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Understanding how to write the stories of our lives, a Janisse Ray workshop

Attendees described what happened at a place in nature from their childhood. (Northern Review photo/Khadijah Bagais).

Attendees described what happened at a place in nature from their childhood. (Northern Review photo/Khadijah Bagais).

Janisse Ray believes that we are all born as writers, as poets. Even though we’re born without the ability to even speak, there is always that potential. In actuality, she encourages each of us to go back to that primitive time where our thoughts and feelings were less filtered and conforming—more creative.

“Go to where you used language like a child,” she said.

This was some of the opening advice Ray gave during her workshop Mouth of the Great River: Step-by-Step Workshop for Writing Stories of Your Place on Wednesday.

In the beginning, Ray asked participants to take out a notebook and writing utensil and start their writing with “I remember…,” putting down the first thoughts that came to mind.

She said that, while writing, it is important to follow the rules of timed-exercise writing posed by Natalie Goldberg: Start writing. Don’t stop. Don’t edit until you’ve finished writing. Go for the jugular (don’t hold back, and instead expose whatever comes to mind). Be honest.

She gave the room five minutes to write as much as they could. Pens and pencils scribbled furiously as everyone wrote down the first thoughts that came to mind. Participants were then given the opportunity to share their work with the rest of the room.

This was followed by a second activity, where Ray asked everyone to think of a place in nature that they love, and to describe it in as much detail as possible. And then, how does that place make them feel, and what did they learn from being there?

“A place is nothing more than a space with a story,” Ray read from a piece by John Talmadge. “The basic question in all nature writing is ‘what happened here’.” 

Lisa Robeson, one professor in attendance, felt that this approach was very effective. Robeson had actually brought some of her Intro to Lit students with her, which mostly consist of students not majoring in English. She felt that the experience did a “fantastic job” of helping inexperienced writers get a better grasp of how to improve their work and to be more comfortable with sharing it.

When recalling what inspired her to go into nature writing, Ray recalled how fascinated she was with the works of nature writers that she had come across, specifically citing an article by Alan Wiseman for the Los Angeles Times. After communicating with him and delving deeper, she realized that this was what she wanted to pursue.

“Writing well is a matter of figuring out what obsesses you, and then writing about it,” she said.

“One of the best pieces of advice [Wiseman] told me was ‘we all care about other human beings. We don’t necessarily care about the marsh. So if you can find a human who represents that story, tell the story from the human’s point of view, and people will follow it to the bitter end to find out what happened to the person.”

Sofie Moeller, a sophomore creative writing student, was glad that she had attended the workshop and participated as she did.

“I feel like I've gained a better understanding of nonfiction, specifically related to nature, which will benefit me in my future work as a writer,” Moeller said.

Overall, Robeson felt the workshop was a fresh, interesting perspective that all attendees could benefit from in some way.   

“There were a lot of good pointers, [yet] it was relaxing. I felt like I had done creative yoga,” she said.

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