I’m writing to you from Ocho Rios, Jamaica. My partner Jon and I are on our first real vacation in a long time. Being on this lush tropical isle feels both strange and wondrous after the long hiatus on travel. Currently I’m sitting near the water, eating a breakfast of saltfish and ackee (the national dish of Jamaica) for the sixth day in a row. There’s water everywhere—the pool, the sea, the emerald green lagoon. Each beach hut has its own kayak you can use to paddle to different destinations, like an empty beach or snorkeling reef.
I brought my copy of Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler—our Book Club pick for July—and I’ve been rereading it. It’s an absolutely delicious novel set in the intoxicating New York restaurant scene. Stephanie is a gorgeous writer, and her descriptions are richly textured and so immersive, not just enhancing the reading experience but also the experience of living. I find myself paying closer attention to the food I’m eating, to the sand beneath my feet, to the gentle mewling of the island kittens who showed up on my porch yesterday after my nap.
I can’t wait to host Stephanie next week for a Studio Visit—to talk to her about the difference between writing fiction and nonfiction, what it was like adapting Sweetbitter for television, and the business of writing. In the meantime, we’re resharing her prompt from last April. It’s a meditation on places: on how they move us, how they shape us, and how many stories they hold.
Love from Ocho Rios,
Meditation on Place by Stephanie Danler
Long before I could admit to myself that I was writing a memoir, I was collecting places. I would often recall the first chapter of Thoreau’s Walden, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” and think of how inextricable location and motive are from each other. Joan Didion, of course, is a master at this, echoing the psychological landscape with a physical one. In her case, those landscapes are often threatening. I would also think of Roland Barthes, who said in “Lover’s Discourse,” “where there’s a wound, there’s a story.” As I remembered places from my youth, I found wounds that had been untended for decades.
In the case of my memoir, Stray, I would take an index card, and on the front, I’d write a place—“Laurel Canyon,” for example. Then on the back, I’d write any details that came to mind: landslides, traffic, Lily’s coffee cart, squirrels stealing pomelos, care and threat, Fleetwood Mac, loneliness, losing the daylight. Another was “Owens Lake”—dust, a scab, my father, rattlesnakes, amnesia, mistrust of love, parched, the crime that created Los Angeles.
I had eighty of these cards, and most of them didn’t make it into Stray. But some of them were shockingly complete scenes and became cornerstones of the book. I only had to go back and ask, Why do you remember the rattlesnakes? Why is Owens Lake a scab? Why does loving Los Angeles, or loving my father, seem to depend on having amnesia? In answering those questions, I wrote a book. And I later realized that with those cards I had made myself a map.
Your prompt for the week:
Meditate on places. If you’re working on fiction, perhaps choose places from that fictional world. The easiest might be your childhood home, but it could be: a restaurant, a street, a parking lot, a ferry station, a borrowed home in the Catskills where it rained for three days or a stranger’s glass penthouse where you once did too many drugs. Write down any images, details, or words that come to mind. Don’t worry about complete sentences. Don’t worry about describing the place as much as describing what it felt like.
This isn’t research, or even a place to collect lines of dialogue or turns of story. It is simply to remember, to feel out for a tender spot, search your own memories for the surprising detail, the “punctum,” which Barthes defined as, “the accident which pricks me.”
We’re excited to host today’s contributor, Stephanie Danler, for our next Studio Visit. Stephanie is a novelist, memoirist, and screenwriter. She is the author of the international bestseller Sweetbitter and the memoir Stray; she’s also the creator and executive producer of the Sweetbitter series on Starz. Her nonfiction received an Honorable Mention in Best American Essays 2018, and her criticism won the 2019 Robert B. Heilman award from the Sewanee Review. She is based in Los Angeles, California.