Writing for Place: Using Details of Spaces to Craft Scenes

Alexa T. Dodd

In our first apartment, a studio, my husband and I used an IKEA bookshelf to separate the bedroom from the living room. We called it artsy, the cramped space, the makeshift wall made of books we’d known longer than we’d known each other. At Christmastime, I insisted on a real tree, and we wedged it in beside the couch, across from the bookshelf. We could lie in bed and watch the lights glow red and green through the cubes of the shelf, illuminating our odd assortment of books, the marriage of obscure literary fiction and mainstream sci-fi novels, college texts and beloved childhood books. The whole apartment was our bedroom, but also our living room, our dining room. Our dance floor, too. One time Joe shoved the kitchen table out of the way so we could dance to James Arthur’s “Say You Won’t Let Go.”

After a year, we moved to a bigger apartment in a new city five hours away so I could go to grad school. We celebrated our new bedroom door, our pantry, our balcony patio. But it was a hard year. I found out I was pregnant, a joyful discovery tinged with fear and uncertainty. And Joe spent half his time in our old city for work, driving those flat West Texas roads between Lubbock and Dallas biweekly, a back and forth that wore our hand-me-down Toyota Prius to its death by the end of the year. At one point that year, between pregnancy hormones and writing papers, I found myself crying over a feeling of loss I couldn’t explain. I took out a piece of paper to write, to try to clear my head, and could think only of our first Christmas in that studio apartment.

It was only in describing that apartment, the tight space and our wall of books, that I could get at what I was missing: that first hobbling together of our lives, a home built of books—which is to say, of friends. A togetherness we crafted day by day, the first etchings of what we knew would be the history of us. It felt permanent despite its newness. I missed that feeling of permanence, of constancy. I missed, too, the intimacy of that first home.

When we’re young, we move homes frequently, uproot ourselves for school, work, and the people we love. But in these years, we often overlook our relationships to our living spaces, the way they can shape us and our relationships to other people, the way we shape them. In our writing, too, we sometimes overlook the role of spaces, the effect they can have on character and plot. I know I have often struggled to include spatial details in my writing in a meaningful way, and I have seen students struggle to do the same. This exercise offers students the opportunity to explore a space that is meaningful to them, dwelling both on the concrete, sensory details and on their emotional impact. It asks students to explore the ways in which perspectives on a place can change over time. Using the details of the space, students then craft a scene in which they interact with another person in the space. In this way, the introspective turns interpersonal.

When I wrote about our studio apartment, it was not the space itself I missed, an arbitrary four walls in an urban apartment complex. It was the memories—of who I had been, of who we had been when we lived there. In writing, I made that wonderful discovery that writing often gives: that such things are rarely truly lost if we can find the words for them.

This exercise works for writers of all levels, though it may be especially useful to beginning writers as a way of helping them explore the role of place in their writing. Because it focuses first on the concrete details of the space, the exercise prevents students from becoming too caught up in the abstract. At the same time, though, students begin to see the ways in which the descriptions of a place are always laced with emotion and memory, even when we think those descriptors are detached. I like to pair this exercise with a discussion of the ways our perceptions influence our diction; in fiction classes, this exercise can serve as a gateway for discussing the interconnectedness of the narrator’s point of view and descriptions of setting and character.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Ask students to think of a space or place that is memorable or meaningful to them. Encourage them to choose a space that they haven’t visited recently (for example, a place from their childhood).
  2. Have students freewrite about their chosen space for three to five minutes. Ask them to describe the place with as many concrete, sensory details as possible.
  3. In another three- to five-minute block, have students freewrite about the emotions they associate with that space.
  4. Ask students to think of a person they associate with that space. It can be someone who has been in that space with them, or simply someone the space reminds them of. Encourage students to write for another three to five minutes, describing that person in detail and explaining why they associate that person with the space.
  5. Finally, ask students to imagine a scene in which they return to that space with that person. What would happen? Allowing them five to ten minutes, have them write the scene in the second person, as though addressing that person. Encourage students to use as many concrete details about the space as possible to help craft the scene.

Biography

Alexa T. Dodd is a fiction writer and essayist. She is pursuing her master’s in creative writing from Texas Tech University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Atticus Review, River Teeth, and The After Happy Hour Review.

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