In this article, we reflect on a sense of place in travel writing, the meaning of the term “a sense of place,” and how the idea compares to “spirit of place.” This is the first article in a five-part series of articles about creating a sense of place in travel literature.
Place in travel writing
Paul Theroux once told me that the term travel writing is “maddening” because it encompasses so many categories, genres, subgenres, forms, and styles. Likewise, Carl Thompson notes in his book Travel Writing that “it is no easy matter to provide a neat and unproblematic definition, or delimitation, of what counts as travel writing. The term is a very loose generic label, and has always embraced a bewilderingly diverse range of material.”
We at Travel Writing World embrace all forms of travel writing, but we have a special interest in the travel book. At risk of wading into a murky academic debate, we like to think of the travel book as a genre that documents the experience of an author-subject traveling in or to some place. However you define the genre, writing about some “place” is essential in all forms of travel writing.
Understanding “sense of place” and “spirit of place”
Yi-fu Tuan in his seminal book, Place and Space: The Perspective of Experience, writes that a place is a space that has been “endowed with value.” What I think he means is that a ”space” is void, empty, and meaningless until someone interacts with it and experiences it in some way. Interaction and experience give significance, value, and meaning to a space. Only then does a “space” becomes a “place.”
As the Nobel laureate Alice Munro describes in her short story Face, “Something had happened here. In your life there are a few places, or maybe only one place, where something has happened. And then there are the other places, which are just other places.” That “something happening” Munro talks about is what gives a place some meaning.
What is the “spirit of place”?
The “spirit of a place” is a term that often denotes all the unique characteristics a place has. Such characteristics include the people who inhabit a place, culture, history, language, food, festivals, cultural norms, mores, behaviors and lifestyle, the built environment, architecture, public space, places of commerce and consumption like restaurants, markets, stores, the natural environment, weather, climate, landscapes, scents, sounds, textures, colors, etc. These all amount to the distinctive character of a place, sometimes known as its genius loci.
Linda Lappin defines “spirit of place” as a “composite of climate and landscape together with the cultural markings in a site left by its current residents and those of long ago, who shaped and cultivated its terrain, giving rise to multiple cultural forms adapted to that particular habitat.” The spirit of a place then reveals much about our past, present, and future.
What is a “sense of place”?
A “sense of place,” on the other hand, is someone’s experience in a place. In other words, a sense of place is what it is like to be somewhere. For writers, a “sense of place” is something that they can capture, convey, or create in their work. It is the experience of someone somewhere.
Many writers conflate the term “spirit of place” with “sense of place.” And that’s fine, as one depends on the other and the distinction is academic anyway. But there is a difference for those who care about such things.
We can use the example of a city to illustrate not just the differences between “spirit of place” and “sense of place,” but how one depends on another:
A city exists independently of our experience of it. It has its own “soul,” characteristics, and “spirit” — its own genius loci — whether we visit it or not. But, while our experiences of a city depend on its characteristics, there is no singular experience of one. Your experience of a city could be radically different than mine. There is an infinite number of ways in which we can interact with, derive meaning from, and reflect on a city. The unique way someone experiences a city is a sense of place; it is as much dependent on the author’s experience as it is on the city’s “spirit.”
A sense of place in travel writing
In travel writing, a ”sense of place” is the author’s descriptive account of experiencing a place. Creating a “sense of place” doesn’t necessarily involve a taxonomic-like description of a place’s characteristics or “spirit” — this isn’t always engaging, for the author or for the reader. Instead, a “sense of place” in travel writing is the description of experiencing a unique time and place. This is, perhaps, the main draw of travel books.
This is the first article in a five-part series of articles about creating a sense of place in travel literature. In part two of this five-part series, I discuss how writers can create or capture a sense of place.
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Last Updated on 1 January 2021 by Travel Writing World