Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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SHJ Issue 13
Fall 2015

The Soul of Place: A Creative Writing Workbook: Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci, by Linda Lappin

Reviewed by Susan Tekulve

Travelers’ Tales

Cover of The Soul of Place: A Creative Writing Workbook by Linda Lappin

This deeply intelligent and inspiring creative writing workbook begins with a quote from a poem by Irish writer John Montague: “The whole landscape a manuscript/ We had lost the skill to read.” The five chapters that proceed from this introduction are organized around this trope of landscape as text. They are designed to help writers, and writing students, recover the stories, poems, and essays embedded in familiar and foreign landscapes, as well as in territories that only exist in memory.

A travel writer, translator, and acclaimed novelist born in Kingsport, Tennessee, Linda Lappin has made her home in Italy for the past twenty years. At home in the mountainous regions of Tennessee and in the cliff towns of Italy, she’s made a career out of mapping the places of her youth and of her adopted country, making connections between her early emotional landscape and the foreign terrains that she traverses. In this craft book, she formalizes and elaborates upon the process by which a writer can find stories, poems, and essays through the mapping of places. In the first chapter, “Reading the Landscape,” she provides a fascinating discussion of the ancient Roman concept of the “genius loci,” the belief that all places possess a soul, or a personality, that infuses itself into the earth, sea, and air of that geographic area, shaping the lives and stories of those who live there. She writes, “What is a landscape if not a set of spaces linked by pathways and stories?” Positing that for centuries poets and writers have been isolating this “soul” of a people that is expressed through their landscapes, she also reminds twenty-first-century writers who live in a world of dwindling new frontiers that they must also be concerned with what they bring to an environment through works of literature.

Though rooted in ancient mysticism and classic theory, this book’s organization is accessible to contemporary students of every level. It also can serve as a wonderful companion book for seasoned writers who may wish to keep it close to their workspaces in order to dip into its pages filled with abundant and regenerative prompts. Each chapter contains a thematic introduction, a series of writing exercises, and a generous list of suggested readings. The chapters that follow “Reading the Landscape” examine the varied perspectives through which authors can explore and write about place—as a pilgrim or wanderer; through the architecture and furnishings of a house; by the emotional pull of food; and, finally, through tapping the unconscious, the “submerged territory” of the mind that, as Lappin writes, “dismantles and reassembles forgotten places, objects, and experiences of our waking life to send us oneiric messages about needs and desires of which we may be unaware.” Following these five key chapters is a short bonus section which encourages writers to re-examine the talismans, artwork, and furniture contained within their writing spaces, and to become aware of how their work environments are conducive to, or sapping away from, their creative energies.

While the individual craft topics provide this book’s structure, the writing prompts are its soul. Inspired by the most ingenious place writers of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, the prompts given in this workbook help writers get started and keep going. They teach writers to see the patterns and structures that their early drafts can take after revisions. The prompts are unusual and light-handedly prescriptive, though general enough to appeal to a wide range of people with varying sensibilities and backgrounds. In the first chapter, for instance, Lappin outlines an exercise drawn from Native American writer William Least-Heat Moon’s coined phrase of “deep mapping,” the process by which a writer surrenders herself to a specific spot on earth, examining the terrain’s historical, scientific, mythological, literary, and ecological underpinnings. In the second chapter, “Places Sacred and Profane—Pilgrims and Flâneurs,” she discusses then departs from the standard notion of writers who take pilgrimages to sacred or secular destinations they wish to write about by introducing the practice of becoming a flâneur. While the pilgrim takes a journey to a specific destination with hopes of triggering an interior transformation, the flâneur wanders incognito, exploring city streets like a keen spectator, or a reporter of urban realities. Using as a model Virginia Woolf’s lovely essay, “Street Haunting,” in which Woolf steps out one evening under the pretext of buying a pencil so that she may drift freely through her London neighborhood, Lappin gives a whole list of exercises for “Aspiring Flâneurs” to try. She suggests “Square Haunting,” or staking out of a public square for several days in order to examine the underpinnings of the daily life that takes place there. “Crowd Bathing,” another exercise in this section, requires writers to mingle unobserved and detached inside a swarm of people in order to observe inner and outer emotions evoked by a massive gathering.

All the exercises in The Soul of Place can be used to create single stories, essays, or poems, or they can be combined with longer projects. Its chapters can be read independently, and out of order. However, if read sequentially, the chapters build upon each other, and intensify, like the lessons in a custom course designed by an actively practicing writer who knows how to communicate a bounty of wisdom accrued from writing and publishing three novels and numerous travel articles over several decades. In fact, this book is a culmination of the classes Lappin has taught for the past ten years at her studio workshop, Centro Pokkoli, located in Vitorchiano, Italy, in the heart of the Tuscia, the creatively-charged region where Dante is said to have dreamed up Inferno, and where D.H. Lawrence explored and penned his ecstatically beautiful travelogue, Etruscan Places. Quoting a story from this travelogue, Lappin writes: “Gazing at green hills and golden wheat fields from the ramparts of an old Etruscan town, D.H. Lawrence remarked that the view not only was beautiful, but had meaning.” The proven exercises that billow from this remarkable craft book reveal the mystery of how place affects human souls, and help writers to find the meaning and stories that emanate from any given spot on earth.

SHJ Issue 13
Fall 2015

Susan Tekulve’s

nonfiction, short stories, and essays have appeared in journals such as Connecticut Review, Denver Quarterly, Indiana Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, and The Georgia Review. Her most recent book is In the Garden of Stone (Hub City Press, 2014), which won the South Carolina First Novel Prize. She is also the author of two story collections, Savage Pilgrims (Serving House Books, 2009) and My Mother’s War Stories (which received the 2004 Winnow Press fiction prize), as well as a chapbook, Wash Day (Web del Sol).

Tekulve has received scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and teaches writing at Converse College in South Carolina.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury