A Writer’s Place

A Writer’s Place

Humans have been writing stories for at least four thousand years. The earliest that we know of, written on 12 clay tablets, is the epic of Gilgamesh, the fifth king of Uruk, who lived in ancient Sumeria, somewhere between 2750 and 2500 BCE. In this first recorded story, Gilgamesh sets out on a quest for the font of all wisdom. He journeys to a new place, through many adventures, and returns to tell his tale.

The quest, the movement from one place to another in search of wisdom, is a deeply embedded theme in literature of every culture, which started me thinking about place, and what it means to a writer.

Place, most obviously, refers to an actual, material space — my backyard garden, my room, my desk. It can be very particular, as in this place, here, on my body, or this place here, in San Miguel de Allende. But it can also be generic and rhetorical: a place of worship, a place of higher learning.

Place can indicate a position in some scale or order or series, rank, as in my pumpkin placed first at the fair. Or it can refer to an occasion. A funeral is no place for levity. The meaning of the word can be broadened even more to encompass the rules by which a society enforces its hierarchies. With a stern look, the old dowager put the rogue in his place.

When we say that everything is in place, we mean our world is ordered, understandable, familiar. When things are out of place, we’re on the edge of chaos.

Finding our place, in today’s newspeak, has taken on a broad metaphorical, almost spiritual meaning: the place where we find peace of mind, inspiration, enlightenment. Finding our place is the quest of a lifetime.

Every story— our life’s story, the stories we write—move across time and place, the longitudes and latitudes of literature.

So, what is a writer’s place? What is place to a writer?

For a long time, Canadian writers didn’t consider the place where they lived as a source for significant stories. It was a Uruguayan, Eduardo Galeano, and a Bolivian, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and a Canadian Pierre Berton, who taught me, by example, to look to our own history, to our own place in the world for inspiration. The first two inspired me through their books. The third, Pierre Berton, was the man I went to when I found hundreds of letters in the attic of a little house in Kingston.

I had just moved to the city after the breakup of my marriage. I was a single woman with two teenage sons. I’d never had a salaried job: I’d been bringing in a few dollars as a freelance magazine journalist, and through a series of lucky accidents and coincidences had begun to write books: first a book on soapmaking, then canoe-building, then solar houses, backyard playgrounds. I had become expert in telling do-it-yourselfers how to put tab A in slot B. Two things kept me at these projects: I loved hearing the stories of the people who made soap and built canoes and their own houses. And I loved the history that I wedged into each book: how we came to build canoes and soap and solar houses, the significance of those objects not only to people but to the Canadian cultural landscape.

I’d written those how-to books in northern Ontario, a land of trees and lakes and rocks. Moving south to the banks of the St. Lawrence, part of the dividing line between the United States and Canada, was profoundly disorienting. I’d never been east of Toronto and here was a brand new landscape: limestone instead of granite, elm and hickory instead of maples, pines, and bamagalia.

At an event last week, I shared the stage with the American poet Tess Gallagher, and she said something I hold to be true: “Art happens at the moment when you are unseated.” Few things are more unseating, more disorienting and thus a fertile prod for the imagination, than moving to a new place, where nothing is familiar, where the senses are on high alert.

I moved to Kingston in June 1987 and settled into a little, two-bedroom house that I assumed was a wartime house, because of its small, boxy shape. The attic hatch was in the bathroom, directly above the toilet and it was open. By August, it was stifling hot and I’d finally got to know my neighbours enough to borrow a ladder so I climbed up, intending to pull the hatch closed. What I saw in the dusty, shafting light was a row of thirteen 50-pound sugar bags, each tied at the top with a lisle stocking and a tag on which was scrawled Keep. Around these, a jumble of old cookie tins, all of them spilling with newspapers and pamphlets, papers and and letters. I grabbed a tin, took it down to my kitchen: inside, were rolled up pieces of paper tied with bits of string and ribbons, some small square envelopes with King George stamps. I pulled one out and began to read. The words sent a jolt of electricity down my spine: Warden. Convict. Penitentiary.

