A Writing Weekend in the Woods

Although the head of a barred owl appears to match the size of an average cantaloupe, the bird’s skull fits easily into a child’s palm. The rest is feathers—or what a friend called “an owl layer-cake.” Owls can hear critters scurrying underneath snow, zoom in on the sounds, and—voila! Dinner.

Wolves, similarly, use their uber-sensory skills to track odors a mile downwind. In a clear area (think meadows, not forests), they can hear a rabbit twitching in the grass ten miles away.

Writers have a weakness for trivial details like these. It’s how you carry out the old show, don’t tell dictum. Off the cuff I can’t differentiate an oak from an ash, but with some research I can show you the whole forest. Last weekend, at the Audubon Center of the North Woods near Sandstone, I joined more than 75 writers for the Loft Literary Center’s first Nature and Environmental Writing Conference, where quirky details make up the common currency. From raptors to rodents to wolves, we learned much. And writing? A lot of that, too.

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The Audubon Center sits amid woods and meadows on the shores of Grindstone Lake, a few minutes’ drive past Hinckley. The land has history: an Ojibwe hunting ground, a logged forest, a farm. In 1968, owner Marguerite Schwyzer bequeathed it to the National Audubon Society. Ever since, it’s offered environmental learning options for children and adults. Simple but serviceable dorm rooms in solar-heated facilities each house four adults (or eight children, who presumably would find it delightful to scramble in and out of a top bunk). The main hall is a large, light-filled space with stained-glass windows depicting local fauna: bear, white-tailed deer, beaver, wolf. Three times a day, we writers lined up for a smorgasbord of healthy, delicious, and locally sourced meals, topped off with not-as-healthy but equally delicious desserts.

Saturday morning, keynote speaker Scott Russell Sanders stood in a shaft of sunlight to kick things off with his newest essay, “The Way of Imagination,” which appears in the Summer 2012 issue of The Georgia Review. “Nature is not just one subject,” he said, leading into the weekend’s favored metaphor. “Nature is a name for the matrix that brought us into being and sustains us. It is a fundamental activity for any thoughtful person.”

Sanders’ essay begins when he meets a banker who, having earned more money over his career than he’ll need, decides to purchase tracts of land and manage them so that, centuries in the future, they will become old-growth forests. Eventually, Sanders connects the imagination of that banker—who never saw a primeval forest as a youngster but was inspired by the writings of James Fenimore Cooper, among others—to the imagination of the artist. “We can see things not present before us, things that we haven’t experienced or that no one has experienced,” he said. “The transfer of vision from a writer’s mind to a reader’s mind is like the flow of energy from the sun.”

For Sanders, art—particularly writing—is a way of fulfilling Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative: that we should act always as we wish everyone would act, for the good of all. Art is not merely self-expression, Sanders believes, nor is it a luxury. “Beauty is wholeness,” he said, “not a superficial trait but a fundamental force, a healing force.” He connected art to politics when he noted that “people who lack imagination see things as ordained and unable to be fixed.”

Sanders roamed among the philosophies of Kant, Alexis de Tocqueville, Andrew Carnegie, and Joanna Macy while discussing social change, consciousness, activism, and art. According to Macy, he said, social change requires three things: a short-term emergency response to assaults, an analysis of causes and imagined alternatives, and a shift in consciousness. “Nature isn’t a warehouse, separate from us, a source of raw materials—which is still the dominant view,” he said. “Nature is our home; other species are our kindred.”

Ultimately he explained that, while he isn’t optimistic about our planet, he is hopeful. “Optimism is feeling sure things will work out for the best,” he said. “Hope is the conviction that we have resources to heal, renew, and regenerate.”

Those resources include—in fact, depend on—artists. “We are connected to and embody these forces in ways that include art,” Sanders continued. “The work of the imagination is at the root of the best things humans are capable of.” Acknowledging that imagination isn’t inherently benign—death camps also sprang from human minds—he nevertheless stressed that imagination is “at the root of our acts of compassion.” Our responsibility, he added, is to “envision the world as more just, more peaceful, and less destructive than it is now.”

Sanders sent us off to a day and a half of writing sessions with a final burst of enthusiasm. “Like the universe, we are still unfolding as individuals and societies,” he encouraged us, earning a standing ovation for his efforts. “We are not bound by our past.”

