These mountains in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia are teaching me about voice. The picture on the left  represents a small slice of the panoramic view we first saw from the window of our new house when we were seeking a place to call home. The mountains and farmland called us and we came.

Just like the African tradition of call-and-response in music, places call to writers, and writers respond in many ways. They can paint places in words through descriptive word choice and rhythmic phrasing, for example, evoking passionate feeling or quiet wonder, naming the uniqueness of one particular place.

Resonance is usually thought of as a scientific term, but it serves as a beautiful metaphor for how place can connect writers and readers to special physical spaces, making them sacred, and enlarging the little world of the individual. Some places resonate more with some bodies and spirits than other places. Water, woods, sky, desert, flora, fauna–all can be beautiful or overwhelming; they mean different things to different people.

Places can be both familiar and exotic, and both experiences hold sacred potential. “There is no Frigate like a Book,” said Emily Dickinson, “to take us Lands away.” If you love to go “Lands away” through reading books and surfing the internet, I recommend the Powers of Place Initiative which celebrates the sacredness of spaces all around the world. Their newsletter, Perspectives, contains a wonderful essay called “Ordinary Places, Sacred Spaces” by Tom Callanan. Sheryl Erickson directs the project with the help of the Fetzer Institute. I asked Sheryl the following question, and she responded below.

Shirley: I’m interested in how voice and place resonate with each other. Do you have any thoughts?

Sheryl: “This really is a good question … not to be taken superficially or answered without listening for an inner guidance and response.

I have not thought about the question before, but in sitting with it the past few days, what keeps coming to mind is a concept I am trying to understand that comes from Maggie Moore Alexander, the wife of Christopher [Alexander, noted architect]. She has spoken of reaching a state of “correspondence” in which the inner authentic Self is resonant with the external situation, the physical tangible energetic surround. By the way I have described it, you can probably see that I am just learning what Maggie’s concept means intellectually, but I feel I know it in my body and below consciousness.  Perhaps what could be described as resonance is a coming-into-oneness or communion of inner true voice and Place. They BELONG together, BELONG being the key word.”

The Powers of Place Initiative offers a wonderful opportunity to memoir writers–a place on the website to publish short essays about the role of place in your life. Check it out! It’s easy to sign up and then offer your work to an active community–a good place to belong!

When you read a memoir, do you think about the place (otherwise known as the setting) of the story? Have you ever felt that the place was like a character in shaping your own life or the lives you read about in memoir? Stories would be a wonderful way to comment!

Shirley Showalter


  1. shirleyhs on March 28, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    A few thoughts about place since writing this post: Nancy Duarte’s book Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences, helped me think about voice in some new ways. Though she writes about public speaking, her points work well with writers also. She is excellent in using myths and movies to analyze the structure of what resonates with audiences in a universal way. Perhaps her most insightful idea, at least for me, was that you are not the hero of your talk or story. Your audience is the hero, needing to learn. You are the mentor. You are not Luke Skywalker. You are Obi-Wan.

    Another idea is that the purpose of story telling is not just entertainment but creating change, a better world.

    Places that move us set up a resonance within us, empowering our ability to speak, whether in writing or in person. They call us to a higher vision of what is possible, which allows us to call others into their own heroic missions.

  2. Elizabeth on April 14, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    The relationship between voice and place is something that I’ve encountered in my work conducting a church history project in Colombia. Much of the Mennonite church’s history here is best captured in the memories of individuals and communities, not in notes or records. The challenge is to elicit narratives and memories from these individuals.

    Place makes a big difference in this process! I’ve done interviews in churches, restaurants, seminaries, etc., but by far the most successful interviews I’ve done have been in people’s long-time homes. Of course, it is not always possible, but if the interview can be done in a home that has ties to the historical period, the narrative will be significantly richer, more detailed, and more coherent. I have seen elderly people, whose memories are beginning to fail, surprise even their family members by recounting specific names, dates, and details that many others assumed to be long since forgotten. (My interview with Jorge Caicedo was one such experience:

    I am convinced that place plays a major role in these instances. When people can look out over the hills they used to travel on horseback to visit other believers, when they can see the river in which they were baptized or sit at the table where they used to study Bible courses, the memories are so much closer and more real to them than if they would be sitting in an anonymous cafe somewhere.

  3. shirleyhs on April 14, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    Thanks, Elizabeth. I loved your post and left you a comment on it. There’s a relevance here to collecting family stories. Do so, if possible, in the places that gave you birth or sustenance while you were growing up.

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