Okay, okay, you got me. Last week’s Friday Ephemera totally got derailed by my unexpectedly awesome and busy weekend. Really, it would make more sense to do, oh say, a Wednesday Ephemera feature, but that just doesn’t have the same ring to it. But I’ve vowed to myself to get back on the wagon with them this week, and I think I’m going to write several at once this week so that I always have one handy in case unexpected photoshoots and epic bounce nights get in the way again.
But right now, since it’s Monday and not Friday, I want to talk about something different. This weekend I was preparing for one of the summer creative writing classes that I teach at CFTA. In the adult class this week, we’re going to be talking about the difference between setting and atmosphere, and how both of those elements factor into our writing. In Nikki’s Totally Made Up Fiction Writer’s Dictionary, those two terms are defined as:
SETTING: the actual time, place, time of day, and weather conditions in which a story takes place
ATMOSPHERE: the feelings and mood that the setting evokes
Practically speaking, the setting of [pretty much every] Edgar Allen Poe story is a foggy, stormy night in 19th century New England. The atmosphere suggested by that setting (and enhanced by the specific details given) is gloomy and ominous. Both the setting and the atmosphere work together to highlight the main character’s loneliness, madness, etc. and you get the feeling that it contributes to their ultimate decision to murder their aging relative or dismember their pet demon-cat. A well-rendered setting/atmosphere takes on a force of its own in the narrative; it digs its heels in and does enough heavy lifting to make it the unsung hero of many a novel. At some point you realize that the story couldn’t conceivably happen in any other time or place than the one described. It would be like removing the one deceptively-loose looking Jenga piece towards the bottom that sends the whole tower crashing to the ground.
Try to imagine The Great Gatsby without New York.
East of Eden without California.
Beloved without the Deep South.
One of the reasons I think rendering setting and atmosphere can be challenging is because it is so subtle and subliminal. We tend to take it for granted, and that got me thinking about the ways in which we interact with our real-life settings: the rooms, houses, neighborhoods, cities, countries, and hemispheres we inhabit. I realized that settings generate atmospheres in real life just like they do in fiction, and that very often I remain oblivious as to how the world around me is shaping my mood and outlook. But it is there, under the surface, subtle but powerful.
My fellow New Orleanians will back me up when I say that in the first year after Hurricane Katrina, the setting of flooded streets, destroyed homes, and deserted neighborhoods produced an atmosphere that was palpable. Sorrow pulsed like a heartbeat in my city, and you could see its effect on everyone’s faces. We were very aware then. But more years passed and the intensity of the feeling subsided…or maybe we just got used to it. Absorbed it somehow. Then along came 2010 and the Saints‘ first Superbowl appearance and win in NFL history. The atmosphere intensity was back, but this time it was way down on the other end of the emotional spectrum. Instead of sorrow, there was jubilation vibrating through the streets. Instead of hopelessness, there was optimism and rejuvenation. We felt it lifting our steps like a fall breeze, and it influenced everything from the fate of marriages to how you greeted the cashier at the grocery store.
Nowadays, I feel like my setting is a lot more balanced–there are pleasant details and ugly ones, places of promise and alleys still littered with ghosts. I can tend to get stuck deep in my own head much of the time, but I’ve been trying to step outside of myself long enough to take the pulse of my neighborhood. To see if I can read the barometer of this human atmosphere. How is Treme feeling today? How is New Orleans feeling? Louisiana? America?
As a Christian, this exercise helps me pray for my surroundings in a more sincere way. Kind of like finally shutting up in a conversation you’ve been dominating to discover that the other person has so much to say. As a writer, it teaches me to keep exploring the relationship between setting and atmosphere–to dissect it like a cadaver to learn as much as possible.
I guess this post wandered a little farther into the abstract than usual, but to me these are fun concepts to think about. Yes, I’m probably a weirdo. Yes, this is pretty much the only thing my English degree was good for.
And as long as I can write and teach and have nerdy conversations with my writer friends at Parkview, I think I’m okay with that.