My Week at Nature (Writing) Camp (New, Improved Edition)

categories: Cocktail Hour


Scott Russell Sanders is a beautiful man.

Janisse Ray is a beautiful woman.

I am somewhat less beautiful.

I just got back from a week of teaching alongside Scott and Janisse in northern Vermont at the Wildbranch Writing Workshops, sponsored by Orion Magazine.  For anyone who doesn’t know Scott (who looks a little like James Taylor {and my friend Ger}), he sings songs of the land and his book Staying Put is a foundation of contemporary writing about place.  We had a small literary quarrel in The Georgia Review last spring, but it turned out that it was, as I’d hoped, a kind of lover’s quarrel (not an actual lover’s quarrel, though I did say he was beautiful) and he couldn’t have been more generous during the week.  I knew Janisse (who looks—and sings—a little like Emylou Harris, the pre-white hair years) less well, but it took about three seconds to see she was a nature-loving whirlwind of the Terry Tempest Williams camp, full of energy and personality, and a true eco-believer in the best sense.  I’m about half way through Ecology of a Cracker Girlhood, which, in its lyric way, kicks ass.

Unfortunately it is my own nature to drink too much at these conferences and I did so last Wednesday on the night of our reading.  While Scott, always considerate, spoke for the allotted fifteen minutes, and Janisse for only a little longer, I blathered and slurred for a good forty-five minutes.  I cringe at the memory, but what are you going to do?  I took some consolation from reading this quote from the Celtics’ Ray Allen, who had shot 0 for 13 in the previous game: “I’m a professional.  I move on.”

I move on, too, though perhaps a little less slowly.  My friend Brad Watson, whose terrific short-story collection, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, just came out, once gave me a pack of “remorse cards” that look like this:

Suffice it to say that I have almost run out of the cards.

Anyway, the best thing about the week, for me, was my class.  A group of talented and enthusiastic writers from all over the country who suspended their regular lives to push the limits of their writing.  One theme, which may not come as a surprise to you have followed my Talking to Ghosts cartoon series, was the idea of trying to create momentum in our work.  Toward that end we forced ourselves by attempting to write not just a short essay, but a second braided essay, and the beginning of a book.  The idea was to do a lot and to go with whatever had the virtue of getting us excited.  And the idea was not to think too much, to slam and crash ahead, and to wait until the week was over to do the analyzing.  (Though it wasn’t quite that simple since we did talk about various literary forms, genres, and modes a lot, and how those vessels shape the water of our work.)

It turned out to be one of those special weeks that sometimes happens at these conferences.  I will admit that the idea of sitting through a reading by all 32 students on Friday afternoon was initially about as exciting as the thought of re-doing my taxes.  But the writing they read was exceptional and the students, unlike me, respected the imposed time limit (in their case 4 minutes each) and what I was treated too was the filling in of a large map, stories of lives from places  all over this country (and beyond, in at least one case.)  We hadn’t known each other from holes in the wall at week’s beginning but by the last morning, after a week of nature and books, there was a lot of hugging goodbye and even some tears (not mine).

Oh, I should add that the camp took place at  Sterling College in Craftsbury, Vermont. and that our host was an energetic, kind, resourceful and very funny man named Dave Brown, who has no “link” and will never read this because he has turned his Thoreauvian back on this whole wacky “internet” thing.

Here, by the way, is a picture of my (great) class:

As well as hanging out with my class, I also got to spend time with two famous nature n’er-do-wells, Jennifer Sahn (aka the world’s greatest editor) and enigmatic Chip Blake, who I am pictured trying to woo below:

And if that wasn’t enough, there was also great music.  Here’s a scene from the punk rock concert they held on the last night:

* * *

Finally, I’ve pasted a writing exercise, a variant of which we completed in the class.

Below that you’ll find an outline of the class itself.  It’s not a syllabus exactly, more an outline made up of cavemen phrases and personal hieroglyphics, but you may (or may not) get something out of it.

Knowing Our Place

For nonfiction writers who are stuck for a subject, writing about place often unlocks other topics and deeper concerns.  Places and words have always been intertwined and for some writers turning their minds to a specific place they care for—a home, a patch of woods, a beach—can prove a reliable muse.

