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Women’s research center scholars discuss the role of ‘place’

Published: January 24, 2013
Section: Arts, Etc.


Sponsored by South Street Literary Magazine, the interactive presentation “You’ve Come to the Right Place” stressed the significance of location not only within literary works, but within personal life as well. Speaker Nancy Ballard, a scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center specializing in research pertaining to creative writing and law, engaged participants in a variety of activities to reveal the profound effect of place.

Describing the sense of unease experienced in an unfamiliar environment, Ballard stressed, “Place orients us to the world,” and “tells us who we are, where we come from and where we are going.” Selecting passages from literary works, she emphasized that this sense of unease may arise from immersion within unfamiliar cultures, resulting in the failure to relate to the customs of others. Within a narrative, she claims the transition between distinct locations can culminate in the shift between emotional states. For instance, moving from a setting within the external world to a home environment is accompanied by a sense of increasing intimacy, stimulating specific emotional atmospheres.

Engaging participants, Ballard asked the audience to think of a specific memory, in which there was no link to location or place. Referencing the utter absence of replies, she asserted “place gives us a sense of history, place grounds and tethers you.” She cited the crucial role of the hippocampus in memory and explained the phenomena in which neurons within this area of the brain tend to fire more rapidly in familiar settings.

Ballard claims, “One of our strongest desires is to feel at home, like we belong in a space.” The failure to experience a sense of belonging evokes an overwhelming sense of being lost, according to Ballard, as manifested in the selected lines from the poem “Exile,” stating, “I’m a bridge disconnected from its riverbanks.”

Beyond the deep sense of belonging or isolation stemming from an individual’s setting, Ballard explains the transfiguring power of the environment. According to Ballard’s presentation, “Place can complicate or enhance an experience by providing a contrast to your mental/psychological state or amplifying it.” She further stresses the desire for mystery within a story, claiming that place allows for introspection and the discovery of personal revelations that had been previously shielded from one’s awareness.

Following the presentation of the key roles of place and setting, Ballard engaged participants in an interactive activity designed to allow for self exploration as well. She asked the audience to list places bearing specific emotional connections, such as the last place on earth one would wish to be, the setting of one’s very first memory from childhood. Participants were then asked to choose one of the settings and create a drawing depicting the memory. Members of the audience illustrated locations evocative of their travels as well as settings central to their youth. For instance, one such participant constructed an elaborate sketch of Holland, accompanied by the presence of rosebuds in the garden. Explaining her illustration, she revealed having traveled there decades ago in the company of her husband.

When asked to express the drawings in literary form, participants wove emotional tales stemming from personal experiences that bore profound effects upon their lives. One such participant traces her memories at Stonehenge, echoing a statement she heard from fellow travelers, stating, “We are all one in this world.”

Following the presentation, participants were offered the opportunity to include their stories and illustrations within a collection that would remain at the Women and Gender Studies Research Center. Those touched by the emotional connectivity experienced between the memories portrayed within the exercise seized the opportunity to share their piece for public viewing.