WHAT IS A SENSE OF PLACE?
Part of my inspiration for this series of craft notes is Rebecca Solnit’s book, IN SAVAGE DREAMS: A JOURNEY INTO THE LANDSCAPE WARS OF THE AMERICAN WEST.
In it, Solnit describes sense of place as “…the sixth sense, an internal compass and map made by memory and spatial perception together.”
For both fiction and nonfiction writers, a clear sense of place—one that accesses not only geographical features, but also elements of memory, cultural identity, and regional character—grounds narrative in concrete detail, while allowing for the complexity of subjective experience.
It also deepens other key aspects of prose narrative, including character development, theme, and structure.
But let’s begin at the level of the body.
THE BIG FIVE
Writers are always exhorted to use concrete, sensory detail. But some senses are privileged over others; also, there is often a sense missing from these discussions—the sixth sense to which Solnit refers.
Consider which of the five senses you access most frequently in your writing.
I tend to rely heavily on visual information in my descriptions of setting and landscape. Following that, I focus on sound. But the farther down the list I go, the less likely I am to employ three essential components of how we engage in and experience the world: smell, touch, and taste.
I would argue that’s because these senses—smell, touch, and taste—are more abstract. We are more likely to access them through figurative language, especially through simile: Tastes like chicken. Smells like roses.
THE SIXTH SENSE
But what about that sixth sense—the space in which memory and spatial perception coexist?
That is kinesthetic sense. In physical terms, kinesthetic sense is muscle memory, the body’s ability to recall. It’s what allows us to drive a car, or brush our teeth.
In prose, the kinesthetic sense might best be described as the body’s relationship to aspects of the physical environment: the shape, dimensions, and objects encountered and how the body relates to them.
AN EXAMPLE OF THE KINESTHETIC SENSE IN A NARRATIVE
Here’s an example of the kinesthetic sense in an anecdote by a former student of mine, an undergraduate at the University of Southern Maine. It’s always stuck with me for its simplicity and emotional resonance.
This student grew up with a big sheep dog mix, and the dog had a habit of sleeping on the floor just inside the front door of her parent’s house. Whenever she walked in the front door, she would lift one knee up to step over the dog, which, at fifteen, had grown increasingly creaky and tired.
Then she went away to college, and her dog died. It was her freshman year, and she was so caught up in her new life that she didn’t really mourn the animal’s passing. Until she went home, walked through the front door, and instinctively lifted one knee up to step over the dog.
This is exactly what Solnit is talking about: an internal compass and map made by memory and spatial perception together.
WRITING EXERCISE #1
When my student shared this story, what was fascinating to me was that every person in the room had ideas about the physical space in which it occurred. The power of her simple anecdote invited our imaginations, and our senses, to fill in further details.
So let’s take a few minutes and do just that: what do you see, what do you imagine, as you approach that front door?
What ideas has this given you about your own work?
Is there a key moment in a scene in which you could better use the power of kinesthetic sense to make the setting and the emotional situation clearer?