For the next several months, I sat in my kitchen, gradually pulling down tin after tin, bag after bag, cataloguing every page, sorting and sifting, until I had, amongst the hundreds of letters and papers up there, a correspondence of 79 letters some of them 29 pages long, written by Josie Cleroux, a prisoner in Kingston Penitentiary in 1919 and 1920 to a young Portsmouth girl, Phyllis Halliday.

What I’d found was absolutely unique in the English-speaking world. There are letters from prisoners which have been sent out through regular channels, passed before the eyes of a censor. There are reminiscences of prison life written after a convict was released. There is even an odd page here and there that has been smuggled out of prison. But nowhere is there such an extensive correspondence, a 10-month exchange of letters smuggled out of Canada’s Alcatraz, our oldest, most notorious and most iconic prison, detailing life inside as it was being lived, three quarters of a century ago.

But how to make these letters into a story?

I could have written a novel, a work of historical fiction. I wouldn’t be the first to set a piece of fiction in Kingston Penitentiary. Part of Michael Ondaatje’s In The Skin of a Lion, takes place in that prison when a convict escapes by painting himself blue like the roof of the prison. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Margaret Atwood was, at that very moment, researching her own novel set in Kingston Penitentiary, during the incarceration of the murderess Grace Marks.

It was Pierre Berton, though, who reinforced my desire to reproduce these letters within the framework of a true story, to get inside small-town Canada in 1920 and inside Kingston Penitentiary, the most forbidden and foreboding of places.

The penitentiary I wanted to enter to write this book was not the one that exists now. The stone walls have been rebuilt and slathered with concrete, razor wire installed, and high-intensity lights. I had to see inside the prison that existed in 1920.

How to do that? I read first-person accounts, especially a book called Shackling the Transgressor written by a doctor who was incarcerated for performing abortions. He was there at the same time as my convict and the places he described — the infirmary, the cells, the dungeons — eventually made it into the book. I also read the report of the Inquiry into Kingston Penitentiary in 1913-14 and read the testimony of convicts—the first time convicts were publicly heard— as they described the bath house, the workshops, especially the stone shop, and the goings-on there. Those, too, made it into the book. At one point, I hired a sailboat to sail past the south wall — the only original wall of the penitentiary still standing — but I didn’t actually get inside the walls of Kingston Penitentiary until I had finished a draft of the book.

The specifics of a place are powerful: the smells, the sights, the colours. I was afraid that what I saw in the prison of 1995 would derail my attempt to recreate the prison as it was in 1919. But I had to take the risk. I had to know what it felt like to be inside those walls, on the wrong side of the bars. So I asked the curator of the prison museum to take me inside. He took me into the cells and workshops, the chapel and the Dome, and then we climbed down to the basement to where the punishment cells were. The Hole. Much of the penitentiary had already been renovated: I had to look hard to find the vestiges of the prison as it had been 80 years before. I found it in the stone steps, in the tiers of cells. But those dungeon cells were unchanged. They were no longer used and had simply sat there, the graffiti still on the walls, as it would have been when my convict, Josie Cleroux, saw it. Shortly after that visit, those punishment cells were renovated out of existence. That place survives now only in the account in my book.

I couldn’t have written The Convict Lover without living in Kingston, without seeing the limestone door lintels and window sills of the houses, many of them cut out of the ground and shaped by generations of convicts in Kingston Penitentiary. I spent long hours sitting in the park that had once been the quarry where the convicts did hard time, breaking stone, imagining Phyllis’s house on the lip of the quarry—it’s gone now, sold to the prison. I fingered the remains of the drill holes that still exist in the rock cliff wall at one end of the park. I studied the assessment rolls for 1919-20 and the fire maps and put together a diagram for myself of what the village of Portsmouth looked like in 1919. I walked the same route the convicts walked, from the prison to the park and back, retracing the convicts’ steps in the morning, at noon, and in the evening, watching to see how the light fell, trying to imagine what they would have seen, knowing that the roadbeds under my feet were laid with stone that had been hammered into gravel by rows of men sitting on benches, reducing huge boulders to a fine grit, a make-work project to keep their idle hands busy.

The Convict Lover is very much about place: about the way a place affects a person. That living in a cell in a penitentiary shapes a man is obvious, but just as important was the place where Phyllis lived: in a house on the lip of a quarry where convicts did hard time. The place she found herself changed her life, too. In a sense, both Phyllis and Josie were pushing at the boundaries of place, trying to reach across the physical and societal barriers to touch each other’s lives.

