Living Place, Writing Place

Monday, July 23, 2018
Elisa McTaggart

Fine art wilderness photograph of Refuge Cove, Wilsons Promontory National Park by Elisa McTaggart
Photo: Elisa McTaggart

This season, Writers Victoria reflects upon the subtleties and complexities of ‘place’ and the important role it plays across a variety of genres.

The notion of place is entirely subjective and encompasses both natural and man-made settings. It spans both macro and micro environments: on a micro level, place may be of personal resonance, or of memory, such as the symbolism of a special tree by a river, whereas, on a macro level, place may be defined as a region, eco-system, country or planet. Macro environments can also include the physical landmarks and sensory attributes of place: think creeks, mountains, valleys, buildings, pollution, traffic, noise and smells.

Place is a living element of writing. It is more than just naming a location; the reader needs to see, feel and understand the vibrancy and peculiarities of a place – the subtleties that bring it to life and make it believable. Place is intertwined with character development and integral to the delivery of the storyline.

Writers Victoria points the writer’s compass towards ‘place’ this season, with a series of eleven workshops on being with, writing, and crafting place. These will explore Indigenous place; personal experiential narrative (of both natural and urban spaces); journalism, and finally, the craft of writing place.

Writing Country

Place is closely linked with identity for many Indigenous Australians. ‘With interconnected relationships to land, identity is island, river, mangroves, forest and desert; identity is magpie geese, emu and spinifex’, explains Writers Victoria tutor and Mununjali person from the Yugambeh language group in South East Queensland, Ellen van Neerven, in her essay, 'The Country is Like a Body'. First Nations people have practiced the art of Reading the Country – interpreting the aliveness and sentience of the land – for generations immemorial. 'Living connected to country, there’s no wonder Traditional Owners are steps ahead of science,' van Neerven writes, 'Indigenous Knowledges are old knowledges.'

When non-Indigenous Australians write and describe the land, there are cultural considerations, and frame adjustments, that may need to be made. To gain a deeper understanding of how to do this, writers can turn to Elders and Traditional Owners, teachers, storytellers, writers, and the land itself. Claire G Coleman, author and Wirlomin Noongar woman, recommends heading out into the landscape to experience first-hand the country being described. This can provide personal insight, and an intimate visual and sensory reference for writing. It may also avoid the trap of featuring projections of landscapes written from European frameworks, which are at odds with, and foreign to, the living Australian landscape.

Coleman will teach a full day practical workshop on how to venture into nature, connect with an Indigenous understanding of place, and write country more authentically and respectfully across any genre. This session forms part of Writers Victoria’s two-day Indigenous Place Intensive, which also includes a one-day Cultural Awareness Training workshop delivered by the Koorie Heritage Trust.

Place often inspires and is prominent in Indigenous story-telling. Stories on the Lake – Lake Tyers Beach, is a location-specific three-day program of story-telling and workshops, significant to the Gippsland region. As part of this program, Writers Victoria are supporting Hidden Stories, Emerging Knowledge (Lake Tyers). Local Indigenous Elders will be joined by a range of writers, including Lynne Kelly and Jan Wositzky, to share insights into why telling hidden stories is so important in reclaiming the vibrancy of our lives and regions.

Kelly also presents a second workshop in the program: The Memory Code in Practice (Lake Tyers). She will share her process of looking to landscape and portable decorated objects as memory devices to connect with Indigenous traditions in Australia and beyond.

Sharing personal experiences in natural and urban landscapes

Non-fiction and memoir writers often write place from their own deeply personal experiences in natural and urban settings.

With literary threads going back to Henry David Thoreau, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and John Muir, nature writing (works of both fiction or non-fiction which focus on the natural environment) is experiencing a resurgence. Poetry or prose in this genre can focus purely on natural history; share philosophical observations and personal reflections; or recount expeditions, travel and adventures.

