Book Review: The Soul of Place

The Soul of Place (Travelers’ Tales, 2015) is a creative writing workbook with ideas and exercises for conjuring the genius loci. It is specifically addressed to creative writers of all genres, but may also be of interest to artists in the visual and performing arts. Indeed, whether you live abroad or have never left the place you were born in, The Soul of Place offers a unique opportunity to look afresh at our surroundings and find what makes them extraordinary; in the process we may gain a deeper insight into ourselves. As a poet, prize-winning novelist, travel writer, literary translator, and writing teacher, author Linda Lappin divides her time between the United States of America and Europe and this book effortlessly presents the wealth of experience she can draw on, accruing from over thirty years’ research into what she calls ‘place consciousness.’ Through extensive travelling around Italy, Lappin came to understand ‘how place was the prime inspiration for my work and [so] began to investigate the many ways different locations acted upon my imagination.’  There are five chapters: Reading the Landscape; Places Sacred and Profane – Pilgrims and Flaneurs; The House of the Self; Eating the Soul of Place – Food Writing; Submerged Territories: Writing the Unconscious, all of which is accompanied by beautiful photographs as well as suggested further reading at the end of each chapter. 

 Gazing at green hills and golden wheat fields from the ramparts of an old Etruscan town, DH Lawrence remarked that ‘the view not only was beautiful, but it had meaning.’ One theme of Lawrence’s fiction is the sacred link between identity and place and the devastation that follows when that link is broken, contaminated, or exploited for economic gain. A very interesting and fruitful stratagem for tapping into the well-spring of our dormant creativity is that of Deep Maps – a term coined by Native American writer, William Least Heat-Moon in his remarkable book of travel essays, PrairyErth. Heat-Moon’s deep map is a personal cognitive model of a territory that attempts to encompass all historical, spiritual, mythic, and personal data regarding that territory, layered across time. Indeed, Lappin’s first novel, The Etruscan (Wynkin De Worde, 2004) is a sort of deep map of Tuscia, the area north of Rome where Lappin says she loves ‘to go traipsing through the vineyards and poking into Etruscan ruins. In writing my novel, I wove into the story the many strands that I picked up while exploring images of old houses and towers, animal and plant lore, superstitions, peasant traditions, even recipes that are all a part of the local colour and give the book a detailed, true-to-life background in contrast to the plot that is based on fairy-tale patterns.’

 Referencing the Romantic Movement, as well as Edmund Burke’s theories on the Beautiful, the Sublime, and the Picturesque, Lappin explores landscape as a conveyor of the moods of characters and the foreshadowing of plot developments: ‘...that magical connection between the soul of a place and our imagination.’ 

 She looks at the figure of the flaneur, as for Benjamin ‘the flaneur was the priest of the soul of place’. And so the ‘true flaneur seeks contact with the evanescent moment and with authentic experience, preferring the old, the worn, the odd to grandeur and sparkle. Flea markets, second-hand bookstores, unlit alleys offer irresistible attractions. The city becomes a book to be read in the margins and at the same time a labyrinth to get lost in, both horizontally and vertically, while one seeks out glimpses of the old neighbourhoods as they used to be, still visible beneath the new. […] The flaneur is an ardent people-watcher, and a bit of a voyeur and even a spy. Stalking, searching and detection are the major themes of flaneur fiction, in which the hero/heroine may also be an amateur detective.’

 Proust offers insights in the section on Food Writing, with some memorable quotes from Remembrance of Things Past and its numerous references to ‘the display, preparation, and smell of food, the art of dining, and the psychology and physiology of taste’. The power of food to trigger memory and intense episodes of recall, along with all the emotions and sensations of the far past: taste and smell, ‘bearing upon their almost impalpable droplets, the immense palace of memory’. This is accompanied by an excellent section on the vocabulary of food description. and the chapter is completed with an exploration of synaesthesia and its application to food writing.

 The final chapter outlines some of the techniques employed by writers, in particular for plumbing the depths of their unconscious. We see how Robert Louis Stevenson sought inspiration from dreams, explaining a method of self-suggestion to stimulate dream activity. Katherine Mansfield conceived stories while lying in bed with her left hand pressed to her temple, and Stephen King recommends committing to a routine of daydreaming and writing which he calls ‘creative sleep’.

 Physicists often refer to the ‘observer effect’ through which the act of observing a phenomenon influences the outcome of the process under observation. The same thing happens with dreams. Research has shown that the intention of remembering or working with dreams may alter our dreaming process, causing our dreams to assume specific patterns or forms depending on the school of interpretation being applied to the dream. Dreams, then, respond to conscious and unconscious suggestion. 

 Mention is made of Yeats’ A Vision, an intricate philosophical work on symbols, history, myth that the poet claims was dictated by a spirit communicator to his wife through automatic writing. We learn of Dorothea Brande and her ground-breaking work, Becoming a Writer, first published in 1934 and rediscovered by novelist and writing teacher John Gardner in 1980. In free writing emphasis is given to fluidity and freedom from censorship, fear, expectations, or constraints of any kind including grammar, spelling, logic, or social conventions. The goal is not to create a polished text, but to explore your own resources and learn how to access them. Free writing is a pre-writing and preparatory phase for generating material and seeking out new directions. Julia Cameron, author of the internationally renowned guide to reawakening blocked creativity, The Artist’s Way, bases her extraordinary and highly successful system on free writing, or ‘morning pages’ as the key to unleashing our creative energies in any field of endeavour.

 We also learn about the theory of ‘Correspondences’, also known as the ‘Doctrine of Signatures’, developed by Emanuel Swedenborg. This theory suggests that the divine, spiritual, and human spheres, while situated on different planes, mirror each other and are linked by a tightly-knit and all-pervasive mesh of symbolic connections or analogies called ‘correspondences’ or ‘signatures’. All natural phenomena are signatures for entities and qualities existing at a higher level, Swedenborg’s theories influenced many writers, including Goethe, Blake, Yeats, Emerson, and Jung. For the English writer, Mary Butts, every mood and perception of our interior life has a counterpart or correspondence in the natural world. The influence of this may be seen in Lappin’s prize-winning novel, Signatures in Stone (Caravel Mystery Books, 2013).

 The journey or quest, whether through a labyrinth or down into the underworld, is also explored, with the recommendation that ‘the door to the invisible must be visible for the adventure to take place’.

 This is an invaluable book of great scope, wide-ranging, profound, and inspirational. It wears its erudition lightly and is a treasure trove into which both teachers and readers can delve repeatedly, returning enriched and more aware of themselves as channels of creativity.

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