I’m sitting on a lawn chair on the front porch of a rented cabin near Livermore Falls, Maine, feet up and mug of coffee in hand. The sun is beaming through the trees, and loons are calling to one another across Parker Pond. The air is already moist and warm, and it’s not even nine o’clock yet. I came to this place not only to vacation with my six-year-old daughter, Angela, who is still snoozing in the cabin loft, but also to write scenes for the memoir I’ve been working on for the past three years. This is my hometown, the place where I was raised, and I returned to this woodsy, working-class corner of the world to capture details that, to me, seem critical to the narrative: the smell of morning dew on pine needles, the sound of chickadees singing, the chill of evening air on bare forearms.It is never easy to come back here. My whole life, I have tried to stay out of Livermore Falls, for reasons that waver between resentment and despair. My relationship with this town is complicated, as I supposed most relationships are.Setting is one of the basic elements of storytelling. It defines the location and time in which an event or series of events take place. Details about setting might include the weather, the landscape, and the language of the residents. What do the locals eat? What do they wear? Where do they go on Saturday nights? Specifics enrich the narrative by providing clues to the reader about where and how the characters live their lives.
In her essay, “Place in Fiction,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eudora Welty compares the notion of place in a novel to a multi-dimensional nightlight, one that illuminates a scene from the front differently than it illuminates from the sides. Taken together, the scenes create a more textured, more complete picture of place that conveys the full range of feelings and experiences of the characters.
“Place in fiction is the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting, and therefore credible, gathering spot of all that has been felt, is about to be experienced, in the novel’s progress,” she wrote. “Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable as art, if it took up its character and plot and happened somewhere else.
“Place,” she continued, “is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of ‘What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?’”
Welty writes about fiction, but I think the same principals apply for creative nonfiction. Now matter the genre, a writer must capture the essence of a setting in order to bring that place to life on the page. That means knowing how the moonlight shines on a pond on a summer’s night in Maine, how long and lonely a winter evening feels, and what a relief it is to see the first daffodils push through the ground come spring. Just as the writer experiences place, so does the reader.
And that is partly why I have come back to Livermore Falls, a place that I have never particularly liked to be. After living in California for three years, I have forgotten what kinds of flowers and trees grow here in July, what birds visit the feeders, what the morning sun feels like on my shoulders, and how my daughter sounds when she’s dancing in the sprinklers in the front yard.
As a teen, I never quite understood where I fit in here. I wasn’t one of the cool kids, the pretty girls or the jocks. I didn’t have a boyfriend or a car. Instead, I got decent grades, played second-string basketball and bagged groceries at the local supermarket. On the outside I must have seemed happy and somewhat outgoing, but inside I was struggling to understand who I was and where I belonged.
I could barely wait to leave town. After graduation, I moved two hours north to the University of Maine to study journalism, then got married and moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where I got my first job at a daily newspaper. I interviewed city officials, celebrities, people who had strange jobs or strange experiences. The work and the city were exciting; both made me feel important, like I had finally found a purpose.
Twelve years later, after my marriage failed, I returned to Livermore Falls. Angela and I rented an apartment, and I found a part-time job at the same supermarket, this time counting pills in the pharmacy for slightly more than minimum wage.
It was an emotional time for the both of us as we grappled with the new reality of our lives. Angela, age two, went to daycare for the first time in her life, while I attended divorce proceedings, juggled work and motherhood, and wrestled with the most important questions a woman can ask herself: who am I, where do I belong, and what do I want to do with the rest of my life?
Livermore Falls was a safe haven when I needed one, but it soon began to feel limiting. There were very few jobs, and very few places to go for fun or social connection. Just over 1,500 people live in Livermore Falls, and most of them keep to themselves. Some of my relatives were supportive, and some weren’t. I love my family, but there are times when we simply don’t understand each other.
After two years, Angela and I moved three thousand miles to Los Angeles, where I started graduate school to work toward my master’s degree in creative writing, thanks to a full scholarship from the Gannett Foundation, an organization that helps journalists.
During a seminar at Antioch University Los Angeles, where I am a student in the teacher certification program, author John Corey Whaley talked about the importance of setting in narrative. His novel, Where Things Come Back, takes place in fictional Lily, Arkansas, which could easily be Livermore Falls or any small town where young adults struggle to reconcile complicated feelings about where they grew up.
The setting, Whaley said, contains the backbone of the story’s conflict or struggle. It informs the nature of the characters’ relationships to one another, and shows the reader the characters’ fears, aspirations and desires.
“You have to hold the reader’s hand and say ‘This is what a small town does to you when you feel like you shouldn’t be there,’” he said.
The key, and the trick, to capturing the complexity of a place is the same as capturing the complexity of the story’s hero or its villain: the author must work to find the good and the bad, what she loves as well as what she scorns, the admirable and the detestable. To do so is to bring the setting alive, to give it personality, which will, in turn, give the story universality. The reader will feel as though the story took place in their town, on their street, or perhaps in their own backyard.
In the three years since we left Livermore Falls, Angela and I have returned several times to visit, but none of our previous sojourns felt quite like this one. This time around, we are renting a small cabin on a pond just outside of town. We are swimming, fishing, hiking and kayaking. We pick wild blueberries and watch thunderstorms roll over the pond at night. In the morning, we wake to the songs of loons. In the evening, we have campfires and make s’mores that stick to our fingers.
A few days ago, Angela and I took Gramma to the gazebo in the middle of town, down by the river, to listen to a four-piece band perform cover songs and a few originals.
For my book, I took notes about the concert, listing the titles of the songs they played, noticing the birch trees in the park, and watching my daughter tap her pink sandals on the green grass beneath her lawn chair. The dozen or so people in the audience all seemed to be friends, and they waved hello and squeezed each others’ shoulders as the band switched from one Eagles song to another.
When I was here as a newly single mom, I took Angela to the gazebo concerts on our evening walks, simply for the company. Back then, the performances felt sad to me. Somehow they reminded me of everything I didn’t have: companionship, serenity, acceptance. This time, though, being there felt peaceful.
Every few days, I drive into town for groceries and see the empty storefronts and the broken sidewalks. I see the weeds growing up through the train tracks. I even see our old apartment, which, according my cousin, now belongs to another single mother. But I also notice the soft blue sky, deep-green hills that seem to go on forever, and family members who, misunderstandings aside, are happy to see us.
This visit is unlike those that have come before, probably for a variety of reasons. I’m here on my own terms, with the struggles of adolescence and divorce behind me. My life is more stable, more positive, and my daughter is older and more independent. I have a master’s degree, a job as a professor waiting for me in the fall, and a better sense of who I am and where I came from. For all these reasons, I can experience Livermore Falls differently now. I am more willing, and better equipped, to see the good and the bad of this place where I am from, knowing that it takes both kinds of seeing to make a complete picture.