I Know a Place: the Importance of Setting in Creative Nonfiction

The following is a guest post by Storey Clayton, whose creative nonfiction work “To See a Rabbit” appeared in issue 17 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

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Non-writer friends often ask me what creative nonfiction means. If it’s all true, where is there room for creativity?

As writers tend to understand, the choices we make as storytellers breathe creative life into our truth. In choosing particular details or focal points, we command the reader’s attention and help shape how they will comprehend our experience. We choose where to dwell and what to skip, and this allocation of observation provides a subjective lens for the objective facts of an event. In creative nonfiction, this process often revolves around internal perceptions: feelings, memories, and reflections on our previous lived experience. As a result, place and setting are frequently overlooked as opportunities to creatively build a world for the reader.

However, place and setting are essential. Just as the precise details of an interaction or line of dialogue can help make a scene relatable, the specifics of a location illustrate the reality for a reader who may only visit in their mind. I find this is easier to remember when I write about travel: the place is unusual for me and thus I notice what makes it unique. It is harder, but probably more vital, to make these observations when writing about locales I find familiar. As humans, we tend to acclimate to our environment, relegating the landscape to the background, memorizing the region and therefore deflating its features. When bringing such a place to life in words, however, we must fight this instinct and make the familiar new again. 

In my experience, the easiest way to do this is to continually remind myself that the reader may never have been where I’m writing about. They don’t know that this giant restaurant looms on the corner, across from the university, frequented by students, houseless folks, and businesspeople alike. They don’t know how far the river is, or what trees stand beside it, or how the branches fall in an afternoon thunderstorm. For writers who tend to write about one place repeatedly – a childhood hometown or one’s longtime city – I recommend taking frequent walks or drives while pretending you’ve just arrived for the first time. What do you notice? What defines the landscape? Is there a structure or natural element that stands as a metaphor for this spot and its denizens? 

This last question homes in on a key asset of taking time to describe place. Your location provides ample opportunity to layer thematic elements in your story, a crucial part of making nonfiction creative. An old car rusting on blocks in the unkempt front yard or a lonely windswept beach awash in clouds and seagulls set the mood in a way that merely telling us you were depressed cannot. The specific texture of our surroundings, keenly observed in detail, is more than just backdrop or context. It is the atmosphere in which our stories swirl, the oxygen that gives them life.

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Storey Clayton is a current MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at West Virginia University. He’s worked as a youth counselor, debate coach, strategic analyst, development director, rideshare driver, and poker player. In the past two years, his nonfiction has appeared in twenty literary journals, including Pleiades, Lunch Ticket, Mud Season Review, Typehouse Literary Magazine, and North Dakota Quarterly. You can learn more about Storey at his personal website, The Blue Pyramid (bluepyramid.org).

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