A big day in Sewanee: fall classes started at the University of the South. Being back with the students feels great. Their energy and insight is inspiring. It’s a great honor to spend time with them as we travel the semester toward the solstice.
This fall I am teaching a class on “nature” writing. I’ve tried to gather readings that touch on multiple perspectives, including texts by writers for whom the idea of nature is alien or oppressive. I’m not convinced that “nature” exists, at least not as it is usually formulated within the West as a collection of objects outside the self (“environment” is even more insular, deriving from environs, surroundings). We’ll dig into these ideas, guided by our authors. The reading list, which will have additions later in the semester, is as follows:
|The word-hoard: Robert Macfarlane on rewilding our language of landscape. Robert Macfarlane. The Guardian, 27th February 2015.|
|The trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature, William Cronon, 1995, In: Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, William Cronon, editor. W. H. Norton.|
|(1) The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. Gilbert White. 1789. “Advertisement” through “Letter X” (2) Wasteland. A journey through the American cloaca. Frederick Kaufman. Harper’s Magazine. February, 2008.|
|Book of Ice, Paul Miller, 2011, powerhouse Books, 978-1935613145|
|Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2015, Milkweed Editions, 978-1571313560|
|All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life, Winona LaDuke, 1999, South End Press, 978-0896085992|
|(1) All Our Relations, and (2) Sumak kawsay: the written word, justice, and Ecudaor’s constitution.|
|Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape, David Hinton, 2012, Shambhala Press, 978-1611800166|
|Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder, 1990, North Point Press, 978-0865474543 PS3569.N88 P82 1990|
|The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elisabeth Tova Bailey, 2010, Algonquin Books, 978-1565126060|
|The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World, Eds: Alison Hawthorne Deming, Lauret E. Savoy, 2011, Milkweed Editions, 978-1571313195|
|Findings: Essays on the Natural and Unnatural World, Kathleen Jamie, 2007, Graywolf Press, 978-1555974459|
|Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, Rebecca Solnit, 2013, University of California Press, 978-0520274044|
|The Outermost House: A Year of Life On The Great Beach of Cape Cod, Henry Beston, 1928 (Holt Paperbacks edition: 978-0805073683)|
|The Peregrine, J. A. Baker, 1967 (New York Review Books Classics edition: 978-1590171332)|
|“Nature” writing in Islam and Christianity|
|Janisse Ray and William Bartram|
|Henry David Thoreau and Annie Dillard|
Students will write essays weaving disparate strands of our readings and discussions into word-fabrics of what I hope will be interesting and attractive textures. The prompts for their two longest essays are: What is the relationship between language and landscape? And, What is a tree? I look forward to their responses.
In addition, they take on several “creative writing” assignments in which they can experiment with words and form. My syllabus has some advice on creative writing which I am eager to have critiqued by fellow ramblers, follows:
Drop “Creative Writing Assessment” into Google’s ever-open maw and the machine will regurgitate thousands of “rubrics” by which creative writing can be placed onto a linear hierarchy of worth. But “creativity” is not born in a rubric, nor is it received in two-by-two tables of check-boxes. The quality of writing can be quantified on an Excel spreadsheet, but this process fails to honor the participatory, context-dependent, and transgressive natures of art. The same is true, not coincidentally, for science.
In this class we will use part of our time together to converse about what makes good writing, creative writing, beautiful writing, and unsettling writing. There will be no single answer to these questions. Indeed, what and how we value writing depends on the narrative of our own lives, the particularities of our needs and affinities, and the tangle of political, bodily, historical, cultural, and philosophical influences from which our minds and emotions are made. When we read, we enter one portion of another person’s consciousness, leaping for a few moments outside the self. This suggests one way of thinking about writing: Do written words make possible this leap and, if they do, how startling, beautiful, entertaining, interesting, or troubling is the time we spend in your world?
Some tidbits of advice about the “craft” of writing, advice that we’ll discuss further in class. If you need a rubric to guide your work, start here:
“Show, don’t tell.” Shun clichés. For example, “Show, don’t tell.”
Attend to the senses.
Juicy verbs are your friends.
Flocks of adverbs and adjectives will choke the engines of your flying machine.
Form matters, sometimes. In the beginning…then an arc or a circle or some other geometric design.
Write, let it sit for a few days, return and revise. Repeat, repeat.
If the metaphor feels right, use it, push it almost to the edge of absurdity. Or beyond. Listen for the crash as it lands.
Confusion is OK, in small doses. “Difficulty” for its own sake is generally unhelpful, unless you’re writing within a deliberately obscurantist genre.
Mind-body-emotion: we’re unified, kinda. So connect ideas to the body, emotions to the mind, the body to the world beyond our skin. Find fractures in this unity and worry at them.
Connection and meaning: cast lines and hook your work into unexpected places.
Multiple realities exist in every place or idea. Honor this. Burrow or lift us to the more quirky layers, the ones that you know about, but the reader does not.
Put in the hours. Stand and stretch. Celebrate every gleam in your work.