The Nature Of Writing
Author John Elder, far left, leads a writing workshop at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock, Vt., on July 25, 2014, as part of the weekend Boostock event. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
Bruce MacCrellish, of South Woodstock, Vt., does a writing prompt about a childhood nature memory during author John Elder's writing workshop at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock, Vt., on July 25, 2014. MacCrellish teaches English at Stevens High School in Claremont, N.H. "I wanted to learn some new tricks for my students," he said. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
Woodstock — Former Middlebury College English and Environmental Studies Professor John Elder encouraged students to see the outdoors in a new way through a workshop at the Forest Center at Marsh-Billings-Rochefeller National Historic Park in Woodstock on Friday afternoon as one part of a weekend-long annual event known as Bookstock.
A group of 18 adults seated at wooden tables arranged in a large circle reflected on bringing observation and sensory engagement with the out of doors to their writing.
“I can’t be in nature until I turn my hearing aids off,” said participant Susan Kahn of Plainfield.
Having one sense turned off, she said, allows her to take in the natural world.
Elder also suggested participants practice writing from different scales, in time and space. He urged them to consider the world from points of view other than their own, including those of insects and trees and to consider the landscape as it was before European settlers arrived or before glaciation.
By developing a regular writing practice, he said, they would “develop momentum” in their writing.
Such momentum was something teacher and mother Heather Frost-Hauck said she hoped to carry with her back to her home in Batavia, Ohio. She said she hoped Elder’s workshop would “jump start” her writing.
In addition to practicing the craft themselves, Elder encouraged his students to learn from other writers.
“Find writers you admire,” he said.
He handed out photocopies of Annie Dillard’s essay Living Like Weasels, asked members of the class to alternate reading paragraphs aloud and to consider the question, “how can writers help us to gain our full energy?”
Frost-Hauck recalled a recent conversation with her 8-year-old son in which they had discussed the use of colloquial expressions such as “like a weasel.”
She said that before reading Dillard’s essay, which describes the weasel as an animal worthy of emulating in its wildness, she had not considered weasels in a positive light.
“A weasel lives as he is meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity,” wrote Dillard.
After reading the essay, Frost-Hauck said she would tell her son, “try to be more like a weasel.”
Similarly, Stevens High School English teacher Bruce MacCrellish, of South Woodstock, said he was inspired to use Dillard’s work as a teaching tool. He said he might ask his students to compare Dillard’s writing style with that of Henry David Thoreau in his classic Walden.
MacCrellish said both authors turn to nature to “remember how to live.”
Elder asked those gathered to write about a moment in childhood when they had a memorable experience in nature, perhaps an extreme weather event, an interaction with an animal or time spent in the woods or water.
For example, Elder shared a memory of water skiing as an 11-year-old in Louisiana, fearing the alligators that might be swimming beneath him. He said the moment still lingers in his dreams.
Others shared memories of greeting dawn by the ocean, hiding from a storm in a child-sized cave and falling into a prickly rosebush.
Elder further suggested attendees practice engaging with nature by contour drawing. Though the sketches done by looking at the object, not the page, will not come out flawlessly, the attempt helps the mind to focus on what it is seeing, he said.
“You’ve got it in a way you haven’t before,” he said.
Bookstock continues today and Sunday. More information about the weekend’s events is available at bookstockvt.org.
Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3213.