Working on The Convict Lover, trying to put together the pieces of these two lives, stirred memories of the pieces of my life, too. I thought suddenly of the lion I’d seen when I was seven, living in a hotel in Brazil while our apartment was being prepared. When I woke in the morning, when I paused in my work, there it was: the lion, looking at me quizzically. It was such a persistent, compelling image that I had to stop work on the Convict Lover and follow this image. A month later, the title story of my next book, The Lion in the Room Next Door, was written. But that wasn’t all. Next came the image of left shoes, scattered along a lane in Mexico. That image became “The Still Point.” Then there was the woman flying, a suicide I’d witnessed from the balcony of our apartment, an image that would not let me go until “Nossa Senhora dos Rémedios” was on the page.

In The Convict Lover I explored place as a fixture, a fixative, the thing that grounds a person, shapes their life. In The Lion in the Room Next Door, I was investigating place as a springboard for memory, as a repository for all the versions of ourselves that have existed through time— an exploration of the hold a place has on a person.

For me, in my childhood, place was profound. When I was seven, my parents moved me and my three sisters from a small village of Plattsville in southwestern Ontario to a very large city in the heart of South America. My grandparents and great-aunts and -uncles, my cousins and friends vanished, replaced by short, dark-skinned people who spoke a language I didn’t understand, who wore bright clothes and sandals, even to church, people who fried their bananas and ate creamed corn for desert. Nothing about that place felt like home.

I have a theory that if you scratch the surface of the life of most writers, you’ll uncover a seam of isolation, a time that set them apart in the world, moved them to the sidelines where they became spectators, observers instead of participants in the fray. Sometimes it is an illness, sometimes economic position or a person’s place within the family. For me, it was travel. A middle child, caught between older sisters who wanted nothing to do with me and a baby that absorbed all my mother’s time, I wandered alone through the ship that took us south, poking into the games room, the bars, the staff lounge, then up the winding staircase above the ballroom, until I came upon the library. I was seven. I had already cultivated the library habit, hanging out in the Plattsville Public Library every Wednesday after school and all day on Saturdays, the only times it was open. But here was an empty room, solidly lined, floor to ceiling, with books, no lock on the door, no one in attendance to tell me I could read this book, but not that, or that. There was just me, four walls of books, and a couple of big, comfy chairs.

Books became my friends and my closest companions. Girl of the Limberlost. The Secret Garden. Eight is enough. All the works of Thomas B. Costain. Lloyd C. Douglas. (For a while I thought writers were required to use their middle initial.) My parents encouraged my bookishness and why not? They always knew where to find me, and reading is a quiet, sedate occupation, not an insignificant consideration in a family of four girls. Even after we landed in Brasil and finally settled in our apartment above the Royal palms in the square, it was books I turned to for entertainment, enlightenment, and solace. We had radio and TV but in Brazil, Roy Rogers spoke Portuguese. There were a few other English-speaking children. But there were always books.

Everything came to me through words—even the people I missed so much. Every few months, a fat envelope would arrive from Canada, decorated with portraits of the Queen. My grand-parents, my friends came to seem like characters in a book, the chapters of their lives written on tissue-thin sheets of blue paper. Gardens were planted and harvested, the snow piled high, people died, some of old age, some in horrific accidents, like the boy, a former classmate, who smothered to death in a silo of grain, grief and joy unfolding in a complex narrative so compelling we tore open each letter and read it aloud as if it were the next installment in a Dickens novel.

The world, I learned in Brasil, was a shifting, shifty place. Not one thing or the other—real or imagined—but both at once. On Christmas Eve, before we hung up our stockings on the cardboard fireplace my father made, we tore a long roll of cotton batting into tiny bits and taped them to the windows, so that on Christmas morning, no matter where we looked, snow would be falling in big blowsy flakes. My father always found some sort of conifer, a spindly bedraggled thing that he would wire with extra branches, trimming the makeshift tree into the shape of a real Scotch pine. My mother would cook a bird that she swore was a buzzard, stuffing it and glazing it as she had always done, setting it in the midst of our meal like a centrepiece, one that was too tough to eat and so it remained unblemished until the flying ants swarmed the table and finished up our faux feast.