At the same time, writing about deeply knowing a place can make us feel a little mystical, even silly.  As the great Alaskan writer John Haines said: “To express a place in art we need to take certain risks…we need intimacy of a sort that demands a certain daring and risk: a surrender, an abandonment.”  Or as Barry Lopez puts it, we need to “become vulnerable to a place.”

This exercise hopes to draw on our deep feelings for certain places, and to use those feelings as a base for a longer essay.  This, after all, is the template for many essays: writer walks into place, place spurs memory/ideas, writer goes on tangent, writer returns to self/place, writer walks out of place.

Before beginning the exercise, you should choose a place that is important to you.  It doesn’t have to be a pastoral place, just a place with personal resonance.  The only qualifier is that it should also be a place with several memories attached to it.

Place Essay Exercise

1. Details of Place

The first part of the exercise is to conjure up images from your specific place.  Dredge up details–the more tangible the better.  No need to start with long sentences—single words, caveman-style, will do.  In this fashion, you should sketch down concrete details of a place you care about.

2. Memory as Scene

Next try to write a scene about a memory that is important to you and that is related to that same place.  It could be an emotional event in your life or just something that has stuck with you.  You should write honestly and simply and try to make it a scene.  The only caveat is that you should write it in the past tense.  Don’t worry so much about getting the memory exactly right.  Instead concentrate on making it work as scene.  Remember to use so-called fictional techniques in scene-making—sentence variety, dialogue, active, driving verbs.

3. Combination of #1 and #2

Now return to the details you’ve dredged up about a particular place and use those details.  Have your first-person narrator—you!—walk into the place from part one and then have that place prompt the memory from part two.  It is important to try and use the present tense for the walk into the place before flashing back to the pat tense memory.  Finally, the piece should end by returning to both the same place and the present tense.  This will feel awkward and unnatural at first, and may also come out that way on the page.  Try and play with the transitions and see how you can give it a “natural” feel, despite the obvious artificiality.

4. Tell It Big

Now write a few lines about what you’ve done so far means.  Go big.  Don’t be embarrassed.  Think Movie-of-the-Week or Lifetime.  Remember that this is nonfiction so you can show and tell.  You can always prune later.

5. Return to the present tense and walk out of there. Simple enough, right?

The first results of the exercise are sometimes awkward, but the potential rewards are two-fold.  You can begin to see how place can provide material, often unexpected material.   And you can also begin to see an essential aspect of structure in the essay, how the concrete world spurs memories, and how that organic reality is mirrored in the form.

* * *

Overview of the Week

Day 1: Observation and Details

Goals this week: to have produced three pieces of writing.  One mini-essay in varied tense and mode, one place book beginning, and one braided essay made up of previously written material (or ideas).

We will push things.  Fast-break.  Just go with it.  “Learn to skate in the summer.”

1. Journal-Keeping


2. Walking and Phenology—watching a place turn round


3. Recording: the Illusion of Life vs. Art

4. Walking and asking questions

First Exercise: Dredging up Details (Must be an important place and a place with at least one “over drinks” story attached.)  (Dining room story—A Family Place)

4. Active Language: both nature and us—putting things in movement.—John Hay’s symphonic sense.

READ Hay’s pages, The Meadow, Wind, WRP.

Second Exercise: Use dredged details to write first person present moment scene. Making the details active.  Walking into your place.  Begin with “I imagine…”

Third Exercise: Cinematic First Scene.  Emulate The Meadow

Day 2: Shapes, Forms, Genres


1. Different vessels.  The demands of genre: what are the rules and clichés of the “place writing”?  Finding Home, pride of place.  What are the formal clichés?  Walking, from observation to thought.  Going against the grain.  Another way to look at it: How is a short story not a nature essay?

2. The tools of fiction.  Dialogue, scene, characters.

READ first page of Wolff.

Your best, most-direct stories.  Stories we re-tell to friends.

Emotional directness.

Fourth Exercise: Segue from “Present Tense walking in scene” to “Past Tense Memory scene” (No telling allowed).


3. Braided essays: T. T. Williams—letting the beams show.  Van Gogh, Herring and Me.  Juggling.  Negative Capability and holding two thigns at once.

Hand out to READ: Reg Saner

READ second section of The Meadow.

