The last time I was in Vermont I was at another writers’ conference—at Bread Loaf, many years ago, working as a server in the dining hall and studying poetry. Now I’m at Wildbranch, on the other side of the podium, but remembering well what it was like to be the one asking teachers questions about passion, craft, and career.
It rained yesterday, a hard cold pour that sent all of us—editors, teachers, students—dashing huddled from a porch in the country to vans and cars to take us back to the Sterling College campus. We’d been having late-afternoon drinks, strangers talking, all of us in this together. The thing is—and I think my fellow teachers would agree—we never stop asking those questions: What do we most care about in the world and on the page? What obsesses us? How do we find the form to tell the story that matters, to convey the image that we hope no one will forget? And how do we put all that together over the strange arc of years?
At a panel yesterday, the focus was mostly on the business side of writing; the questions were about publishing and pitching, about submitting and hoping. But beneath that were those first, more important matters, which, to use Phil Gerard’s phrase, come down to this: “The subject is a question that matters.”
Three things come together in that formulation: the subject—the thing inside and outside of yourself, something in nature, say, but really it’s you and that thing; a question, whatever it might be—why is this still around? Why is this gone?; and importance—and if it’s important to the writer, it can be made important to the reader. One of the essays my students read yesterday, as they prepared to write their own first drafts, was, in part, about a baseball game. My friends know that baseball is terribly unexciting to me. But in Jeff Porter’s essay, “Castro’s Beard,” the game takes on a vivid and metaphorical life—it matters to him. He found a way to make it matter to me.
It’s been refreshing to hear the Wildbranch students come at these formal concerns just two days into the conference. They are already asking sophisticated questions about narrative form, about the lyric essay, about research. They are committed to the craft of nature and science writing, however we might define that, and their voices remind me of mine years ago, in a different setting, about form in poetry, about that way of making art.
I’m reminded also of this: That we never stop being students of language and the world. If we did stop, we’d cease being writers full of wonder in the world. This week wonder is being rekindled and shaped into this word and the next and the next and the next.
Christopher Cokinos is the author of Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds and The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars. He teaches at the University of Arizona.
Well said, Chris.
Thank you so much for sharing the experience of this workshop. The question of how to make nature interesting to people who don’t normally find it so seems paramount, especially now. Might there be more value in writing to a general audience than in writing for a nature-minded audience? I often feel like we’re just talking to ourselves.
But how to engage those other people? That’s a question I worry about all the time, and should grapple with more often. But of course: study how writers pull you in to topics you’re not interested in and make you care. Such as baseball! I’ve requested Porter’s book from the library, as well as “Hope is the Thing with Feathers.”
I am so jealous of everyone who is sharing this workshop; I wanted to apply and somehow did not. The questions you’re asking are the ones that I chew over all the time. I write a lot of environmental poetry and non-fiction, and even a novel – and I fear always coming across as preachy. “Oh,there she goes again!”
I’ll be following your daily posts and hope I can glean some ideas – maybe next year in person.
I’m writing a novel featuring coming of age of a young women environmentalist in North Carolina in the 1960s-70s and fallout from that years later. Several of my readers have said parts sound preachy. What can I do to let people know how much she cares about her environment without having her coming across as revoltingly smug and self-righteous? None of the environmentalists I know are that way, but this character seems to read like that to some people. Thanks,