Nature and writing project: An update

So I’ve had a busy few months and whilst I’m pleased I’ve still been blogging, my nature and writing project has been paused.  A combination of going to Stanmore for three weeks, resting and recovering, and also getting used to having a lot more care.  With this in mind, I put my nature and writing project on hold – it had a summer holiday!

This means I will start getting back into it now that the summer holidays are over and the school year has begun again!  Expect more tarot and animal spirit posts as well as I’m planning – long term – to work through all my animal allies cards, my animal totem tarot cards with a focus on the animals.  I’m also planning – very long term – to work through all the tarot cards, having been inspired when I started with the ten of swords.

There are so many directions to take the nature and writing in and I think this is partly why I’ve not done much recently.  I was really clear about the different topics for the different months and now I’ve covered a lot of these, or at least touched the surface of them, and I don’t know whether I want to return to a topic or go with a new one!  So many choices and so little restrictions!  I think that’s why I’ve been doing the tarot and animal allies posts because then I’m not having to decide what to focus in on!

Animal Allies wise, I have the following to look into:

  • Bighorn sheep
  • Boar
  • Canary
  • Coyote
  • Mountain Lion
  • Opossum
  • Rat
  • Skunk
  • Squirrel
  • Turkey

As well as looking forward, I wanted to look back. I’ve been retired for over two years now and whilst I retired in May 2016, it was the September when things finally started to fall into place so I could have a life.  I decided that September 16-17 would be a bit of a ‘gap year’ for me.  I was overwhelmed at retiring, at having lots of things I wanted to do with my life and unsure what and how much I could actually do if I wasn’t destroying myself working.  It felt like there were so many directions I could go in and yet I didn’t want to commit to just one.  In the end, the gap year involved a good mix of things; art, Saturday classes at the university, writing and reading.  It was January 2017 when I started on my animal spirit posts and it was from there than I formed my nature and writing project.

I had a feeling before but now I know for certain that I am a lot happier when I have projects like these which are long term but with smaller short term chunks (the entire deck of oracle cards but also each individual post).

I have also finally found the kind of writing that comes naturally to me at this stage in my life.  As a child I wrote a lot of stories and created magazines and newspapers for fun.  As a teenager I wrote an awful lot of (probably quite awful) poetry.  I was a prolific poet and it just streamed out of me without much thought or effort.  As an adult I have tried to recreate the stories and the poetry but its felt forced and definitely didn’t flow as it once did.  This year whilst I was reading and writing and learning, I came across the term creative non fiction and it felt like a validation that my posts about animals, about nature, are creative and they do count as creative writing.  Because they are non fiction I had essentially dismissed the creativity in them.  And because they weren’t in a voiceless, facts only style I had dismissed them as non fiction. It wasn’t until I found the term creative non fiction that I was able to figure out what my writing is and from there I can learn more about the style and how to improve and explore different techniques.

There have of course been lots of other realisations and discoveries in the past year of my nature and writing project but the thing I am most proud of is that despite having 6 months of being incredibly ill, I didn’t give up.  I had to change goal posts and I had to instil patience in myself because I wasn’t physically able to do what I wanted.  I also had to spend my energy fighting for help when I wanted to be doing my nature and writing project instead.  But despite this, since I started it last September, I have written over 165,000 words and 186 blog posts.  I have carefully researched the topics I talk about and have done some really interesting reading and watching of documentaries to fuel what I am writing about.  For a year which involved six months of starvation (literally… I couldn’t swallow much food…), I’m pretty proud of myself.

I couldn’t possibly chose a favourite topic or post but the one I find myself telling people about more than any others is the post I did in October about the very real and very serious cases of animals in court on trial.  If you read nothing else I’ve written (except obviously some of this post to reach the link…), read that.

Illustration from Chambers Book of Days depicting a sow and her piglets being tried for the murder of a child. The trial allegedly took place in 1457, the mother being found guilty and the piglets acquitted.

Creative Non-Fiction

Ever since I was tiny, I’ve always been attracted to words, both as reader and writer.  I made my own magazines and wrote story after story in my free time.  I even wrote a play and got my class to rehearse and perform it as a leaving present to a teacher who was retiring.  I would have been about 7 at the time.  Later I wrote a story for another teacher and got my friend to illustrate it.  But it was always fiction that I was drawn to.  I always wanted to write a novel.  And I have had so many ideas and false starts.