Copying and originality.

Another sub-genre: the character sketch.

Fifth Exercise: Emulate the second section of The Meadow.

Hand out Scott S’s “Telling the Holy”

Day 3: What Does it Mean?  Introducing Ideas


The moral element.  Show AND tell.  Why place/nature writing is not a short story.

Put on our minister hats.

READ the end of Baldwin’s essay.  READ the end of Scott’s essay.

The best “telling” is your trying honestly to work out something internal and making it external.  Working through issues you truly care about.  “The mind is a burrowing organ,” writes Thoreau.  A burrowing literature.

Sixth Exercise: Take Your Walking Exercise and tell us what it means.  Air it out.  Go big. Go corny.  Movie-of-the-week.  Lifetime movie.


“Excess is preferable to deficiency.”  Prune it back.  You may use that line elsewhere.  The beamyard again.

Seventh Exercise: A third scene for your Meadow exercise.  Introducing a theme/linking idea.

Day 4: Revision and the Writing Life


“A backshop all our own” Montaigne.  The difference between every day and once in a while.  Confidence.

Putting time on your side.  Accretion.  Dedication and daily ritual.

Multiple projects.  “What am I excited about?”

The work of revision.  Hand-out.

Neither two high—this is the greatest—not too low—“This all sucks.”


“If I know what I’m doing I can’t do it.” Joan Didion.

“Good writers make outlines; great writers throw them away.”


Sending stuff out into the world.  Unanticipated failures and surprising successes.

Your work style and your business style are as individual as your voice.


Making a simple list of practical goals.  Your strengths and weaknesses.

DAY 5:

The State of Place


Larger Issues of Nonfiction


Where place is now. The joys and challenges of this genre.  Beyond nature writing.

James Frey and truth in nonfiction.  Common sense.

Work into the world.


  1. Mara Naselli writes:

    And raising another toast to the extraordinary people who made Wildbranch happen, and to Dave’s hilarious post.

    The more I think about it, the more amazing I realize it is–what other magazine actually *invests* in writers to create an incubator of mentors, writer/activists, readers to think and talk and write about the world we live in and our place in it? Publishing is wringing its hands, despairing for the future, but few are actually taking the opportunity to say, here’s a chance for us to make better works, foster better writers. And that’s what Wildbranch is. It’s an astonishing gesture of generosity in world obsessed with scarcity.

    The readings, students and faculty alike, delighted, each in their own way. I don’t think I would be alone to say Gessner’s class, and Wildbranch as a whole, changed my life. Thank you, Gessner. Thank you, Dave Brown, though you’ll never see this post. Thank you, Orion.

  2. Natalie Vestin writes:

    Raising a toast to nature (writing) camp, being overserved, reading too much or too long (is there even such a thing?), and being somewhat less beautiful.

    Thanks for a great week! I’m nailing my shoes to the floor for an hour every day and writing like a caveman.

  3. Emma writes:

    While reading Talking to Ghosts, I couldn’t help but think of this:

  4. John Jack writes:

    I have an irrational fear of syrup, all things sticky, especially sticky sweet. Or is it really irrational? I suspect our primordial ancestors avoided sticky stuff like tree sap and flower nectars and fruits’ ambrosias, at least avoided their magnetic attractions for stinging bees and crawling bugs and gritty dirt, unless they could soon rinse away those sticky syrups. I recollect, as if I could forget, when my sucraphobia began or worsened than what I guess is the natural norm.

    The family trouped into the Boca Chica Chief Petty Officers Club the Saturday before Christmas Monday. The Cuban Missile Crisis was current in the news and emerging in all its Cold War panics a bare hundred miles away. Kennedy was still alive and well in the White House. I counted my years on one hand, all the digits.

    Mom and Dad and we four boys were dressed like it was church day, Mom’s handmade matching paisley print shirts on us boys. Dad’s casaul mufti white dress shirt and blue Dickie trousers was more a working undress uniform. Mom wore a yellow and black banded shift dress she threw together for the Friday night drinking party of the week.

