Hasselstrom’s Meditation on a Jar of Jelly

When I wrote my previous post to this blog on a whimsical piece by James Boswell and Samuel Johnson, I mentioned it made me remember a similar piece overflowing in a sense of place.

Here ’tis. It’s by a North Dakota writer, Linda Hasselstrom, who writes and runs a writer’s retreat at her home, Windbreak House, not too far from Rapid City in western South Dakota.

I ran across it quoted in The Sierra Club Nature Writing Handbook (1995), by John A. Murray.

The piece, like Boswell’s “Meditation on a Pudding,” finds an exultant sense of place in an item of food . . . for Linda Hasselstrom, in a jar of buffalo berry jelly.

This is an exquisite piece of writing, one that has stuck with me and that I often have shared in writer workshops as an example of flat-out great writing.

The jelly is a tawny peach color, and the flavor is hard to describe. I might compare it to apple pie with lemon: sweet, extra tangy. But another element lurks in the flavor that I can’t compare to anything else. I think it’s the essence of wildness, clean prairie air made solid. It contains the deer that nibbled the leaves in winter, the brush of a grouse’s wing as it picked berries from the ground, the blundering invulnerability of a porcupine living under the ledge. It’s the taste of blinding white drifts slowly being built and smoothed into glittering sculpture outside the house as you make morning toast, slathering it with butter and buffalo berry jelly. The jelly brings the flavor of summer heat to your tongue, a sheen of sweat to your shoulders; even as you watch the blizzard, it reminds you of spring fragrance and the cool nights of fall.

That paragraph (from “Finding Buffalo Berries” in her book Land Circle) never fails to bring a shiver of awe to me when I read it. The tongue of a poet, the eyes of a writer that sees the place around her . . . and knows how to write so that, like the jelly, “clean prairie air is made solid.”

In this article about her creation of Windbreak House as a writers’ retreat, Hasselstrom writes: “Edith Wharton once observed, ‘There are two ways of spreading light, to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.'” That was the inspiration for the writing retreats she hosts at Windbreak House.

She ends that article with:

Start with the closest spot of earth. . . . Sit outside at midnight and close your eyes; feel the grass, the air, the space. Listen to birds for ten minutes at dawn. Memorize a flower. . . . You can only benefit.

Great advice for writers. Take the time to look closely, inhale, exhale, and keep doing it until you’ve breathed in it. Then, you write.

Boswell’s Meditation on Place and a Pudding

Last week I did a pleasant book-signing at Boswell Book Co. (for A Guide to Fantasy Literature; my thanks to Daniel Goldin, proprietor, and Jason, for hosting!).

Boswell Books is a Milwaukee indie bookstore, named for James Boswell (1740–95), a literary Scottish laird, described by one biographer as a complicated fellow, with “his rippling good nature, his extravagance and folly and weakness, his odd piety, his awful glooms, his alternations of revelry and solemnity . . .” and known today mostly as a companion of Samuel Johnson, the famous dictionaryist (okay, lexicographer).

He loved good conversation, liquor, travel, writing . . . hey, a man after my own heart.

Anyhow, the Boswell Books signing made me recall a lovely, fanciful “sense of place” piece from Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, written on a long excursion with Samuel Johnson in the fall of 1773 to the western isles of Scotland.

This is Boswell’s recollection of an afternoon bit of playfulness:

“. . . . He [Johnson] then indulged in a playful fancy, in making a Meditation on a Pudding, of which I hastily wrote down, in his presence, the following note; which, though imperfect, may serve to give my readers some idea of it.

MEDITATION ON A PUDDING

Let us seriously reflect of what a pudding is composed. It is composed of flour that once waved in the golden grain, and drank the dews of the morning; of milk pressed from the swelling udder by the gentle hand of the beauteous milkmaid, whose beauty and innocence might have recommended a worse draught; who, while she stroked the udder, indulged no ambitious thoughts of wandering in palaces, formed no plans for the destruction of her fellow-creatures; milk, which is drawn from the cow, that useful animal, that eats the grass of the field, and supplies us with that which made the greatest part of the food of mankind in the age which the poets have agreed to call golden. It is made with an egg, that miracle of nature. . . . An egg contains water within its beautiful smooth surface; and an unformed mass, by the incubation of the parent, becomes a regular animal, furnished with bones and sinews, and covered with feathers. – Let us consider; can there be more wanting to complete the Meditation on a Pudding? If more is wanting, more may be found. It contains salt, which keeps the sea from putrefaction: salt, which is made the image of intellectual excellence, contributes to the formation of a pudding.”