* * *

Charged up, ready to change the world, we split into breakout sessions on topics including poetry, nature writing for children, travel journals, blogging, and writing about place, science, outdoor adventures, natural disasters, and science.

Not coincidentally, I found myself in sessions that focused on the how-to aspects of getting one’s work published. In the first, Milkweed Editions editor and program manager Patrick Thomas focused on what he called “the pitfalls and pigeonholes that keep your work from reaching the audience it deserves.”

Milkweed, he said, is “interested in writing that re-imagines human relationships to more than the human world.” That includes books about cultures interacting with nature, about people struggling with nature, and about direct environmental subjects. He lauded a new collection of essays, Things That Are, by Amy Leach; shortly after his session, the stack of her books at the Magers and Quinn table had disappeared.

Thomas wasn’t overly optimistic about the odds of getting one’s literary work published these days, but he didn’t call it an impossible dream. He said he reads 15 to 20 manuscripts a week, and Milkweed publishes only five or six volumes a year in the genres of memoir, experiential or investigative reporting, and creative nonfiction. “The market is awash in memoirs,” he said bluntly. “If you want to write about a cabin or a farm, you need to differentiate yourself from others.”

Likewise with creative nonfiction, which he said is “lucky to sell more than a poet.” Seeming a bit abashed—Milkweed, after all, publishes poetry—he then backtracked. “Milkweed is happy to inspire ten people and sell 500 copies of a book,” he said. “I can make that decision—but not all the time.” If you can point to 800 readers who will buy your work, he said, nonprofit and independent publishers will listen.

He added that, for people who want to write literary rather than commercial books, they’re in the right place. “Minnesota is one of the few places where foundations and wealthy people see literature as art, not commercial,” he said. More than once, he has solicited donations to help cover the costs of publishing an important book that might not be commercially successful.

Milkweed, by the way, does accept unsolicited manuscripts at certain times of the year. So how can you make yours stand out?

According to Thomas, an author’s cover letter—no longer than two pages—is at least as important as the writing sample. If you haven’t been published, he said, be sure to include your education, a list of writers with whom you’ve studied, and a description of life experiences that qualify you for your project. “In the best proposals, an author can summarize the project: who am I and why am I qualified to be successful in the form of this project?” he notes.

In addition, be sure to read your potential shelf mates. One of the most common weaknesses Thomas sees is that authors aren’t able to tell a prospective publisher where their work fits in the marketplace. “Check into who else might be talking about the same things,” he said. “What inspired you? When you can situate a book in Milkweed’s [publication] list or in the wider [literary] population, I’m more likely to respect the content. I know you did your homework.”

There’s also the obvious matter of housekeeping. “Many authors submit without looking at our website,” he added, “and they spell my name wrong. Sloppiness, repetition and huge errors put me off. But as long as [the submission] is interesting, I keep going.”

Thomas urged writers to be patient, explaining that it might take five to ten years for a book to be published even after it’s acquired. Greg Breining, who spoke on writing about outdoor adventures and science in nature, has published several books, including Paddle North: Canoeing the Boundary Waters-Quetico Wilderness, but he makes his living as a freelance writer. No backup job, no teaching contract. “I’m going to talk about work that can get you in magazines,” he said. “Produce and publish. Get paid.”

To do so, Breining lauded “The Five Paragraph Query Letter.” It’s the key, he said, to building relationships with editors, getting published, and ultimately having people pay you to go fly fishing in the Caribbean or dog sledding in Yellowstone. At this point, my desk job appeared ridiculously boring. I began taking copious notes.

Writing an effective query, Breining said, is similar to writing an effective article. It all begins with capturing the reader’s—in this case, the editor’s—attention. “The lead paragraph depends on your particular circumstances,” he counseled. For example, if you’ve met the editor, you might say, “We chatted about this topic at X conference.” If you know someone who knows the editor, start with, “I spoke about this topic with Jane Doe and she suggested I contact you.” If you have an arresting anecdote that relates to the topic of your proposal, begin with that.

Breining also suggests writing a title and a “dek” (the subhead that tells the reader more about the story) and including both in your lead paragraph. “Writing them helps you clarify and communicate your story idea,” he said.

The second paragraph of the query letter is the place to develop your proposal. “Give a story idea, not a topic,” Breining said. “‘Wolves’ isn’t an idea. You need details. Talk about what the story is and why it’s interesting. Find a character or a narrative framework to hang stuff on. Fill out the story, set the context, and explain why it should appeal to readers of the magazine you’re pitching.”

