Nature Writer (Not!) At Large

With my dog along a trail in Whatcom County’s Sudden Valley. A while back someone built a mountain bike jump, I’m guessing, that’s now overgrown with moss and drops off the hillside. Who could not be inspired to write about this picturesque trail? Me, apparently.

Dear Writers,

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?

Bad phone pic, but you can see the camper shell dropped into the roof of this van. It's just marvelous! I love all the rust and dents on the body. The owner looks like he has a few dents of his own, but he's still standing. If I ever see him again, I will tell him that his van is a star in a story I'm revising.

Bad phone pic, but you can see the camper shell dropped into the roof of this van. It’s just marvelous! I love all the rust and dents on the body. The owner looks like he has a few dents of his own, but he’s still standing. If I ever see him again, I will tell him that his van is a star in a story I’m revising. I definitely owe him lunch if not a set of hubcaps.

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 took this pic on Valencia in the Mission in San Francisco. The aisle between buildings is where I place a character who is accosted by a man who outs her as a prostitute. He then steals her money and a ring she has. I can stare at this picture for hours and it holds meaning for me. Go figure.

I took this pic on Valencia in the Mission in San Francisco. The aisle between buildings is where I place a character who is accosted by a man who outs her as a sometimes prostitute. He then steals her money and a ring she has. I can stare at this picture for hours and it holds meaning for me. Go figure.

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

17 thoughts on “Nature Writer (Not!) At Large

  1. I’m truly enjoying the design and layout of your site.
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  2. This made me smile, Laurel. I used to do camping too, and then it fell off into car camping with the kids, and now staying in cabins is what we call camping, although Bea is all fired up to get us back into a tent, after taking some serious outdoor classes that involved snow shoes and sleeping in ice caves. For her, well, maybe.

    • LOL, I’m all for considering staying in cabins as camping. One with plumbing and a little breakfast cafe nearby. Something tells me you will end up in an ice cave though–if so, can’t wait to see the pics!

  3. Funny how everyone has such distinct requirements for writing. I can write anywhere. Usually an idea comes to me when I am least equipped to deal with it, like half-way through a long run or waiting in a line. But I’ve defeated this syndrome with iPhone note apps and little a little notebook that I keep with me always. I like to write at 4AM though, when I’m reasonably confident no one will want to bother me, demanding dumb stuff they can do or get themselves, and when there is a whole lot of coffee waiting to take on the day with me. You guys are awesome!

    • I really appreciate your comments. There is something magical about those early morning hours, it’s maybe the most inspiring time of day to write and you see some amazing things in the world if you’re up at dawn. iPhone apps are a great idea. It’s so interesting to learn what everyone else does writing wise. Thanks!

  4. I need quiet when I write. I know many writers like to work to music, but I just can’t. I suppose if I got submerged deep enough into my work, I could tune most anything out, but some days that is harder than others.

    Thanks for stopping by my site. I appreciate it!

    • Hi Carrie! First of all, nice hat! It’s amazing how some people can plug into headphones and peck away–if I do that, I just start singing along to the music. But if it’s music mixed in with other coffee shop noises, I’m usually okay with it. Which all means that your concentration skills are probably better than mine. Thanks for dropping by! Happy blogging.

  5. Oh yeah, oh yeah. I cannot write in the great outdoors because I’m too busy enjoying the scenery, the sounds, the creatures. I gotta hang out in my hole of an office and click away at the keyboard. OR, I can take a little time listening to people wherever that might be. But I do the dirty work of writing and re-writing in my sensory deprivation chamber. Gotta focus. Only way to do it. Love how you got a handle on your character by hanging out with her in the great outdoors. 🙂

    • Well, you are a true writer if you have a “hole” of an office. To date, I’ve met only one working writer who actually has a gorgeous stand-alone studio (I of course hate her). The rest of us hunker down in often less than appealing quarters. That said, my hole isn’t that bad, but I have a hard time with the sensory deprivation part. Do you get bored without any interruptions? I seem to need them and if I don’t have them, I make them up. Thanks for stopping by Dear Writers!

      • If I have interruptions, I fall “out of the zone.” I recall being in a spelling contest in grade school that was down to one other kid and me. I was in the zone and about to spell a word (that I knew how to spell) when the teacher asked me why my tongue was blue. Startled, I tried to remember what I had eaten for lunch and lost all powers of concentration. A minute later I was back to spelling, and misspelled the word, of course. The other kid spelled it correctly, and I came in second. Sigh. Lesson learned about my need for concentration. I guess that makes me a hermit when I write. 🙂

  6. So funny, Laurel, I know exactly what you mean! I struggle to eloquently describe the beautiful orange-and-pink sunset streaking over the bay, but that teetering pile of dirty dishes staring at me from my kitchen sink? Five descriptive paragraphs in 10 minutes, no problem.

    • Well sure, because eventually you have to wash those dishes, whereas the sun is fairly likely to set again tomorrow without any of us cleaning up after. So if we were out scaling cliffs, maybe we would find something to write about–REI gear?

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