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Writing the Memoir: Describing a Place

How to write a memoir

Describing a Place

 1.  Don’t be mysterious; start with a place name and tell where it is:  “Shreveport, known once as an outpost backcountry town on the Red River in northern Louisiana, is now an I-20 city, a good toilet break between Birmingham and east Texas.  I spent a week one night in Shreveport trying to catch a Greyhound back to Nashville and the rest of southern civilization.”


2.  Give the climate, particularly temperature and weather.  Use concrete imagery to build heat or rain or snow.  Let someone sweat or put on a coat or shiver.  If it’s a bright day, show the sun’s glare off a windshield.  If it’s night, let the moon sail in the clouds.  Whatever you do, let us feel the climate.


3.  Strategically choose the telling details of a scene, be it specific trees, wild flowers, or rock formations if you’re in nature; or sweeping lawns (include grass type), well-arbored trees (give tree type), architecture, or street scenes in the city.


4.  Don’t forget to include textures, sounds, and smells; it’s easy to do the visuals, but make sure to awaken the other senses as well.


5.  Bring action into a setting by letting something happen.  No setting is still and dormant.  The world is in constant motion, so choose what you want us to see happen in order to build the spirit of “place,” also known as atmosphere.


6.  Similar to 5, bring in characters to build a place, especially an interior like an office or restaurant.


7.  Remember that the language you use to create all of the above must be concrete; you need to use metaphors and a few similes, personifications and apostrophe, and other rhetorical devices.  BUT the key thing is to choose nouns and verbs that create textures, smells, tastes, sounds, and sights.


Here are two samples from Willie Morris’ Taps.  This first one describes what Friday nights were like in the fall of Yazoo, Mississippi.  Note how specific Morris gets in his description of precise details.  He’s trying to get you to see Yazoo realistically, not just romantically.


“That Friday night before the Saturday burial was one of the important home football games, and the whole town was imbued with a fine undercurrent of excitement, for on Fridays in the fall you could almost feel the tension in the atmosphere. Everything, the earth and the trees, touched by the airy sunshine, was the soft golden brown of that sad and lovely time. There was a faint presence of wood smoke everywhere and the smell of leaves burning, and the sounds and their echoes—the train whistles, the courthouse chimes, dogs barking, dead leaves drifting—carried a long, long way, as across a vast and immeasurable distance. Surely it was one of the two most thrilling times of the year in the town, if one loves and remembers too the voluptuous and fragrant Aprils. The autumns there are not so fiery or magnificent as the eastern ones, but their sudden sharpened luster after the heavy summers, the bracing exhilaration of them across the invigorated earth, are a song yet in the heart. It seemed not the time to celebrate death, but rather a moment to indulge one's self in the throbs and melancholies of the living. Wherever you looked, there was a truckload of raw cotton coming in for ginning; along the roads and even the paved avenues of the town you could see the dirty fragments of cotton that had fallen to the ground. There was cotton in the very atmosphere, little floating particles of it. The cotton gin remained open all night, ablaze with light and rumbling with busy noise. The older trees in the flatland were covered in trumpet vine, the soybeans and bitterweed and goldenrod were a sea of yellow, and the gnarled cypresses had turned russet brown and looked for all the world like gaunt and undying sentinels. The leaves glided down out of the trees and whirled along the lonesome sidewalks, and the boulevard was a corridor of sudden and riotous color—the hickories awash in golden flame, the dogwoods almost purple now, the sweet gums bursting with reds and yellows. The weeds and Johnson grass in the gullies and ditch were already beginning to turn brown and seared, yet so teeming was the land that they still grew, half dead and half alive” (Willie Morris, Taps 184).


This next sample shows how you can generalize, and not always be micro-specific about garden details.  Note how Morris lets the “grass and overhanging foliage” grow in our imagination, without having to tell us which kind of grass or what kind of foliage.  Sometimes you need the name of a plant, sometimes not.  It depends on the emotion you’re trying to create.  This image is more haunting and romantic than the image in the above sample:


“The state highway to Monroe City more or less straddled that emphatic divide between the flatland and the ragged hills to the east. In minutes the lights of the town were behind us. We skirted the country club, then the high eminent bluff where Georgia and I had first kissed on a matchless spring day that now seemed centuries ago, then the sharp gravel turnoff to the Godbold holdings. The highway was the same one we had often taken in our ancient bus to the out-of-town basketball games, and the terrain all around was not unfamiliar to me, yet on this dubious night was all too remote and foreboding, and it seemed that every other car flashing by us going south had only one eye, a circumstance for which the state was well known. The lights on the dashboard of the hearse cast an unwholesome bluish luminance inside, and the slow rhythmic thump of wiper against windshield was eerie, like the heavy beating of an old heart. Everywhere the fog clung to the watery land and spreading marshes, and under the bright forward lights the grass and overhanging foliage after the last days' rains were of a green so deep and impenetrable as to turn emerald in the afterglow” (Taps 300).



Finally, if you ever need to read one line of near-perfect description—to get you headed in the right direction before you start to writer—turn to this line, again from Taps:


“The night was bracing.   There was a pale fresco of stars, and dark willowy cloud drifted across the amber moon.  Somewhere in the distance a car horn was stuck, and dogs howled down from the hills.”




Subject Guide