Category Archives: Literature

Classroom scene: Ain’t no-one looking at the prof.

Major pedagogical milestone reached: a class in which every single person in the room was looking at a phone.


I especially like the multiple head angles here, none of them directed professorward or, indeed, anywhere within the room itself. Many are in the “Virtual Reality” (VR) world, abetted by Google Cardboard headsets. For about ten bucks you can get a device that lets you swim with dolphins, play a game, or visit a refugee camp, all while sitting in class.

Eh? What’s going on? Well, I could not teach a class in nonfiction writing without a short experiment in VR. The last two years have seen an explosion of VR designed to be viewed on phones via simple headsets. Many of the developments in the field have been driven by journalists (e.g., New York Times), so any student considering a career in writing needs to have a sense of what’s happening in the very real world of “virtual” storytelling. And so, on with the headsets and: boom! we’re in a 3D world that moves with your head, giving you an uncanny sense of immersion and connection.

When we read a “traditional” printed page, the author’s words activate our imagination and we move our consciousness from its current location. In VR, the images, sound, and kinetics of the experience grab our senses and, again, move our consciousness to another place. In the former case, the imagination is activated and we move under the power of our minds. In the latter, our senses pull our minds with them and imagination follows.

VR is known as an “empathy machine” for the depth of its effects on our emotions. A well-written book does the same, through other means. Now imagine a storyteller who can combine both approaches. The possibilities for good (reportage, art, education) and ill (manipulation and even torture of the human mind — Google Cardboard Guantanamo edition?) are many.

And, let’s face it, there is no way that I can compete with dolphins in the classroom. (The Google-Best Buy alliance knows this well — they’re already marketing more expensive VR to classrooms for younger kids.)

And now, back to the carboardless classroom to discuss the meaning of allegory.

Great new book: “I Contain Multitudes” by Ed Yong

News flash: A fabulous new book about microbial life (which, it turns out, is all life) hit the shelves yesterday.

Ed Yong is an outstanding writer whose elegant, witty prose describes a revolution in biology. Our new understanding of microbes upends much of what we thought we knew about medicine, conservation, ecology, and many other fields. I Contain Multitudes takes us into the labs and the field sites where this revolution is unfolding. Ed not only delivers a book full of incredibly important ideas, he lets us inhabit the processes that gave rise to these ideas. Including the correct way to obtain an anal swab from a dangerous animal.

If you have a strong intellectual immune system — one that is skeptical of the overblown claims that sometimes spill from scientific discoveries — Ed is a great guide. He’s clear-headed about both big ideas and bad ideas. His is a refreshing rigor in a time of journalistic bombast.

And, if you’re looking to see the world with new eyes, sloughing away the tropes, voice, and stale hypotheses of textbooks, you’ll love this book. The Atlantic, where Ed works as a science writer, has a timely excerpt about the microbial dimension of Zika and mosquitoes.

I strongly recommend doing yourself a favor and getting your hands on a copy. And by “your hands” I mean the dozens of species that comprise the communal entity formerly known as your “self.”


About snow

With thanks to students in my Field Studies in “Nature” Writing class:

Size seven shoe, entering a chapel: high-heeled. Ambitious choices.

Unseen hands: inking streams and painting danger.

Absence: bodies cut holes in the wind. Numb edges.

Red buckets, flapping tarps. Contrast, sound and light bend.

Spiders falling on wind-blown silk. Tripping on flakes. Implicit: dread.

Sky layers, inverted on the ground.

Chapter forms

I asked students in my “Environmental and Biological Non-fiction” class to represent in sketches and geometrical forms the structure of chapters from four books. Here’s what they drew. Can you recognize any of the books? (click on images for an enlarged view; thank you to Laney Wood for taking and sharing the photos.)

The answers:

Yuval Noah Harari. 2015. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. New York: Harper.

Rachel Carson. 1962. Silent Spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Elizabeth Kolbert. 2014. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Henry Holt.

Jane Goodall. 1971. In the Shadow of Man. London: Collins.

All the representations included some of the books’ content. The drawings varied in how effectively they showed narrative structure. Perhaps the most interesting was Silent Spring shown as a series of narratives that rise then crash, repeated over and over, with little clouds of hope, all shown as a musical score. This anticipates Carson’s moves later in the book where she takes us even lower, then expands and elevates the cloud.


Steven Vogel, an appreciation.

Steven Vogel, biologist and author, has died. Jim Gorman’s article in the New York Times gives us a glance at the man behind the books. Through Jim Gorman’s interviews we learn that Vogel’s generous enthusiasm and love of learning, so clearly expressed in his writing, were also evident in his relations with colleagues and students.

I remember picking up some of Vogel’s books as an undergraduate and seeing the living world for the first time through his eyes, the eyes of a biologist engineer. Life is made from substances with strange physical properties. We move through fluids whose frictions, flows, and viscosities not only differ from one medium to another, but change as living creatures speed up and slow down, grow or shrink. How do leaves move in the flow of air? How does a limb work with and against gravity and friction? How does the cell swim?

