Craft Talk with Rich Farrell:

On Place and its Importance in Conveying Meaning

June 30, 2022

During Rich Farrell’s Craft Talk this past Sunday, the focus was on place in fiction. He began the meeting by using Charles Baxter, an author he admires, as an interesting beginning. In an essay by Baxter, the author says that “a place can be like a character,” something that many writers take to heart.


Rich turns this on its head and says from the start that this is “bullshit.”


According to Rich, when setting is done well, it feels alive to the reader. Compared to a scene, a character is something with human consciousness and agency. The only way a setting can be a character is if it has human consciousness.


Instead, Rich implored the class to think of place as something completely different. He explained that all places hold emotion and that we associate meaning and connections with them. Using a hospital building as an example, he explained how this type of place has meaning tied to it depending on an experience with it. For example, a hospital might have different significance if you are a nurse or if you have ever said goodbye to a loved one. Rich asked the class to recognize the subjectivity, which is what attaches you to the place.


“Your job is to convey the meaning of the place to the reader,” he said.


Rich also stated that descriptions are active and nothing is permanent. He asked the class to think about how often authors will remind the reader where they are by using a passage from Lorrie Moore’s “Dance in America,” a short story that follows a woman with a passion for dance who moves to Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Rich focused on the way the author expanded and contracted scenes, from going to a large setting to something more specific.


“The reader comes to the page with a blank canvas,” said Rich.


The next time you’re thinking about how to write place, remember that you are in charge of thinking critically and meaningfully about how it is read by others.

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