On Creative Nature Writing
When I say you never really finish writing, I mean it particularly for writing about nature. Nature writers don’t lose track of a story once it unfolds and is published. It is the piece that concludes, not the story itself. The story goes on and on till you pick it up again or pass on the baton. This is the beauty of nature writing – whether scientific or general, and one form of writing that engages and binds many to nature is creative writing. I introspect upon my process here, and in doing so provide sort-of a hack on creative nature writing. Before we begin, let me address the irony in this piece: creative writing is defined as ‘writing that goes outside the bounds of normal forms of literature’. The Wikipedia entry on creative writing further quotes Mary Lee Marksberry as saying:
… [creative writing] is a composition of any type of writing at any time primarily in the service of such needs as
- the need for keeping records of significant experience,
- the need for sharing experience with an interested group, and
- the need for free individual expression which contributes to mental and physical health.
Nature writing in the realm of creative writing has no boundaries nor limits. It can be both fictional and non-fictional. Being a naturalist, I focus on both, but emphasize on non-fictional storytelling which comes with its own set of constraints – the fundamentals here matter.
A cycle is a set of incidences that repeat. Just as you unravel strings of nature, you discover and rediscover yourself as a writer. In a strictly cyclic process, there is no beginning nor an end. It is perpetual. For the sake of understanding the cycle of nature writing, I’ve split it into three parts:
one is on the philosophy, on getting to know oneself as a writer;
two is on the skill, on becoming a gardener of thoughts;
three is on becoming a composer, on reflecting upon one’s composition.
As I said, there is no order to it, and you can adapt your writing by following any which way at any time you initiate the process, but the segments are put in a way to make you understand the different ways to approach your narrative.
On getting to know oneself
No one really starts writing by putting a finger on a subject or a genre. I started with terrible fictional stories inspired by the Lord of the Rings, the story of Eragon, by my trekking days in the Himalaya and walks with my father at the fish-packaging factory near my residence. I took to it just to bring my imaginations to life till I found my profession and hobby converging. This structure, therefore, is a guideline. I try to give an overview of how to discover your style through my journey, and where you can take yourself once you begin or are wanting to experiment with creative nature writing.
Nature writing begins much before you even start connecting the dots, it starts with your first walk in the woods, your first adventure, the first experience of the wilderness, but we’re here to discuss on the actual process of writing itself. With all your amazing experiences, the type of a writer you want to be is a gradual process, but when we usually start out, we start with the most obvious mode of narration – the first-person (the I), where you are the primary narrator. The second-person (talking directly to your reader, or a character) narrative is used to engage the reader in the story, and if your narration spans beyond your personal experiences, the third-person (the they) narrative is used. This segment of the cycle is on how to do this.
- The restless writer – the one who considers writing as hobby and/or profession – sharing personal experiences, blurbs, even tweets as a mode of communicating about nature. This is distinctly different from communicating notices, giving shout-outs, or sharing information. This form of writing is to give out quick opinions, views, and personal takes, be it on a recent incident, a trip, or a phenomenon. The ‘restless’ is not resenting, it is a successful way of quick to-the-point communication.
- The manicured writer – usually relies on data and statistics, and is method-focused. The writing is fairly detailed, could be investigative or opinionated, and usually prefers formal platforms for nature writing.
- The patient writer – an extension of the manicured writer, this writer prefers detailed discussions (also lengthy pieces). The writing is usually research-intensive and investigative. The only difference I see between this and a manicured writer is the focus on exposition and introspection than on the methodology.
But really, a nature writer is all of these, shifting the pace – from a sprinter to a marathon runner – as and when necessary which is based on the type of the narrative you pick.
Creative nature writing is as much about thinking inward as it is about thinking outward, but here there is a balance of both – you, the narrator, can be deep diving into a story personally or add only your accent to the story that is removed from you. The two can blend seamlessly in one another.
- Narration – We’ve already discussed the kind of narrator you can be. A simple narrative piece can be derived from the first and second-person narration. These are your primary observations – the simplest way to begin writing – and it goes well with sharing your personal expressions, or of someone who narrated them to you.
- Narration-exposition – This piece is where your narration usually follows some exposition, be it a narration on a particular species, a region, a culture – it is a mixture of your personal experiences with your subject injected with usually technical information on that subject you provide. The exposition can serve as a simple extension of your thoughts, or as additional explanation on the subject. You can interplay it as narration-exposition-narration and use multiple subjects. Too much of exposition can be off putting, hence care should be taken that the tone of narration matches with that of the exposition. I prefer concluding on a narration than an exposition to give it a more personal touch.
- Narration-introspection – This piece is similar to the one above, except here your take on your subject is injected with your introspection. This may or may not contain additional technical information per se, but the weight lies more on your expressions, your feelings, towards your subject. You can very well combine narration-exposition-introspection to share a broader opinion.