Vogel’s words showed the beauty that emerges through the play of life’s evolution against the world’s physical laws — a dynamic explored in a million ways by a million species — and shared it with those of us who are not engineers or bio-mechanics experts. What joy there is in understanding that the Bernoulli principle powers, in part, the airfoil of birds, the ventilation of termite mounds, and the feeding currents of marine sponges! Thank you, Steven.

Creative writing assignments as glyphs

After my students turned in their latest assignment — a creative piece on “place” — I asked them to represent the form of their writing through a few wordless chalk marks on the board. They also summarized the main themes of content and form in a couple of sentences. This was improvised work: no preparation, go to the board and write.

The diversity of their subjects (what is “place”?) and the divergent ways in which they chose to represent the flow of their writing is intriguing and encouraging. I’m very pleased when I see a set of assignments that have emerged from the particularity of the students’ experiences, rather than from a template. Bring on the grading!

Click on any thumbnail image to scroll through examples of their work.

Class exercise: Erasure poems from Kathleen Jamie’s “Findings”

This week I asked my students to create erasure poems from five chapters of Findings, Kathleen Jamie’s fabulous collection of essays on “the natural and unnatural world.” An erasure poem retains the words and word order of the original, and removes all but a small portion of the text. The task for the students, therefore, was to read the essay with close attention to the particularities of each word, while keeping an eye on how these words build into meanings and stories. The exercise is one more way of attending to a text, then using this attention to create new work. An inward movement, listening, then an outward gesture of response. We ended the class by reading the resulting poems aloud, with silence between readings. I found the readings particularly interesting and beautiful: hearing familiar and esteemed essays through the ears and minds of my students.

Click on the thumbnail images below to view a slideshow of the students’ work.

Narrative arc redrawn

How might we take the idea of a book’s “narrative arc” and expand the metaphor beyond the rather limiting image of a curve? Geometry helps: triangulation, spirals, parallel lines. But geometry is made from lines and surfaces; it lacks texture.

Today I asked my students to discuss the structure of the prologue and first section of Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, then to wordlessly represent the texture, flow, and rhythms of the narrative using chalk. My hope was that their reading and writing might benefit from the exercise of translating from text to image, from lineated page to blackboard surface. Of course, this is only one way to inhabit the structure of a text. For most, it is unfamiliar approach. Are books fantastical illuminated maps? When they’re good: oh yes!

Here are some of the student groups’ representations. They had just 20 minutes to complete the exercise (with discussion following). Maybe next time we’ll take more time and use a full afternoon to cover the boards. The contrast among their images is striking: heart-beat movement, enclosure within a shell, a vortex of re-visitation, and a sweep into the future.

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The day after the eclipse… Through great forethought (read: coincidence), I’m reading David Hinton’s Hunger Mountain with my class this week. Hinton explores the many ways in which classical Chinese poetry and philosophy (especially Taoist and Ch’an philosophies) evince relationships between consciousness, language, and cosmos that are almost unimaginable within minds constructed within the English alphabet (read: me). The “self” is also present in these old Chinese poems (through its continuity with uncarved being) in ways that side-step some of the duality and I-centeredness of English. Hinton’s writing is an interesting  complement to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s meditations on Potawatomi language in Braiding Sweetgrass: when the world is represented in verbs, its life is honored in a way that noun-heavy (“it”) English cannot achieve.

Back to the moon:

月 glyph means moon or month.
朋  is the glyph for the grapheme friend. (In classical Chinese. Modern written form combines the glyph with others, so 朋 is not now used alone.) Friend was originally a string of cowrie shells, then wings of a bird, then moons.

Now: friend is two, standing close. Two moons, standing upright, together. Friend, shells, wings, moon. Moon is alone. Moon is friend.

More etymological archaeology of relationship from Hinton:

情, to feel, to love, emotion. From “heart-mind” and “the blue-green color of landscape.” To feel is to be in the sensory moment of the land, inner and outer unwalled. “Consciousness and landscape” are integrated, momentarily. Mountain, forest, mist, mind.

然 “thusness of things in perpetual transformation” — dog 犬 meat 肉 roasting over a fire 灬, “an ontological process both grizzly and ablaze with itself.”

Of course, the shuffle of alphabet that is modern English has its own cosmic, bloody, soil-clodded roots:

consider: with the stars

pedigree: foot of crane

hood-winked: eye-sewn crane

regret: cry again

companion: with bread

environment: surrounded, but not part of me

human: earthly being, not of the gods

lunatic: periodic, moon-birthed insanity

On this last, note the Chinese poets made a practice of moon-watching, sometimes with wine and 朋, but often alone-but-not-alone, the cosmos finding itself. Lunacy. Eclipsed, a forsaking darkness.

“Nature” writing class

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.