Writing Nature: Presentation and Workshop Samples
The Dangers of Hugging Trees
A comparison of differences and similarities between ecologically-oriented creative nonfiction and general fiction. How close to the environment can an author, and by extension an author’s characters, go in each without fracturing a reader's innate (as well as well-earned) sense of distrust?
We’ll discuss challenges and rewards in the abstract, then follow up with specific examples. Please bring for discussion (or e-mail me beforehand) your own examples of the work of others (fiction or nonfiction) where the borderline is neared and where a piece succeeds or fails, because of that.
Being at Two with Nature: Tradition and Ambivalence in Nature Writing
Until the 1980s, “nature writing” was regarded by most literary critics – if it was regarded at all – as “regional” or “genre” literature. “Nature books” rarely got reviewed in serious critical publications, and if they did it was as natural history or environmental writing, not as serious literature. But with the explosion of first-rate nature writing after World War II, and the emergence of nature writers of the caliber of Rachel Carson, Loren Eiseley, Peter Matthiessen, Edward Hoagland, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez and many others, nature writing began to come into its own as a major literary genre.
When John Elder and I put together the first edition of The Norton Book of Nature Writing in 1990, our aim was two-fold: to give nature writing the formal recognition we believed it deserved, and to trace what we saw as a continuous tradition in English literature going back at least 200 years.
Using selections from the Norton anthology, we will explore some of the defining literary characteristics and forms of the “nature essay” and one of the major themes of nature writing: the divided or ambivalent response of nature writers to natural encounters and experience.
Readings will be taken from The Norton Book of Nature Writing, Second edition, ed. Robert Finch and John Elder (W.W. Norton, 2002) Selections marked with an asterisk (*) will be discussed at some length.
From little acorns: on nature, the short form, and the work of Robert Finch
In this presentaton, we’ll explore the constraints of the short form—1000 words or less—as particularly suited to writing about the natural world and as paradoxically useful for expanding a vision, for seeing, as Blake says, “a world in a grain of sand.”
We’ll take a close look at the shorter works of Robert Finch (who will be joining us for the Winter Residency) and discuss a number of other writers and their strategies. Though our focus will be on the essay, our emphasis on compression, sentence structures, pacing, rhythms and shape should be useful to writers of all genres.
Omen-Gathering and Other Ways to Find Inspiration in Nature
The natural world offers a vast ground of inspiration for our writing, but most of us are so busy whizzing around at breakneck speed or sitting for hours in front of our computers that we could use a little help reconnecting with it. This hands-on presentation offers techniques for slowing down, opening up, and paying real attention to nature. Any time we give mindful attention to something—whether it’s a blade of grass or a vista of sand and sea—something worthwhile is revealed, and since we see through a unique filter, what we notice always tells us something about who we are. The resulting information is writers’ gold.
Together, we’ll practice the ancient Celtic art of omen-gathering, finding a personal message of guidance for our current project. We’ll spend a few moments of what Joanna Macy calls “Deep Time,” gathering an object from nature and discovering its significance for our writing process. We’ll also explore methods of keeping a nature journal and other exercises for infusing our nature-writing with more immediacy and intensity of expression.
New England, Nature, Writing: An Interrogation
On the surface, the concept of “New England nature writing” sounds easy to grasp: nature writing set in New England, or produced by a New England writer. However, every word and group of words in that phrase is problematic, unstable, and open to interrogation. What do we mean by “New England”; as a culturally constructed region, what role has nature played in its definition? What do we mean by “nature,” a concept that is as culturally constructed as is “New England”? Is there such a thing as “New England nature”; that is, has the region’s specific history of land use shaped its natural environment in ways that are regionally distinctive rather than generically “natural”? What do we mean by “nature writing”; is it a recognizable genre, descended from the Thoreauvian tradition, or can any kind of writing be nature writing? This talk will argue that there is such a thing as a New England nature, one shaped by the region’s history of farms and factories, land clearing and abandonment—one shaped, that is, by a specifically regional interaction of natural and cultural processes—and that to find New England nature on the printed page we need to look well beyond the conventional nature essay and also read fiction, poetry, and memoirs that may not look conventionally “green” but that speak directly to the ongoing experience of New Englanders’ relationships with the natural world.