- Character-driven – Engaging in dialogues between the characters of your article is a little uncommon in non-fiction nature writing – certainly, you could carry your imaginations with quoting from certain books as dialogues, and show interaction between the characters. Or you could weave a fictional narrative with the dialogues grounded in reality and facts – these are your expositions which go as dialogues. Here, your protagonist – the main actor who takes you through the story, meets other characters (doesn’t always have to be humans) providing exposition through dialogue. This is a unique style not many nature writers adopt, and is something worth considering if you want to string a story around the natural world. I’ve never personally tried it, but I’ve been toying with the idea.
- The historian – This piece has its own niche, with little room for personal narration, but as a third-person narrator, you have a lot to experiment with. The historian, as you guessed, is a piece on life histories or regional histories – the lives of species, relationships, the people, the spatio-temporal tales of a landscape, or the science of discoveries themselves.
Usually, we decide on the form of narration subconsciously, hence this is a guide to help you form yours when you begin. How do we shape these narratives?
- Linear – Those long, sweet, chronological events are the easiest to write and smoothest to read. Whether it is an account spanning centuries, or a day spent exploring, an account of the changing seasons, or just a list of birds seen from a window, this form of narrative is something to pick up if you are just beginning. It is a traditional way of engaging in creative nature writing; it helps you not only realise your style, but also get to know your subjects one at a time.
- Sandwich – This is a piece I like to experiment with. Quite simply, some pieces are more of an exposition than a simple narrative – this is especially true for a broad subject, such as on a species group or a landscape, or on addressing a big question. To make it more personal, this narrative starts with a first-person narrative, gradually shifting into the exposition, and ends with the narrative you started at the beginning. It is like stitching two ends together.
- Non-linear – A story is considered non-linear if the narration or the events are not in the order that they occurred in. These events could be separated in time, a stage in one’s life, the stage of one’s understanding of the story as it unfolded. It can begin where you think it ends, or, you can go back and forth between events you choose to describe. Here, the beginning, the middle, and the end are shuffled to provide a disconnected perspective, but the trick is in bringing it all together in the end – which could very well be the beginning of your narrative. It is like coming back a full circle, but in twists and loops.
- Time-travel – This is a piece as an extension of the non-linear narrative, but is its own niche. It goes well with our ‘historian’ type of narrative. Simply put, this goes as then-now-then-now, or starts with the now and shuffles between the then and the now, ideally always ending into the now. This piece is for those who want to compare the present (the now) with the past (the then). It goes without saying that it takes a bit of practice to try it; I visualise it as a fold-upon-fold approach to the linear shape of narratives, much like non-linear, but with time as the key gear.
- Multi-level – This is when you try to make combinations of several narratives as different levels or themes; that of a historian with that of narration-exposition/introspection with that of time-travel. These are usually longer works requiring careful stitching and timing of the shifts in narratives. The trick here is to stick to your mode of narration – first or third-person, and shuffling between the types and shapes as you wander through this amazing multi-dimensional space.
- Experimental – This form is a potpourri of narrations; emotional, transcendental, imaginative even, shifting in and out of reality and fiction, capturing the essence of nature if not hard ground facts. One form is the poetry, another is prose-poetry where you wander in and out of imagination and realism.
- Vonnegut’s shape of stories – Kurt Vonnegut Jr was an American writer. I have not read any of his works, but his lecture on the shape of stories intrigued me. For his master’s thesis in anthropology, Vonnegut studied stories for their shapes. The Washington Post quotes him saying, “The fundamental idea is that stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads.” See this fascinating talk here. He states that the shapes of stories are something that computers can understand, identifying six graphical representations of stories from the beginning to an end (see the talk linked above, representations can also be seen here).
In a gist, the typical narrative arc for the popular stories can be represented as curves on a graph, the x-axis representing the story-line, and the y-axis as the changing emotions based on the narrative. For example, the man-in-hole is described by nofilmschool.com, linked above, as “The main character gets into trouble then get out of it again and ends up better off from the experience.” The creation-story is described as “… humankind receives incremental gifts from a deity” gradually increasing the emotional quotient from low to high (or low to better). The bad-to-worse is where “the main character starts off poorly then gets continually worse with no hope for involvement”. One curious category is the which-way-is-up where “the story has a lifelike ambiguity that keeps us from knowing if new developments are good or bad.”
Creative nature writing can fall in these categories. For instance, if you have a successful rescue story, it goes in the man-in-hole shape. If your story is about restoration, it goes in the creation-story. Any narratives on development-vs-conservation mostly (though not always) fall in the bad-to-worse shape. Finally, even popular narratives are uncommon in the which-way-is-up shape. In case of nature writing as well, it is tricky to categories what may go here. In my piece No Country For Wild Elephants, I rejoice the return of the wild elephants to central India after more than a century-and-a-half, but I also express worry of how they will be welcomed here.
By-and-large, we do have an inkling of the shape of our stories beforehand. Vonnegut’s shape of stories teaches us how we should study the shapes while we’re researching, and obtain ideas on how your narrative would be.