While translating field notes, photos, maps and other influences into a body of poetry – after her walk along the Bibbulmun Track in Perth – Catherine Noske asked herself, ‘How do we write about something as simple as a walk in the bush in ways which keep it alive, [without] reducing it to a diary account?’ Noske will take writers out into the field in her workshop, Writing (Being) in Place: A Workshop (Apollo Bay), and, later that evening, will share her work of poetry inspired by the trail at Notes on a Walk – Writing the Bibbulmun Track (Apollo Bay). These two events will provide practice and insights into her process of writing place.

With a contrasting focus on the built environment, urban explorers and writers will have the opportunity to work with author, Nick Gadd. In his workshop, Writing the Suburbs, Gadd will help participants to draw on their own experiences and explorations of suburban settings to create a strong sense of life and place in novels, memoirs, essays and poetry. Tools and insights gained from this workshop will be transferable to other place settings more broadly.

Giving voice to place with environmental writing

Place can feature in writing and storytelling in order to inspire a change in the way people perceive, relate to and consume the natural environment. The more the reader can feel a sense of place, the more likely they are to experience an emotional resonance and connection with the writer’s message and be inspired to make a change.

Respected environmental journalist and author, Anna Krien, shares her insights into the genre in an interview with The Tasmania Writers Centre: ‘Journalism is about feeling comfortable amongst uncomfortable subjects, and writing about them in a way that makes it impossible for people to shy away. What are more voiceless, more vulnerable in our society than the forests and the animals? Environmental journalism allows me to speak for the overlooked among us.’ Many of her books and essays report on environmental conflicts and issues, like the battles for Tasmania’s old-growth forests and the protection of the Great Barrier Reef.

Krien’s workshop, Writing Long-Form Journalism, offers environmental writers, and others with an interest, the opportunity to interpret natural environments and develop skills in feature writing and long-form journalism.

Crafting a sense of place

Place (or world creation) is a key consideration and vital technique to master in both fiction and non-fiction writing. Depending on the genre, the world crafted can be reality or fantasy, or a combination of both. Ideally, place should be handled holistically and not just added as a layer to the story. Writers Victoria Director, Angela Savage, will run an online workshop for Write-Ability writers: Never Just Description - How Setting Can Enhance Your Story. This program will focus on mastering descriptions of place that enhance, rather than distract.

For writers in the Swan Hill region wanting to explore the geography of their fictional (or non-fictional) world, and effective ways to draw the reader in, Lyndel Caffrey will deliver her workshop, Places of the Heart. This event is co-presented by Writers Victoria and Murray Valley Writers – Wide Open Road.

Place interconnects with and nurtures other essential elements of a story. In the following two workshops, the development of place will be one of several important literary components covered. These workshops touch on place in its relationship to other textual elements. In Roanna Gonsalves’ workshop, Rewilding the Short Story, writers will examine the interaction between place and character in order to enrich the world of the story. Sophie Cunningham’s workshop, Travelling in Time - Writing History will consider how a place does or doesn’t change over time, and the ways in which physical locations hold history’s secrets.

The Final Word...

‘Setting is not merely the background or a backdrop against which action takes place,’ explains Writers Victoria Director, Angela Savage. ‘In the best writing, place is indivisible from other elements of the story, such as character, plot, point of view, theme and atmosphere. And a strong sense of place transports us as readers, adding to the pleasure and excitement of reading.’

So, before you pick up your pen or place your hands to the keyboard, connect to your place. Feel it. Breathe it. Smell it. Visualise it. Walk it. Draw it, even. Ask yourself, ‘What does this place want to communicate?’ Transfer its voice, feeling and sensations into your words. Then you will have an expression of place that feels anchored and deeply alive.


About Elisa McTaggart

Elisa is the Program and Marketing Intern at Writers Victoria. She works freelance as a writer, photographer and project manager, while establishing a fine-art wilderness photography and nature writing practice. You can view more of her photography and writing on her website

Writing Place series

Our Writing Place workshop series will run throughout Season 2 from July until November, 2018.