s in the tray in the freezer, and perhaps that’s what they imagine when we tell them about our icy roads – little cubes of ice everywhere. Try to explain carrying your shoes in a bag to a South African. He’ll probably think you’re crazy, and wonder why anyone would live in a place where the cold weather forces you to carry your shoes in a bag.

MacLeod ended his talk with an example of two parents wondering why their son wasn’t home by 3:00 am. Their worries  are dependent on their surroundings: Maybe he was caught in a blizzard, or his car spun out on the ice. Perhaps he missed the last train, or ferry, or bus. Maybe he had an encounter with a gang in a rough part of town, or the roads were flooded by monsoon. His horse might have stumbled, leaving him injured in a ditch by the road.

“Specific geography inspires you so you might say something universal,” were MacLeod’s closing words on the subject.

My hand was cramped and my thoughts awhirl.

Categories: General.