That nothing is as it seems was a realization I came to early, at an age when insights lodge deep in the heart. Yes, there was a world at my fingertips, a place I could see and hear, smell and touch, but there were shadow worlds too, places conjured in the mind. I moved through both of them at once.

I wrote about these overlapping, multiple places in The Lion in the Room Next Door, a collection of autobiographical short stories, each set in a different place. In the final story, “The Day of the Dead,” the narrator returns for her mother’s funeral to the village where she grew up.

“I still see it. The way it was, the way it is, all the stages I witnessed between and some I only imagine: a perpetual becoming. The buildings shape-shift as I pass, porches falling away, decks emerging, sheds collapsing, garages rising in their place, clapboard in succession a dozen different hues…”

In my novel, The Holding, I also grapple with the shifting nature of place. The first seeds for that novel were planted in the opening to that story in Lion. “What was it, I wondered, that made a person love a place? That made them seek it out? That made them leave the place they were born to and strike out into the unknown?”

That question continued to intrigue me: why move from one place to another? What do we hope to find there?

The Holding is the story of two women, Alyson Thomson and Margaret MacBayne. Margaret is an emigrant from Scotland who makes her way, together with her brothers, to a piece of Canadian wilderness in the Madawaska Valley. 130 years later, Alyson Thomson escapes from the city to lead a simpler life in the country, buying up an old abandoned farm where she lives with her lover, Walker Freeman, a reclusive potter. The farm that Alyson and Walker move to is the old MacBayne homestead. One place, two stories. As the title suggests, the place itself, the holding, becomes a character in the book.

When I first started to write The Holding, I set it in Muskoka. I did that partly out of loyalty to my family roots, since my great-great-great-grandmother Margaret Cornfoot settled there from Scotland with her sons in 1832, one of the first Europeans to own land in what is now the town of Gravenhurst. I had trouble imagining the place fully, though. The past there is obscured under millionaire cottages and resorts. But the Muskoka Road was only one of seven colonization roads that headed north, away from the lakeshore into the wilderness of Ontario. I could have placed Margaret and Alyson on any one of them. I traced my finger along maps, looking for inspiration, but it wasn’t until I drove up the Opeongo on my to visit Sandra Gulland, my good friend who I’m so happy to be staying with her in SMA, that I discovered the place for this novel.
The Opeongo Road is the only colonization road that is still intact. The Muskoka Road has been rerouted, straightened, bypassed into oblivion, but the Opeongo, although paved, is built on the same roadbed as the original colonization road. The hills I saw from my car are the same that Margaret would have seen from her wagon (minus a few thousands trees). The road is flanked by log homesteads, clusters of outbuildings like small villages. It is a poor part of Ontario, somewhat immune to the gentrification that bulldozes the past and so the world of the first settlers is still palpable.

This was the place for The Holding. I knew it as soon as I saw it. Knew as soon as we turned onto Hopefield Road that this would Margaret and Alyson’s road. Who could resist a name like that? Driving north on the Opeongo, you can turn left on Hopefield Road, but you’ll never find the old MacBayne homestead, even though whenever we drive up the Opeongo and turn left onto Hopefield to visit our friends, I find myself watching for Alyson’s place, as if it really were there, it is so solid and substantial in my mind.

I had moved from writing about the place where I was living (Kingston) to writing about places where I once lived, stored in my memory (Greece, Mexico, Brazil), to writing about a place that doesn’t exist at all:

It isn’t until they penetrate the untouched forest that Margaret feels the hinges of her bones loosen, feels her breath rise from the deepest recesses of her lungs.

Dense foliage hems the road on either side, limiting her gaze to what lies directly ahead and behind. At first it seems as stout a barrier as the high stone walls of the wynds, but gradually the greenery yields and she can make out leaves of varying shapes and colours, clusters of red and blue-black berries, dangling nuts, trunks smooth, gnarled, corrugated, a latticework of vaulting branches and creeping vines that do not so much keep her sternly to the path as embrace her in her progress.

