I have never blogged before, so forgive me if I’m not good at this. (I sound like an innocent farm boy on his first trip to the brothel. Promise not to laugh at me, please!)
For readers less sensitive on the subject I would suggest David Gessner’s fabulous essay “Sick of Nature,” an examination of the usefulness of nature writing by one of its finest practitioners, not just some wise guy from Anchor Point. Unlike me, Gessner (editor of Ecotone magazine) is an Ivy League educated man of letters of the highest order, and his cogency is beyond refute. He opens by complaining about “being constrained by the gentle straitjacket of the genre.” And then touches on the very question raised that fateful morning at the Kachemak Bay conference: “And not only do I preach from my pulpit, I preach to the converted. After all, who reads nature books? Fellow nature lovers who already believe that the land shouldn’t be destroyed.” Gessner goes on to say, “I have to admit that an essay is a much less effective way of protecting the land than a cudgel. In other words, I have to admit to impotence.” Amen.
What I said at Kachemak Bay and elsewhere and what I’ll stand by is this: If you want to write something to save the natural world, write a check to the Sierra Club, or the Nature Conservancy or Friends of Wildlife or Trout unlimited or any one of the other similar hard working organizations who know how to use the cudgel of professional lobbying. That is how you write to save the planet. Not by telling us, yet again, how swell nature is.
But my real concern is not about whether writing to promote some political idea is useful or effective. My complaint is that it leads to lousy writing. I believe that intentionally setting out to make a political statement in one’s writing is a big mistake, ESPECIALLY FOR BEGINNERS.
The reason is this: A new writer focusing on winning an argument (persuasion) will not be paying enough attention to the language itself (that is also why this letter will not be “literary”: I don’t care how it looks, only what it says). There are some very, very accomplished writers who can make a point and produce fine work too. My dear friend Nancy Lordcomes to mind (she forwarded me Bill’s post, which I appreciate because, among my many shortcomings, I suffer a near total obliviousness to what is being said in cyberspace, so I missed it on the Anchorage Daily News blog site and also here at 49Writers). Nancy, I might add, in all the years I’ve known her, has never referred to herself as a nature writer. As a side note, even Bill, when called upon to speak from the audience during the plenary panel discussion on the opening morning of the conference, rather hesitantly introduced himself with something of an apologetic, “I guess I’m what you call a nature writer.” Again, I ask this question: Why does hardly anyone want to be labeled thusly? Not even Bill Sherwonit, a national award winning nature writer, seems comfortable with that sobriquet.
Let me say now, that I just got back from a hike to the Anchor River behind my house, where I saw a lovely snipe at close range, and watched two adult eagles perched in a cottonwood side by side like the stern parents they are berating their adolescent youngster in that shrill eagle-speak they use for that purpose; I enjoyed examining the tracks of a brown bear, an otter, a coyote and several beavers; I thrashed my way through dense thickets of pushki and fireweed and felt like a kid again, playing along a river as I did most summer days of my youth. Two days ago I was in Mendocino county, California, hiking among the giant redwoods (the oldest living organisms on earth, and possibly the tallest too). There I spent some time on my hands and knees, turning over rocks in a nearly dry streambed looking for newts –amphibians also being a big part of my youth and in short supply here in Alaska. I mention all this by way of asking, dear reader, are you bored yet? Because I would be if I had to read this, and that is why nobody wants to admit that he is a nature writer. Because so darned much of it is self-absorbed drivel.
Bill’s post gave fine examples of the best of the genre, great writers all. But those are the exceptions to the rule. And the shelves in bookstores are stuffed with insipid imitations of those writers: thousands of hideously predictable paeans to nature’s glory. And then, if that isn’t bad enough, there is the self-righteous finger wagging, reminding us that we need to be better people. Christ, the dashboard of my pickup is bad enough:it scolds me for not buckling up or turning off my lights. Do I need to hear some proud creative writing major telling me that nature is wonderful and everything manmade is ugly and soul killing? And that too, is why nobody wants to be called a nature writer. You people did it to yourselves. As if the priggishness of that phony gasbag Thoreau wasn’t enough, we had to endure Annie Dillard’s garishly inflated prose and Edward Abbey’s smug “I’ve been there and you haven’t” superiority. And those are the BEST of the genre! What about the amateurs who want to share every little brown bird they’ve spotted? You guys have no one to blame but yourselves.
Look, nature writing may have been a literary form once, but it is fast becoming an embarrassment. Whose fault is that? If you can clearly remember my public outburst there at the Kachemak Bay conference, you will recall that I bashed science fiction in even more dismissive terms than nature writing. Oddly enough, nobody from the world of sci-fi seemed as vulnerable. What does that tell you? On the other hand, almost no one is still taking sci-fi seriously enough to teach it in a workshop at a writing conference. Maybe that’s the problem with nature writing: it hasn’t rolled over into the Graveyard of the Genres yet.
