Writing about Place: Pritchett on Istanbul

“First, choose your words with unusual care. If a phrase comes to you easily, look at it with deep suspicion…”

Willam Zinsser, On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Non-fiction

When someone asks me what I write about, I tell them that I write about ‘place’. Or at least I attempt to. It is hard to write about a place if you haven’t lived there long and even if you have, it is hard to write about a place if you have never noticed it. I am used to moving through a place subjectively – I must train myself to see objectively and to notice the little details that hold it together. I must see beyond the distraction that is myself – my thoughts and feelings – and then see what comes. I continue to constantly look and then look again.

In ‘On Writing Well: A Informal Guide to Writing Non-Fiction”, William Zinsser in his chapter on ‘On Writing About Places’, tells us to keep a tight reign on our subjective self and on syrupy words and groaning platitudes. Strive for fresh words and images instead and be intensely selective about the substance. Eliminate everything that is a known attribute – the sea has waves and the sky is blue. Look to bring out the significant details instead – the details that are unique to the place you are in. The power in your writing about place depends on the details you write about.

You can give me all the advice you want but at the moment writing still remains one big experiment for me. I am still learning the basic topographical vocabulary of Istanbul – giving names to places I have never seen before. Like a child, I wonder and then try to orient myself against maps, history books, and guides. My favorite guide is the Secret Guide to Istanbul.

One writer that was a master of detail and fresh words is English author V. S. Pritchett.

This is what he wrote about his visit to Istanbul…

Istanbul has meant so much to the imagination that the reality shocks most travelers. We cannot get the sultans out of our minds. We half expect to find them still cross-legged and jeweled on their divans. We remember tales of the harem. The truth is that Istanbul has no glory except its situation. It is a city of steep, cobbled, noisy hills….

Mostly the shops sell cloth, clothes, stockings, shoes, the Greek traders rushing out, with cloth unrolled, at any potential customer, the Turks passively waiting. Porters shout; everyone shouts; you are butted by horses, knocked sideways by loads of bedding, and, through all this, you see one of the miraculous sights of Turkey—a demure youth carrying a brass tray suspended on three chains, and in the exact center of the tray a small glass of red tea. He never spills it; he maneuvers it through chaos to his boss, who is sitting on the doorstep of his shop. One realizes there are two breeds in Turkey: those who carry and those who sit.

No one sits quite so relaxedly, expertly, beatifically as a Turk; he sits with every inch of his body; his very face sits. He sits as if he inherited the art from generations of sultans in the palace above Seraglio Point. Nothing he likes better than to invite you to sit with him in his shop or in his office with half a dozen other sitters: a few polite inquiries about your age, your marriage, the sex of your children, the number of your relations, and where and how you live, and then, like the other sitters, you clear your throat with a hawk that surpasses anything heard in Lisbon, New York or Sheffield, and join the general silence.”

Choose your details wisely and allow them to tell the story.

The image above is a piece of street art of a man sitting in the Grand Bazaar taken on one of the backstreets leading up to Galata Tower.

M x

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