Nothing about this landscape is familiar. Not the bald grey rock, not the endless towering trees. Not the stillness of the wind nor the awful heat of the sun. Certainly not the peculiar fragrance, though she will learn to put names to it — pine and hemlock, granite damp with dew. She has never in her life encountered anything like it, yet from the first moment, it strikes her as home.
The land drew me to itself. I cannot explain it, the way it gripp’d my heart, like love.

Where do these stories come from? How does a writer discover that unique place she writes from, the locus that is the font of the stories particular to each pen?

For me, stories spring from a landscape, and more specifically, from an image.

Ten years ago, while I was still working on The Convict Lover, while I was eking out the stories of The Lion in the Room Next Door, one by one, I was asked to write an essay for Canadian Geographic on the culture of the gun. (This is how writers in Canada keep body and soul together: a novel here, a short story there, a book review, a bit of teaching, a magazine piece now and then.)

It was the time of the gun control debates in the United States and Canada and I decided to read the settlement literature of both countries — pioneer diaries and memoirs— to see if there was a difference in how the first Canadians and Americans thought about their guns. One of the books I read was Samuel Thompson’s memoir, Reminiscences of a Canadian Pioneer 1833-1883. He wrote about walking through the wilderness of Ontario for days and suddenly coming upon a log cabin in the forest. The family who lived there was in mourning. Their daughter had been in a chopping contest with her betrothed and she had won, but the tree had fallen in an unexpected way, and the young man was killed.

Reading that, an image formed in my mind that I couldn’t shake. It was like a pebble in my shoe. Like a lyrical loop from some faintly heard song. Like a memory that won’t quite come clear. Whenever my mind was at rest, there it would be, that strong young woman, her innocent, dead lover. The image had its hook in me: a young woman in the wilderness, her strength the very thing that robbed her of love.

Why are these images so real? Why do they feel so much like the truth? I think it is because they tap into something deeply human. Most of us have never chopped a tree or laid the blow that felled a lover, but we’ve all known death. We’ve all lost love. We’ve all been responsible for another person’s suffering. We can imagine what it must be like to be that young woman. We do this all the time: it is part of what makes us human, that ability to imagine the hearts and minds of others, to empathize with their experience. It is what draws us together into societies, allows us to get along. A sociopath is someone who cannot imagine how his victim feels.

As a writer, I get snared in that imagining. I follow the story forward and back, hang around the girl, watch her gauge the tress of that place, sharpen her axe, trade her skirts for a pair of trowsers, and suddenly she has a name, Margaret, and I see her brothers, the ones who taunted her into the chopping contest, thinking she needed bringing down a notch or two, and before I know it, this entirely conjured shadowworld is a distinct place with shape and texture, the landscape is peopled, events are unfolding through time in this place, and suddenly it’s a story, one demanding to be written.

Just as I couldn’t have written The Convict Lover without living in Kingston, and I couldn’t have finished The Lion in the Room Next Door without travelling to the tropics, so I found myself drawn away from the city into the countryside in order to write The Holding. I needed a forest to wander in, trees to fell, a garden to plant with herbs, for it is through Margaret’s old garden which Alysson rediscovers that the two stories are brought together.

The shadow worlds of my stories live in my mind, but the imagining springs from very real leaves and roots, stems and blooms. And so, through the place of this novel, my own physical place changed. We moved out of the city to an acreage in eastern Ontario, into a 200-year-old stone house surrounded by two acres of lawns that we very quickly transformed into gardens, huge sprawling gardens, 26 of them—the same as the letters of the alphabet. And because as a writer I can’t seem to do anything that doesn’t eventually invade my thoughts and imagination and meander onto a page, I began to write about this place, The Leaf, first on a blog called Frugalista Gardener, where I posted weekly essays that took root in my garden and meandered through stories of the place and the people that shape it—my Beloved, the Garden Guru, the Rosarian, the Woodcutter, the Frisian. An editor with Doubleday became a frequent visitor on the site “These should be a book!” she said, and so they are.

The Holding was about a garden that is made in one century, lost, and rediscovered and remade in another. I thought a lot about gardens as I was writing that book: why we garden. Was it to become closer to nature? Or was it to manipulate, to make nature do as it’s told? The pieces in A New Leaf are my way of trying to come to grips with that question. Here’s a snippet from a piece called Hollyhocks.