At some point in my teenage years I ventured into poetry and remained there for a while, comforting myself with dark, heart wrenching, pain filled verses.  I would dip my toe into fiction again and again and then I started on my animal spirit posts and something clicked.  I remember thinking that it was ok to be writing these even though they weren’t fiction or creative, because at least I was writing something.  Eventually I would realise that there is no hierarchy of authors, that poets are equal to non fiction writers and non fiction is just as valid as fiction.  I suspect that sounds silly to some of you but I don’t think I’m on my own in this.

As my animal spirit posts developed and turned into my nature and writing project, I once again faced this uncomfortable feeling.  I was doing a nature and writing project but where was my creative writing?  Where were the poems I intended to write?  It seems obvious now, but even though I was reading amazing, creative, nature writing, I still hadn’t put non fiction into the creative category in my brain.  This attitude slowly started to dissolve a little.  I knew I was putting my heart and my voice into my writing and this, as much as anything, is part of creative writing.  I knew my blog posts weren’t academic, they weren’t straight facts, relayed with a detachment.  But what were there?

I don’t remember how I stumbled onto the term creative non-fiction but it feels like it has been a powerful moment in my writing history.  It felt like I had a name for what I was doing, or attempting to do, and with that came validation.  And it also gave me a way of finding other creative non fiction, after all, writers must read in order to write. And prompts and suggestions about techniques and structures and all of these wonderful things that I knew for fiction but had had no parallel for.

A common description of creative nonfiction is true stories, well told.

As a genre, it includes memoir, travel writing, essays, food writing…. It’s quite broad and definitely includes nature writing.  It’s a style of writing which lets you, and to do it well insists you, write with your own voice.  There is a very definite place here for crafting your own way of talking to the reader and this is something that I’ve found quite natural and, when I’m doing it well, it flows from me with relative ease.  Creative non-fiction also lets me indulge the part of me that loves learning and researching!

I love the way creative nonfiction can weave together seemingly disparate topics and ideas and not feel forced or confusing.  I find it satisfying when authors draw you to a point of almost realisation and then sit back and watch you join the dots and experience that moment of understanding or clarity.  This sort of writing is exploratory, there can be a sense of playfulness, of adventure and seeking that you don’t get the same in fiction.  There is also an intimacy and authenticity to this type of writing which I find very enjoyable, both as writer and as reader.

Creative non fiction is powerful.  It is a way of sharing information, of teaching the reader, but it does so in a way that means they are more likely to remember it.

“We are, as a species, addiction to story.  Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”
– Jonathon Gottschall

Lee Gutkind said something along the lines of creative non fiction is a combination of style and substance, of information and ideas, presented in a story oriented way.  By this, he means that we have building blocks of story and scene and information which are woven together.  Done well, it creates a piece of writing which teaches the reader through a story which makes the information compelling and interesting.  It makes learning more palatable, and easier.

Start by hooking the reader into the story, then through in a bit of information, when you think the reader is getting fed up of learning, leap back to the story.  Gradually you fit the information you want to share into the story.  There are obviously many ways of structuring creative non fiction but a basic concept which works well is to embed information in the stories, to intersperse it between little stories and to ensure that it is all cohesive by fitting it into a bigger, overarching story.  Think of it as being a mix of parallel narratives and a framing narrative.

In terms of finding ideas for creative non-fiction, follow your curiosity.  One of my favourite parts of writing is finding the hook and when you do, it’s very satisfying.  To do this, you might want to take something and pull it apart, find out what it’s really about.

If you find a topic, ask yourself:

  • Am I interested in this?
  • Is the subject too narrow or too broad? Very narrow topics can work but they tend to work best if they are a specific example of something iconic.
  • Is there a universality to it? Will people relate or identify with this?
  • Is there any information available about this topic? Can I actually research this area?
  • Who I am writing for?

Once you’ve got a topic and you’ve found your hook, think about the order – it doesn’t need to be chronological but it does need to make sense and be easy to follow.

With creative non fiction you can play with voice – you have the you who is at the event or experience, the you who is giving factual information and the you who is looking back and reflecting.  Different voices are useful for different aspects – the you at the event is great for pulling the reader in, for giving immediacy and intimacy and can be used to build tension or emotion.  The reflective you offers depth and whilst not every story has a meaning, you can offer hints about what you learned or how it changed you.

Obviously there are many more nuggets of advice for creative non fiction writers but the ones I’ve just run through are those which chime with my own approach and which I enjoy when I am reading other people’s work.

Now I have a name for the style of writing I enjoy creating, I have a way of searching for tips and techniques and learning from other people who do it well.  And, whilst I know this shouldn’t be necessary or even the point, it feels like having a genre validates my writing, it gives me a sense of permission.