Thursday, 23 February 2012 17:08

Place Becomes Character for Northern Michigan Writer

Written by  Meaghan Igel
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It's one of the first things creative writers learn: in order to tell a story effectively, one must anchor the story in a particular setting or place. Northern Michigan-based writer Jack Driscoll, who has written four novels and four books of poetry, and who just released his second collection of short stories, The World of a Few Minutes Ago, believes this is one of the most important lessons of writing.

"Place is not just practical; place is not just a backdrop or a setting. It informs everything about the characters who live there. I believe in place as the single most important element in fiction," Driscoll said. "[In fiction,] place is a character. The reader can never know the psychology of the characters until you understand the place itself, because a person's physical environment informs who we are."

Driscoll himself frequently uses Northern Michigan to backdrop his stories, as the landscape and its wildness (such as the myriad wildlife that populate the river outside his studio window) have had a large impact on his own life and writing.

"I'm originally a Massachusetts boy. I was hired in 1975 to help develop a creative writing major at Interlochen Arts Academy," Driscoll said. "[Moving to Northern Michigan is] the most magical thing that's happened to me my whole life. I thought it would just be a stop on my way back to the East Coast, but I've stayed."

The World of a Few Minutes Ago tells the stories of a range of characters united by a grey, wintry landscape and their attempts to survive and transcend it. Through unheard voices, boredom and isolation, the characters battle both their geography and their circumstances.

"Particularly when I'm writing about kids, which is what I like to do, they suffer from too much winter; they're looking to escape from the length and severity of the season and this incites trouble," said Driscoll of his characters' situations, amplified by winter and snow. "There's a moodiness created by the sameness of sky and land and lack of sunshine and the sameness of the days."

More than anything, though, Driscoll seeks to use the characters, their situations and their settings to illustrate bits of humanity that we can all recognize within ourselves. Driscoll quotes the poet William Matthews to make his point: "I write to speak what it means to be human."

"That's my ethos as well," Driscoll said. "To speak what it feels like to be alive and cognizant and compassionate. I suppose that's why I [write]. To somehow go deep enough into those private places where you strike a chord with readers. I believe that all art is exactly the same thing. Every medium tries to enact this transfer from my heart to your heart, from the writer to the reader, to strike some chord that reminds them of our humanity."

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