Setting and Description

This week’s class met at the library since the community center was closed (it was the day after Christmas) but my students wanted to meet anyway, which was fine by me. Only four of them showed up, but that’s also fine by me. I gave them a handout about setting — what the elements are, how it ties in with characterization, and how it’s sometimes tied with plot and sometimes not. Then we talked about projects the students are working on, whether they have a specific setting and what it is. They asked me the same question, so I told them about the memoir I’m writing, which takes place in my childhood home, and how home becomes a theme and influences the structure of the book, as well.

As a group, we read the first chapter of Jane Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres, and then we talked about the physical setting, the time, and the culture / social setting. And then a great thing happened. Two of the students struck up a conversation on their own about how they didn’t like all the detail about the roads and how far apart everything was. So then we talked about description — how to choose the right details for the story. I explained that these details about the roads and the acreage and who has a mortgage feed into what this book is all about. That Smiley could very well have spent pages on the types of things grown in the fields and the seasons and the smell of the dirt, etc., but she didn’t — because this novel is very much about (among other things) the ownership of land and its impact on relationships. It was one of those serendipitous moments — the students bringing up this point on their own — that gets me really excited. They get it! They understand where I’m going with this!

We also managed to fit in two writing exercises. First, I asked everyone to write about a setting — a childhood home or other place with special meaning. Then I handed out copies of a photograph of an old house on the edge of the field — not unlike the homes in Smiley’s novel, I’d imagine — and asked two students to describe the scene from the point of view of a character who had experienced something happy, and the other students described the scene from the point of view of a character who had experienced something sad. They could be as creative with it as they wanted, but they couldn’t mention the happy or sad event. The students got really into it and wanted to guess each other’s events at the end when everyone shared what they’d written. One woman ended up crying as she read her piece; the holidays have been hard on her family. But she wanted to share. I gave her a hug at the end of class. I hope it was a good process for her, and for all the others. It felt like a good class to me. It reminded me of how precious certain places can be to us. There’s nothing quite like revisiting an old haunt — even if it’s just in your imagination.

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