Place Names

Mesdames y Messieurs,

It’s almost summer, and that means a lot of people will travel to various destinations across the country, around the world, or even just around town.  What follows is based on a group exercise I suggested for an online writing group: a creative possibility using some of the famous place names of New Orleans.

I was born there, but my parents and I left when I was 18 months old and I’ve been back only once.  Even if one has never been to the Crescent City, though, most everyone knows some of the names of the streets and places through song and literature.

There’s Tennessee Williams’ play – subsequently made into a movie – called Streetcar Named Desire.

And there’s a book called Frenchmen, Desire, Good, Children, by John Chase, which was published in 1949. The title refers to four different streets in NOLA (but read it without the commas and you get another idea!). Of course there’s also Bourbon, Canal, St. Charles, Rampart, Royal, Chartres, Orleans, Basin, Dauphine, Iberville … and so many more. {Note: A politically correct person who reads the book will have trouble with the antiquated mentions of some groups of people, but for a history of New Orleans it’s a good read that explains the colorful origins – and pronunciations – of the original street names.}

For all you travelers, then, here’s an “assignment”: Pay attention to the names that jump out at you and why.

When you get back, write a piece – even a travelogue – that incorporates the names that meant the most to you and explain why. Did they get you thinking, stir up old feelings or new possibilities? Are they related to someone you know or knew? In short, explore the creative possibilities from all the creative names in the Big Easy or any city, town, or village.

For those of us who remain homebound, we can do the same with the places around us. In our closer-to-home travelogues, which names are we drawn to and why? What do they evoke? What do we want others to know about these places that are so familiar to us?

Another option is to ponder why NOLA has so many ‘nicknames’ and write about that. I know of few other cities with so many and different monikers, and each has its own defining image.  Does the same hold true for the places around you?

Or do you give names to certain places closer to home?  When my sister and I were young, for instance, we had a couple of favorite ‘roller coaster roads’ on which we’d implore our dad to drive.  (We never told him about the ‘drag race road’ we used later as teenagers …)

Sometimes it’s as simple as being in the right place at the right time. After all, Tennessee Williams was inspired by the streetcar that ran right outside his door, and the rest is literary history.

Don’t forget to try out your non-dominant hand for this too. That’ll really get the creative juices flowing like that beautiful, mighty and mysterious Mississippi River!

Wherever you go, safe travels in/on planes, buses, trains, cars and imaginations.


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