Postcard from Wildbranch: Day Five

Today, sadly, is the final day of the 2012 Wildbranch Writing Workshop. To close, we’ve given this year’s Wildbranch faculty a chance to answer your questions about the meaning and practice of writing, two of which are presented below. Thanks, all, for your thoughtful contributions, and see you next year!

What are some specific ways for writers to place nature writing—or any kind of writing that expresses love for the natural world—in front of people who are not yet “nature aware,” but who buy products, vote, and raise the children who will inherit this world? How do we get beyond preaching to the choir? —Debra Mihalic Staples

David Gessner: For me it starts with two senses: a sense of humor and a sense of openness to the sloppiness of the world. The world is messy, and kind of funny. The strident dialogue we hear on cable news is the opposite of this, and is not breaking through to anyone who doesn’t already agree. So, too, is the worst of environmentalism.

But if we write great stories—and, better yet, great stories that are funny and, in the spirit of the best fiction, full of contradiction—then readers will read and minds will perhaps open. Hey, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is an Oprah’s Book Club selection, which means more people will be reading about hiking than ever before in the history of the world. It can happen.

Do you agree that good writing involves conflicts and contrasts, tragedies and accidents? If so, how can nature writers write about the beauty of a scene without seeming too fluffy? Is it necessary to add some opposing force to make a nonfiction piece better? —Natalie Parker-Lawrence

Ginger Strand: This is such an interesting question that I gave it to my workshop this morning. Our session today was about narrative structure, in fact, so it was absolutely germane.

The immediate gut reaction of everyone in the room was Yes!—there has to be tension to make anything interesting! The best nature essays, even the ones that spend fourteen pages profiling skinks, have some kind of tension in them. But then, someone raised the question of the lyric essay. Chris Cokinos read a fantastic lyric essay about a hummingbird at the faculty reading last night. Did that have tension or conflict? Other folks immediately decided it did. It was noted that there is a strange and wonderful sexual tension in that piece between the hummer and the narrator. And, in truth, there is. Go Chris!

The conversation quickly got very heady after that. “How can you describe how beautiful something is without the underlying knowledge that it’s mortal?” one person asked. Another pointed out that, as ecologists see it, conflict is everywhere. In other words, the world itself is conflict, and if you’re true to the nature of the world, there will be some kind of conflict or tension in your writing. “It’s like air pressure,” one of us said. “We’re so used to it we don’t feel it.” The job of writing, people decided, is to make us see it.

But then one person pointed out that writing is not the world. It sounds simple, but this is a very deep thought, and it’s key. In the end, what it comes down to is the difference between writing and life. Writing is not living. It’s not the world. It’s making something out of living in the world. It’s art. It’s a performance. I brought movie-theater candy to class today, because I like to remind myself that I am in the entertainment business.

There are so many things readers could do instead of reading. They could go for a hike, jump in a lake, bake something, make something, run errands, have sex. Why should they hole themselves up and read, when the world is so wonderful and our time in it so short? The answer is, they shouldn’t, and wouldn’t, unless reading provided some added value. Some higher truth or beauty or meaning. And what generates that added value is usually conflict, whether it’s a story with a problem and a resolution, or whether it’s a conflict between what you thought you knew about skinks and what the writer can tell you.

Be true to the complexity of the world and the fluffiness falls away. Make the conflict in everything come alive. Make the air pressure visible and you will take people’s breath away.


  1. As an ecologist I agree that conflict or competition is important, however cooperation or facilitation is probably equally important. As Leopoldo said, perhaps so that ther is a place to compete in. Perhaps good writing follows the same model.

  2. Ginger–Your class responses, their answers changing and being remolded after more discussion, seem like an extended metaphor that answers my question quite beautifully. What a gift to have a guide like you to allow and honor their struggles with the conflicts in writing about the confluences of nature. I, too, think that conflict is essential, but it does not necessarily need to be large and tragic. Orion took one of my short pieces for The Place Where I Live back in January of this year. It described what happened after I fell down while walking on the greenbelt. I had sent several pieces in times past to the magazine about nature to consider for publication, but it was when I fell and got up and saw things differently and wrote about THAT process that they published it.

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