You may choose whom you spend your day with, who sits down to share your meal, who comes to your bed at night, but there is no choosing love. It erupts wild, in inappropriate places, where it must know it can never grow, though it does, defiantly, without care for whether it is needed, or useful, or desired, until it is part of your landscape, whether you like it or not.

I look at the hollyhocks and think of that kind of love, unbidden, unwelcome, with a stubborn will all its own. Love for an unkind parent, a wayward child, a betraying friend. Not sexual love but a love that carves deeper channels with its tough, seeking root. The kind of love I think of when I see the hollyhocks break through the earth.

And it seems I’m not done with gardens yet. As I was writing the nonfiction pieces in A New Leaf, other stories came to me, flash fictions that explore the garden, not necessarily in the physical sense, but in the metaphorical, Biblical sense of the garden as paradise. After all, it was a gardener who made us who we are, who first made humans stay in one place by pushing a seed into the ground and saying, Grow here, where I want to be. Setting up, too, the dichotomy that plagues so many of us—to stay in one place, or to give in to our hunter-gatherer urge and move on, to hoard one season to the next or to live on what we can scavenge.

A collection of these flash fictions will be published this summer as The Paradise Project, a limited-edition book printed on a 19th century hand-operated letterpress, on paper made from plants in my garden. At the same time, those stories will be published as an ebook. And after that will come, I hope, a work that I am calling Gutenberg’s Fingerprint, about the strange place we are in right now, straddling a paradigm shift from the book world that Gutenberg made possible and the uncertain future of the digital age.

In a physical sense, my writer’s place is a small bedroom that I have converted to a study in an old stone house. Its windows look out over a slope of planted fields, alfalfa, oats, corn, hay. In the summer it is like living on the edge of an ocean. I have two desks, one for my dictionary, the Shorter Oxford, and the one where I write. As well as the ephemera of writing, there are always the icons from the book-of-the-moment. During The Convict Lover, I kept Phyllis’ beaded flowers on my desk, as well as the small birthday book her mother gave her, and the page of the 1919 calendar I found in the attic with Josie’s note scrawled on the back. While I was writing the stories in The Lion in the Room Next Door I kept a picture postcard of the Hotel Terminus my father sent from Brazil with his room circled in black ink. Through The Holding, there were dried herbs, a shard of pottery.

This is my place, the place where I feel most comfortable. What I do here is close my eyes, flex my fingers, and make my way into the unknown. For writing itself is a place, a landscape I go to in my mind, one peopled with stories. Each writer’s place is unique — in my case, a small-town rural place, the kind of place I came from, a place that is disappearing. Maybe that’s why I keep coming back to it, trying to peg it down, put it on paper before, like those punishment cells, that small-town world is gone forever.

There is no road map to a writer’s place. You have to be willing to meander, to walk in the dark, to bump into the trees, to learn a new language, see strange sights and write them down.
Maybe place is not the right word. Through the writing of The Holding and A New Leaf, I kept a poem by Octavio Paz propped up on my desk:

A garden is not a place:
it is a passage,
a passion.
We don’t know where we’re going,
to pass through is enough
to pass through is to remain

Maybe that’s what a writer’s place is: a passage, a passion. I spent eight years inside Kingston’s penitentiary, four in the various places of my life — Brazil, Greece, Sweden, Mexico, Hawaii, small-town Ontario — another five in the hills of the Madawaska, and now eight in the Mexico City, New York, Montreal, and the Newbliss of Cassie MacCallum, heroine of my novel-in-progress. When I entered each one, I had no idea where I was going, though after time, I came to know where I’d been.

I passed through, but the books remain, landmarks of a writer’s place.

Keynote address delivered at the 2012 San Miguel de Allende Writers’ Conference and Literary Festival, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

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Short stories are often a welcome respite from the intense concentration of writing a book. They can feel like play, and sometimes they become the seed from which a longer work grows. You’ll find fiction and nonfiction posted here: jottings from my writing past and raw excerpts from future manuscripts. To me, they are all stories—a word that embraces events both real and imagined. I leave it to you to decide which are more true.


If a story has been previously published, you’ll find a credit and link at the end of the story.

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