    We got there early, as was Dad’s wont. “So we can get good seats.” We always got good seats. We took good seats center front, back a couple rows from the front line of Formica wood tabletops and marble veined, red naughey padded chairs surrounding the club’s linoleum dance floor. I shared a chair with my oldest brother. Younger brothers shared a chair across the table. Each to their own chairs, Mom and Dad faced front between we paired off boys.

    Dad went up to the bar where untold tall fish house tales were recounted over happy hour brews and highballs. He came back with two Shirley Temples, two cherries and two straws each, and a fountain Coke, no straw. He groused about the price senior noncoms charged for canned beer. Mom snuck a glug of bourbon from a flask in her purse into the headroom of her glass. Oldest brother and I raced through our Shirley, assuring we each got our fair shares. Younger brother sipped their Shirley as if he had all day. Youngest brother was in diapers. He didn’t much care for carbonated drinks then. He liked the maraschino cured cherries. We older brothers complained about being unfair younger brother got more Shirley. Oldest brother bragged about the knot he tied in his cherry stem with his tongue.

    The club smelled of crystal malt, scorched coffee, and maple syrup. It was an otherwise pleasant aroma that would throw me back to the club’s terrifying crowds time and again whenever I ate waffle breakfasts or entered a military club or a breakfast diner.

    Standing room only latecomers mobbed the outer walls. A salty master chief came out a side doorway. Chest flat decked with ribbon salad, gold chevrons lined his dress blue sleeves. He marched up to the dais. A throne behind him stood empty. “Youngsters, mind your Cokes. If you spill on my carpet, you’ll be staying after to clean up.” Junior noncoms guffawed. “Santa’s here. We’ll start by asking those four and younger boys to come line up to see Santa.”

    Younger brothers hand in hand went up. Santa sat on the throne, a rough looking scoundrel worn down by eons of chimney wear and tear. He straightforwardly dispensed novelty plastic toys and hard candy stuffed polyester fishnet stockings to the straggled few toddler boys. I haven’t a clue why there were no girls there. Plenty of sailors’ wives, no girls. Younger brothers came back, each carrying a short stocking filled with bright colored toys and cellophane and tinsel wrapped candy.

    The chief called for older boys. Boys gold rush stampeded onto the dance floor from all corners of the club. Oldest brother navigated closing gaps and wound up close to the front of the line. A mob of shoving elbows and assholes trapped me at the back. The roughhouse madness buried me alive. I feinted black standing up, recovered, whirling white and dancing eye mote flares, still standing up, and elbowed my way out and returned to my chair. I expected by the time the line settled down, Santa would run out of stockings. I’d been disappointed before. Boys wearing cheap smiles slunk by guarding cheap toy and cheap candy stuffed cheap stockings.

    Mom was mad at Dad. He didn’t know why. He spoke at her in platitudes and placations, prospecting for clues. She added bourbon to her Coke, now more bourbon than Coke.

    Oldest brother returned with a stocking as long as I was tall. “Didn’t you get one?”

    “No.” The sharp loathing jealousy in my voice perked Mom and Dad’s ears.

    “Get back in line,” Dad said.

    “Johnny, do as your father asks,” Mom said.

    “They’ve got neato boats and trains and planes and candy,” oldest brother said. “Go and get you one, John.”

    “It’s too late,” I said.

    “That’s all there is. Sorry,” the master chief yelled over the mob, addressing parents more than kids. A chorused groan erupted from the seeing Santa line, no less mobbed than it was when I elbowed off.

    “It’s okay, John,” oldest brother said. “You can share mine.”

    “That’s my boy,” Dad said.

    Mom looked sideways at Dad. “How very kindly you are of your brother’s feelings.”

    Not a single question of what’s wrong, John? Not one word of consolation for my disappointment. Never mind, I was already as over it as I would get. We left after Mom chugalugged her bourbon and Coke.

    It wasn’t just the disappointment of missing out on a few paltry toys. I learned that day too many disappointing lessons, too young to learn strangers are indifferently ignorant of my feelings, too young to learn only I could really know what’s best for me, too young to know Santa Claus is what he really is, too young to learn parents’ little white myths are what they really are, no matter how well-intended they are. I was far too young to have an irrational fear of human beings.

    Years later, not too late to care, I understand my irrational phobias of mobs, club scenes, Christmasses, of lies, of people, of syrup. I style myself a recovering sucraphobic hermit.