A delightful little piece, by a couple of writers lounging about a Scottish inn on a lazy afternoon, speculating on place and pudding.

(Reminds me of a similar, more modern “sense of place as seen in food” piece by Linda Hasselstrom. I’ll dig it out and share in a coming post.)

A Sense of Place Pilgrim – Annie Dillard

To learn to see and write better, there are great books to inspire you.

One of the finest, an exquisite book of nature writing, is Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), winner of a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, an account of a year spend looking closely at the world centered around a creek in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

As Eudora Welty (no slouch herself when it comes to sense of place), wrote in the New York Times Book Review: “The book is a form of meditation . . . about seeing.”

Here’s a brief sample, in which she describes a breezy late afternoon in a plowed field:

The wind is terrific out of the west. . . . It’s the most beautiful day of the year. At four o’clock the eastern sky is a dead stratus black flecked with low white clouds. The sun in the west illuminates the ground, the mountains, and especially the bare branches of trees, so that everywhere silver trees cut into the black sky like a photographer’s negative of a landscape. The air and the ground are dry; the mountains are going on and off like neon signs. Clouds slide east as if pulled from the horizon, like a tablecloth whipped off a table. The hemlocks by the barbed-wire fence are flinging themselves east as through their backs would break.
– Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

A page or so earlier, she wrote:

Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here.
– Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a beautiful work, often compared to Thoreau’s Walden.

How does she do it? Dillard says that two things give birth to seeing: knowledge and love.

In another book, The Writing Life, she talks about writing, wonderfully, as climbing into a desk that floats in the air, as birds fly underneath:

Every morning you climb several flights of stairs, enter your study, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air. (. . . ) Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.

I strongly recommend Annie Dillard’s books, full of open eyes, open heart, and beautiful prose.

And then, seek in your own way to write descriptions of Place that share with your readers a feeling that you are in a wonderful place on “the most beautiful day of the year.”

Sense of Place: The Setting for Desire

There are several things that drive a novel’s fictional story from the first pages. Think of a story as a kind of journey, something with forward motion. If you think of the metaphor of an automobile, the plot of a story might be considered the engine, the motive power.

But something is needed to propel a car: fuel. For a story, that should be the deep desires of the characters.

You can have a perfectly decent story (a nice car). But it you don’t have the fuel of desire, it doesn’t really go anywhere. No means of propulsion. If the plot moves forward, it will seem forced, like people running out of gas and having to push their car down the road. Or calling for a tow truck. The story moves (sort of), but not in a fluid, compelling way.

The other thing that’s needed for a good story’s journey is the reality of the road. In fiction, you need a plausibly tangible “road” going through an imaginary (but clearly imaginable!) landscape. This is the story’s setting . . . or more powerfully, its sense of place (a deeper, more emotion-rich version).

If you don’t have a well-developed landscape (or any at all), the journey of this car (your story) will be somewhat generic, floating in the fog of banality or nothingness. You need the reality of place – the hum of wheels on dry pavement, the bumps, the times of rain or sun, the delight of things seen out the window – to make the journey come to life.

Let’s look at an example that combines desire and place:

Here’s a bit from Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel, Bel Canto (PEN Faulkner Award). It’s an amazing work; I read it in a few wonderful evenings. A beautiful piece of writing, a mix of suspense and romance . . . with lots of unspoken advice for other writers in its pages.

The novel relies on a clear and definite “sense of place.” From the first paragraph, it is bound (except for a few memories of the characters that take them elsewhere) to a single location: a mansion in a South American county. After the set-up scene, a grand dinner party (visiting opera star, international businessmen, diplomats), a band of gun-wielding terrorists take over and all hell breaks loose. Then, remarkably, as they settle down for a long hostage situation, unexpected human emotions begin to emerge: empathy, romance, passion, love.

Here is one passage that sold me on the story in the first five pages (note Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages rules). On page four, a central character, Katsumi Hosokawa, recalls a memory of going to his first opera in Japan as an 11-year-old child, with his father. For the performance of Rigoletto, “They did not have especially good seats, but their view was unobstructed.”

They climbed the long set of stairs to their row, careful not to look down into the dizzying void beneath them. They bowed and begged to be excused by every person who stood to let them pass into their seats, and then they unfolded their seats and slipped inside.

[Nice motion, entering a place . . . encountering it for the first time.]

