Nature Writer (Not!) At Large
You know how Annie Dillard can write about a blackbird and make you wish you had one to come in the window at night and claw you into epiphany? She can turn a minor eclipse into a life-defining event. When I read her work, I of course think of Thoreau and Wordsworth and the like and the amazing abilities of writers like these to interact with and then dramatize nature so profoundly on the page.
Living in Whatcom County’s Sudden Valley, I have green 100-foot trees in my yard, bluebirds nesting in my rafters, lakes I can easily walk to, and deer regularly looking in at me through my basement office windows.
You’d think I’d have it in me to pen a nature-inspired line or two, or at least try. Yet day after day I look out my window and self-confess my irritation that the tree in front of my house looks the same as it did yesterday, and it’s muddy down by the lake and I don’t want to get my shoes dirty again, and I already saw that deer that is now making my dog bark, which echoes in my cave-like office to the point of hurting my ears. “Go away, deer,” I say. I never give them apples.
And. There. Are. Rats.
Yet I used to love the outdoors. Before moving here, there were a couple years where I went camping in the Sawtooths literally every weekend. I had it down to such a routine that I didn’t even unpack my Jeep. I imagined moving to places like Missoula, Montana, and hiking in Glacier every weekend. So . . . WTF is wrong with me now?
It took me a long while to figure out that while I do still love nature and animals, what inspires me to write is fairly specific: certain types of people (how they look, walk, talk, odd and crazy things they say and do), cars (namely, really old beat-up cars that have some miles on them and tell a story about the hard-knock lives their owners live), and buildings (especially old run-down ones). I see this guy now and then in the parking lot at the grocery store. He drives a van with the roof sawed out and a camper shell stuck on top of it. There are curtains in the windows, and the whole thing is totally beat up. It’s awesome. The first time I saw that guy and his van I raced home and wrote “the Darrell story” for a collection I’m working on. Here’s a snippet of it:The Chevy’s engine ran rough and one of the front wheels was an undersized spare, but Ken rarely drove it farther than the mini mart for cold ones. Which he and Darrell drank while sitting comfortably on the lawn chairs Ken kept in the van. Sometimes they watched TV. Ken ran an extension cord out the laundry room window of his house and in through one of the van windows to plug in a portable set. But then Dot grew embarrassed by that wreck of a—well, she hardly knew what to call it, and right there in the driveway where everyone could see it. She told Ken it went or she went.
When I’m trying to write or thinking about a story, which is most of the time no matter what else I’m doing (you know the feeling), the soothing beauty of nature has the opposite effect on me. It’s quiet and peaceful out here, so I don’t hear people yelling at each other to steal a line from; the only truly beat up car in my cul de sac is mine (I’ll save the “ghetto Jag” back story for a future post); and there are mainly cute little (or freakin’ big, not mine) houses in my view, not the grimy, lining-the-street city structures that get me going. Hence, all my writerly senses are sort of working against me.
I was telling a friend how I sat down in a noisy bar and wrote with great results. I guess I need to spend a lot more time in bars. As a writer, for a long while I endorsed the viewpoint that it was best to get away to someplace quiet and undisturbed where one could peck away for hours without distraction. But for me, it’s the distraction that urges me to write.
Yes, I am dumb. Since I landed in this house not so much by accident up here in the trees and will be here for a while unless that guy with the chopped-up blue van sublets to me. And I’m not truly complaining, well maybe a little. That is to say, we frequently imagine our characters as displaced and alienated and great fun can be had with them living at odds with their environment and eventually making their peace/running away/conquering their inner whatever.
So the other day I took a hike and tried to imagine nature through the eyes of the city-girl/sometimes prostitute character I’ve been working with. She hated it. I loved it! It gave me a way to access my story (set in downtown San Francisco in the 1980s) while strolling along a hiking trail in the Pacific Northwest. Thinking about all of the things my character didn’t want to see or do helped me think about what her guiding motivation is. For example, I realized that she grew up in a small town, when I hadn’t thought about that before. Knowing what she was running from helped to begin clarifying what she is running to.
So, yay!, I’ve made my creative peace with nature and deer look cute again. I might have to go buy some apples.
Is your writing greatly affected by your environment or are you one of those wonderful souls who can do it anywhere, anytime? I’m very curious!
xo Laurel Leigh