But let’s talk about my genre, so nobody’s toes get stepped on but those of my own kind. Yes, I hate to say it but, I am a genre writer too. I have published a number of stories and essays and even some poems in magazines falling under the rubric of the “hook and bullet” genre. Hunting and fishing magazines! Yech! I would admit to being a fishing and hunting writer right after I volunteer to have my lips cut off with a coping saw. The magazines I write for are, for the most part, unreadable: they are stuffed with sentimental, predictable pablum. Why? Because
Today I sat on a log in the sun and watched the humpies humping in the shallows of the Anchor River. At my feet caddis fly larvae, coated in bits of detritus (the way they protect themselves) crawled along the muddy bottom among the shoreline rocks. Smolts slashed at nearly invisible midges emerging from the water’s meniscus. The sunlight filtered through the cottonwood….OK! Hold everything. I know what you are thinking: “Who gives a ****? OR We’ve heard all this a thousand times.” And yet, I assure you I could go on like that for ten pages and as long as at some point I picked up my trusty fly rod and made a perfect cast and a trout rose and took that lovely little dry fly and leaped into the air like….er, like…um…like Rudolph Nureyev (or Fred Astaire or some other great dancer: M.C Hammer maybe?) that self congratulatory tripe would be snapped up by one of those magazines so fast you’d snap your neck watching it happen. And I’d probably win a fishing writing prize for it too. (Just for the record: in all the stories and essays I’ve published in those magazines no one has ever caught a game fish or shot anything at all). But, my non-traditional fishing stories (like the one with the lesbian, vegan animal rights lawyers/birdwatchers) aside, the outdoor sporting genre has —like the sci-fi genre and the western and the romance and the detective novel— become a joke too.
So, let this summer’s ignominious moments of public chagrin be a wake-up call. Unless nature writers want their writing to become a joke too, they need to look at what they’re producing. They can go one of two ways; they can eschew the literary establishment (which is pretty much what sci-fi and others have done), and say that they are a bunch of stuck-up, elitist academics (true indeed). OR they can start policing what gets published under the name of nature writing.
Here it is again in a slightly different way: the reason nobody wants to be called a nature writer is because nature writing it has become a genre. Once more, for the people in the back who aren’t sure I actually said that: All genre writing is mostly bad. All genres. All of them.
First of all: sloppiness. What I said to the sci-fi writer in the crowd (when I wasn’t insulting nature writers) the morning of that panel at the conference was this: “When you write to deliver a message to an audience you know is already in agreement with your message, there is almost no need to be careful with the writing, and as a result, it is easy to get sloppy.” That is my point, entirely. Genre writers are careless with the language; that is the only mortal sin I believe in anymore. And when a writer has an unassailable position to start with, the probability of sloppy writing is so great it is almost assured in all but the most advanced authors Nature is good. Even I believe that. I swear, I spent days in the California redwoods and did not cut down a single tree. Honest. Anyone who has been to my house knows how many trees I have there. Me: Treehugger. I love ‘em. Really. Nature good!
Secondly: predictability. Genre writing does not encourage surprises. The editor of the very best hook and bullet magazine publishing today told me (in response to my complaint that the magazine in which I appear regularly was mostly awful) “Ninety-nine percent of the poems we get can be summed up in three words: Trout are keen!” Literary writing (writing about the human condition) is unpredictable. The human condition is unpredictable. You marry the woman you love and it turns into a nightmare. Who knew? The outcome of literary stories cannot be predicted. But genre writing (at its worst) can be predicted –too easily. The intrepid fly fisherman always catches the huge trout. The detective gets his man. The alien slime monster is blasted into a black hole by the brave interstellar cadet. The natural world is always better than the man made: Grow your own beans and drink spring water! This is why no one wants to be called a fishing writer or a nature writer. Period.(The science fiction writers don’t seem to notice the derision, god love ‘em.)
Bill’s post mentioned Sherry Simpson’s reading at UAA a couple weeks ago. She read an astounding essay about a kayak trip that was really about her love life and her relationship with her husband, and their deeply routed companionship and nearly lifelong devotion to each other. I have notified Sherry that she has been awarded the coveted Brass Cojones Prize for standing up there and reading something that personal and true. Amazing, wasn’t it? I think it was the most personal, revealing and moving essay I’ve ever heard read in public. Her husband, Scott, was sitting in front of me and he looked like he was going to burst out of his seat with pride, and with the kind of nearly palpable affection that most couples can only wish that decades of marriage had produced.
I‘ll take back every mean thing I’ve ever said about genres if more nature writers shake off the shackles of predictability (the gentle straitjacket, as Gessner put it) and do what Sherry Simpson did; write something about nature that takes us into territory we have never been to before: the deep dark interior of the writer’s heart . Then all of you can hold your heads up high and say it loud: “I’m a nature writer and I’m proud!”
We’ll even call you “literary” if you want.
Rich Chiappone teaches creative writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and is the author of a short story collection, Water of an Undetermined Depth.