They were early, but other people were earlier, as part of the luxury that came with the ticket price was the right to sit quietly in this beautiful place and wait. They waited, father and son, without speaking, until finally the darkness fell and the first breath of music stirred from someplace far below.

[Time passing . . . anticipation . . . then, a beginning of something.]

Tiny people, insects, really, slipped out from behind the curtains, opened their mouths, and with their voices gilded the walls with their yearning, their grief, their boundless, reckless love that would lead each one to separate ruin.

[Patchett is cleverly laying down the central themes of the novel: the mystery and danger of love.]

A few lines later:

It was early in the second act, when Rigoletto and Gilda sang together, their voices twining, leaping, that he reached out for his father’s hand. He had no idea what they were saying . . . he only knew that he needed to hold to something. The pull they had on him was so strong he could feel himself falling forward out of the high and distant seats.

The small gesture of a moment – and the whole brief memory with its powerful sense of place – sets the stage [pun unavoided] for a lyrical and suspenseful novel, full of fascinating characters and their passions.

With her mastery, Patchett has used a small “sense of place” scene (a brief memory by a main character of a place so meaningful to him) to establish a theme of deep and nonverbal desire (the power of music, the drive of deep emotions beyond language). This novel, that returns immediately to the main setting of the novel, the South American mansion, will careen forward like a finely-tuned (and expertly driven) race-car with the powerful drive that comes from the deepest desires of the key characters.

All set in a specific place, one that comes to be familiar, like a second home for the reader. At least it was for me, as I picked up the novel each evening and returned to that mansion.

Bel Canto is a novel that presents place as a setting for desire.

Four walls. Within them, all the world.

The Sea of Trolls (Opening Lines)

A compelling opening for a novel can be an intriguing description of place. Here’s the start of a 2004 fantasy for young readers, The Sea of Trolls, by Nancy Farmer, 3-time winner of a Newbery Honor award.

Jack woke before dawn and listened to the cold February wind lash the walls of the house. He sighed. It was going to be another rotten day. He stared up at the rafters, savoring the last minutes of warmth. He was bundled in a cocoon of wool blankets over a bed of dried heather. The floor was deep, below the level of the house. The wind that found its way under the door passed over his head.

It was a good house, with oak pillars planted the root up to keep damp from rising from the ground. Jack had watched Father build it when he was seven. Father had thought a child couldn’t understand such a complicated task, but Jack had. He’d paid close attention and thought he could build a house even now, four years later. Jack forgot very little of what he saw.

At the far end of the long room Jack could see Mother stir up the cooking fire. The light danced on the loft.

A simple start. But notice how much is communicated; the time frame (early Middle Ages) is sketched. Notice what is asked as an implicit question. Why will it be another rotten day? Notice the character hints. Jack is a boy who observes things. He wakes up, seeing things around him.

With a calm, confident air, the first paragraphs of the book signal: this is the beginning of a tale. A story is about to unfold.

When I turn over the book, the jacket praises Farmer’s previous novels, “perilous adventures through hostile but richly conceived landscapes” (New York Times Book Review); “a talent for creating exciting tales in beautifully realized, unusual worlds” (Kirkus); and “Readers will be hooked from the first page” (Publishers Weekly).

Perilous adventures. Exciting tales. Unusual worlds.

And readers hooked from the first page.

Hooked not with wild action, but with a quiet, appealing, intriguing description of a boy waking up in a house in the Middle Ages – a come-hither promise of Once Upon a Time.

Willa Cather: Pitching Novels with Place

“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” — Willa Cather

I was talking informally with a writer the other day at a book signing I was doing, and she told me she was writing a novel. Tell me about it, I said. So she did, giving me a decent short pitch for a contemporary literary novel. My advice to her: mention the place where the story takes place.

A sense of place is often overlooked as an important pitch factor. But if Willa Cather is correct, and there are only a small number of “stories” . . . then one of the significant differences is where that story takes place.

The same “story” is different if it takes place in Milwaukee or rural Louisiana, in New York City or Stockholm, in Napa Valley of California or the Red River Valley of the Dakotas. With interesting and unique details; location becomes a reason people will read the same “two or three human stories” over and over: because it’s different in each location.

Consider Willa Cather’s own work. O, Pioneers! may be one of those few stories . . . but oh, what a place!

One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain. None of them had any appearance of permanence, and the howling wind blew under them as well as over them.

For more on developing a sense of place in your writing, check out my website, Great Lakes Literary, where not long ago I posted an article with some tips for writers on the topic.