Place Writing - A Snapshot of JFK International Airport
I slouch into a tasteful but uncomfortable bench, compulsively rubbing my sticky fingers together like a horsefly. A minute ago I was clutching a stale jelly donut with both hands, using it to separate myself from the teeming noise around me. Unfortunately, I got hungry. I bought an iced coffee, but there must have been some miscommunication somewhere along the line, because what it really is is hot coffee with an iceberg on top, so that the first half-inch or so is what you’d expect and then––as the straw plunges deeper––hot black liquid bubbles up to the surface like crude oil. Maybe that’s just how they do things in New York. I was born here, but I feel as much kinship with the state as I do the Big Bang––I know it’s vaguely and incidentally responsible for me, but it’s not paying child support or anything so who cares.
Fifteen versions of the same bald-or-balding barrel-chested man walk past me, and I’m reminded of the TSA agent power-tripping over bins and their contents thirty yards back––a caricature of affected authority. A child straddles a lime-green piece of modern art, an offshoot of that enormous balloon animal sculpture, and drags it across the tile floor into the Kate Spade. I’ve never been able to get a handle on what dictates the type of stores one finds in an airport. A cigar shop next to fine leather luggage next to engagement rings. What sort of haggard and jetlagged pilgrim frequents these places?
I’ve been put on standby for the last plane out of here. My first flight touched down right as my second took off. Every airplane I see leave the runway is another I won’t be coming home on. I’m annoyed, at the inconvenience but also at the fact that I can’t justify any sort of righteous irritation directed at anyone in particular. I mean, shit, they’re airplanes. God knows how they get off the ground; I’m sure we haven’t worked out all the kinks yet. Worse things happen with weaker excuses. But this is happening to me, I think. I need a drink. I wonder what the limits of my food voucher are. Christ, I don’t want to spend the night in a hotel. I want to go back to Virginia, where I can sleep in my own bed and not have to worry about the drunken stranger bunking above me pissing himself.
BING BONG – Unattended luggage will be removed from the airport, and may be destroyed. I picture an incinerator underneath the airport. Goddamn… trekking through what feels like miles of sticky airport, I look at my ticket and am reminded that I am only on standby––there are no guarantees here. If I wait all this time just to be turned away at the gates, I will be grossly and savagely disheartened. I was forced to buy a phone charger––I’d forgotten mine in a hostel somewhere, and the phone was about to die. I can’t be left here in this airport with no phone––no connection to anyone who’d care if I went missing! I’ll be eaten alive the second they know I can’t call for help. The charger was thirty dollars; plus the tax that I’d forgotten about while I was in Europe. I felt like a sucker, but there was nothing for it.
Place writing is described by Manchester Metropolitan’s Centre for Place Writing as “literature that moves setting from the background to the foreground, figuring place as the foremost subject.” They go on to say:
“What we define as place writing is writing that seeks…to ‘generate new knowledge’ about place and human relationships with place, through a deeper or more intense engagement, or by unearthing or producing new data and perspectives.”
Place writing occurs often in prose, but the term itself, and the idea of place writing as its own genre, is fairly recent. It’s relatively self-explanatory––place writing is writing that focuses on place, or setting. Thoreau’s Walden is a good example. It isn’t restricted to nonfiction, but is most commonly found there. Below, I’ll try and highlight some key elements and strategies for creating your own place writing. While these tips will most directly apply to nonfiction, they could also be used in fiction in relation to an imagined space.
Points of Interaction
So, let’s say you’ve found your place. It could be anything––your local coffee shop, a concert venue, a crowded airport. Just so long as it interests you. If you’re writing about a place frequented by your fellow human beings, take some time to watch them. Note specific people, sure––individual characters are always exciting. Once I saw a man wearing a propeller hat in a cemetery, and that image has not left me yet. But also be aware of the general flow of motion. Where do people enter the space? How do they leave? Note points of interest, bottlenecks, areas where different groups mingle together, etc. How do active elements (i.e. humans, vehicles, animals) move through this space? What do they interact with?
Relevant to the flow of people is the area that they’re flowing through. Note the way this space is laid out, and try to guess why it’s built that way. Are there spikes on the roof to keep birds from landing (or worse, spikes on the benches to keep the unhoused from sleeping)? What do the conscious design choices of the space say about its function?
Signs of Life (Nature)
But what if there are no conscious design choices? What if you’re in the woods? Well, there’s life to recognize there regardless. Has anyone been to this part of the woods before you? Are there trails, graffiti, trash, hearts carved into trees? Or is it pristine, is it completely untouched nature? It’s basic, but a classic for a reason: use your senses. What do you see, hear, smell, etc.––you know what senses are. Is this section of the woods eerily quiet? Can you see the stars more clearly than ever before? Do your nostrils flare at a faint whiff of decomposition? Even without people, you’re never alone in the woods. What do you notice about the inhabitants of this space (re: wildlife) in which you are only a visitor?
Place, at least in writing, is defined in relation to your experience within it. How is this space affecting you? Don’t be afraid to let your subjective experience affect your description of the environment. Maybe it’s not grungy, dimly-lit, and hostile, but your perception of it could be. Take a moment to consider what it would look like if your internal understanding of the world tangibly impacted reality. Your version of the space could be completely different from that of the person next to you.
Make Yourself a Character
Along the same lines of looking inward, don’t shy away from being a part of your own story. You’re existing in this space, real or imagined––interact with it! Push against it and see how it pushes back. The first instinct in place writing is often to approach the subject as a passive observer; this isn’t a bad initial step, and in fact very good place writing can take place entirely from this analytical POV. But if you’re feeling up to it, take a moment to reflect on your part in all this.
Let the Reader Connect the Dots
David Foster Wallace has an interesting quote on nonfiction:
“...[Nonfiction is] based in reality, and today’s felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex…nonfiction’s [challenge] is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, etc.”
The fact is that writing down everything is unfeasible, or at the very least uninteresting. Nonfiction doesn’t have to be streamlined, per se––sometimes it’s interesting to see reality as it is (re: clumsy, unorganized, plotless). But what you choose to present to the reader is important. You don’t need to capture every detail of the environment for good place writing––in fact, readers may have an easier time picturing the space if you leave some things up to imagination. Picture the environment like a constellation––put some bright, interesting bits of information up there, and let the reader connect the dots.
That’s about all this piece on place writing has to offer you, but the genre itself is practically limitless. If it’s something you’re interested in, go for it! If I had one last tip for you, one last kernel of an idea, it’s this: go exist in places! Visit a new or familiar place, sit down, and put your headphones on Transparency mode (or take them off entirely). Maybe even take notes or sketch if the mood strikes. Take your observations and filter them through your own personal lens––with enough practice, you’ll be able to produce some writing that has a place on anyone’s bookshelf.