Third, he said, offer the nuts and bolts of your story. Is this a piece for one of the magazine’s standard departments, or is it a feature? How long will it be? Do you need to travel to write the story—if so, how much? Do you have a personal connection to the subject? Can you gain access to a source or a situation when you need it? Are there photo opportunities? “Give all the logistical stuff an editor needs to know,” Breining explained.

Fourth is what he calls the “I am so great!” paragraph. “Here’s where you sell you,” he said. “Why are you the only one who can do justice to this story—or at least do a competent job? Have you done it before? Do you have special knowledge of the subject?” Include clips, previous publications, and links to your website.

Finally, end with a call to action. “Don’t sound like a wimpy writer,” Breining said. “Be affirmative. Offer a business deal: ‘This is a great fit for your magazine, and I look forward to hearing from you.’” And remember, he said: the ultimate goal of a query letter is not simply to sell one article; it’s to establish a relationship with an editor that can lead to many articles—and a steady income.

* * *

The best way to get stories, said author and university professor John Hildebrand, is to tag along with interesting people doing interesting things1. He questioned, however, the overall genre of “nature writing” itself. “Is a book like Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild nature writing?” he asked. “Is Moby-Dick?”

He settled on Thoreau’s Walden as the template for nature writing. That template, however—“a meditative, first-person account, often rendered in the ongoing present tense, of a sojourn in a natural landscape”—no longer works. The trouble with Walden, Hildebrand said, is that it’s essentially a one-man show, with no voice other than the narrator’s. “The writer closely observes flora and fauna,” he said, “and in the process finds evidence of some larger truth about him or herself, society, the universe at large.” The themes, consequently, are often predictable—what Joyce Carol Oates called “reverence, awe, piety, mystical oneness.” Catherine Friend, author of Sheepish and The Compassionate Carnivore, expanded on Hildebrand’s thoughts in a lecture of her own. “Bad nature writing is overly sentimental, romantic, and gooey,” she said. “It’s self-centered writing in which nature exists primarily to entertain and enthrall the writer.” Stephanie Pearson, former editor for Outside magazine, agreed. “For a more mature writer, [the story] shouldn’t be all about you,” she said.

Friend and Hildebrand could have been singing a duet when they discussed, separately, what does belong in nature writing. “People are part of nature,” Hildebrand said, “and, to my mind, the least predictable, most complex part. We’re the keystone species in almost every ecosystem, and to edit us out of the story seems silly.” He suggests weaving field experts into a story: biologists, politicians, hunters. “They offer a voice and perspective that’s different from the author’s,” he said.

Similarly, Friend noted that nature writing has changed over the years. “Rhapsodizing the wilderness is part of the past,” she said. “Now, fiction and nonfiction nature writing is couched in stories. We as humans are present, an intrinsic element.” Breining stressed that it’s possible to write about nature “even if it’s not about a reverential, hermitlike experience.” Echoing Sanders, he noted, “Nature is the world around us, the matrix that sustains us.”

Stories about nature shouldn’t be simple. “Good writing looks for, rather than avoids, contradictions,” Hildebrand said. “The writer should seek out and explore the tensions in a subject because tension and conflict are the engines that run a narrative.” Friend was perhaps more succinct in lobbying for messy stories that reflect real experiences. “When things go wrong in your life,” she said, “it’s interesting.”

* * *

In a wolf pack, only the dominant male and female mate (unless the female graciously allows the male access to other females). Nondominant males are out of luck. Similarly, only the dominant male and female raise their legs to relieve themselves. All others, male and female, squat.

Why do these tidbits about the social habits of wolves stick with me, when I went up north merely to learn about writing? Perhaps because they reflect everything else I learned. In fact, those details are writing. Some people write, as Friend said, to share their passions, to educate others, to explore topics they wonder about, to inspire change. Others pursue those same goals by working at small nonprofit organizations in the woods.

Perhaps all who live passionately and with intention, who create art, who try to improve society, are in fact chasing the same elusive idea. We are striving to make sense of chaos. We are interpreting and imagining a better world into being. It’s not as if we need to go into the woods, or even attend a conference, to work toward such ambitions, but sometimes doing so isn’t a bad way to start.

1: Breining suggested finding such people at Midwest Mountaineering’s Outdoor Adventure Expo.

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