Finally, observe and absorb. Observe the world around you, absorb the knowledge you gain, but more importantly, especially to write, read. Read not merely for the information, but to be inspired – whether it is fiction or reality, scientific or creative, journalistic or general – all of these are narratives with their own forms, read those that interest you, that you want to write about – this will help you form your narratives as well.
- Warning! The reading anxiety – The trick is in moderating your reading. The warning I’d give here is on getting overwhelmed with something large while researching your relatively focused or small topic. For example, you’re researching on snake or bee diversity of an area and go down the rabbit hole of snake envenomation, or the collapse of the pollinators. This is a point where, visualizing it graphically, your absorption surpasses your vision for the narrative. You become overwhelmed, disoriented, and lost. It generally means that you’ve saturated yourself for that day or that particular piece. When that happens, stop reading, take a break, and start scribbling. Read only for the expositions where you stumble. This staggered write-read-write helps in certain narratives where we get lost in the information vortex, or the subject needs much more in-depth research than we usually know. The next segment focuses on the process of seeing your piece grow.
On becoming a gardener of thoughts
I should have perhaps started with this. To put it second was to prepare you first for what creative nature writing can look like before you shape one for yourself. The closest I could come to relate writing with something was gardening instead of a form of art (although music comes pretty close). One could perhaps consider gardening as art, come to think of it. Generally, writing is like any other form of art – you learn, write, practice, rewrite, get better at it, but the act itself is a lot like gardening.
- The seed – Never stare at a blank page or computer screen with a blank mind. That’s a sign of unpreparedness. Do you ever go running or dance without a warmup, or sketch without sharpening a pencil or setting up your canvas? The same applies to writing – but as with everything, writing needs more of a prep of the mind. What you need is an idea or an inspiration. When you catch the string, like a winged seed, let it float in your mind till you think you are ready to plant it. This seed contains a number of things of vivid shapes – memories, images, conversations stuck with you (good and bad both), imaginations, hypotheses – what have you. As a traveller, researcher, or an explorer – keeping notes, having photographs helps here, but also conservations that stick with you if you’re not a note-taker. This helps make the narrative more personal. Sometimes, an idea is just a few words, you may even think of a title before you think of the narrative – that happens, we will talk about it in the seedling stage. To give the idea some shape, let it float in your mind till you’re ready to plant it – your mind is your first substrate for that idea, not the blank page. It is less overwhelming to move on to reading related materials once you’ve collected your thoughts. Reading is a process that continues through most of your writing, especially for expositional or introspective pieces that are research-intensive. The previous note focuses on general reading, while this is more focused.
- Warning! The blank page syndrome – Described as “an overwhelming sensation that plagues most students at one time or another and varies in intensity. It involves a lack of ideas or inspiration from which the person would develop their work” on hercampus.com – it goes into the details of what causes it, how one feels, and what to do about it. This is a related to anxiety, largely for those who have their minds occupied with something, be it work, homework, deadlines, even depression. If it is deadlines, it helps to narrow one’s focus on the task. But mostly for most, it is none of these things. The blank page syndrome is having difficult putting thoughts into words, for that you should let it grow in your mind like a seed. When I’m going through it – sometimes months at a time, I usually let it heal by itself. To face this is unique to each, and so is the way of coming out of it. You should be patient with your ideas.
- The root – Your first substrate is your mind, let it sit there till you’re sure of it, but more importantly, this is where your willpower to put it into words strengthens. You may wonder how long this process lasts. This can take a few hours to a few days, or even weeks – it depends on how you start forming your narrative from your ideas. This is where I let the ideas marinate a little. I sit on it. Sometimes even months, while many ideas are converted into words within a day before the time of those marinating comes. And when the time comes to root, transfer it to the blank page. As your piece grows, ideally, your belief in your narrative should give you both confidence and satisfaction – that’s your roots strengthening.
- The shoot – By now you have an inkling of what your work would look like – start stringing the words in an outline – key words, key pieces of the narrative to remember, in short or longhand. Here, the shoots are your framework. My first outline is in a notebook. This helps me get an overview; and allows changes such as shifting parts here and there with arrows to be seen clearly and easily than on a computer screen. It may happen that as you start to write, the structure takes a shape you did not intend. These unexpected turns of events are common. Not everything in our minds can be translated into words as envisioned. You don’t have to go back to where you started when that happens. What you have now are threads to weave your narrative. The shapes are influenced by many factors, including our moods (Reigning in our mood is important if you are going for a more balanced opinion). I don’t call this a warning because this is a part of the process, we adapt to it. For example, some narratives are better linear than non-linear, some which you thought were simpler look more holistic from a multi-level perspective. Some need to be put in a rigid façade – especially investigative ones – which may lack in your personal accent. As a writer on nature, we have to be flexible for these evolving narratives.
- The sapling – The pieces are now coming together. It is set in the structure you imagined, or has evolved into something – both depends on how satisfied you are with it. Anytime between this and the beginning you may have had this question: what do I title it? Sometimes, you will start with a title as the first thing you write. Sometimes, you will start with an idea, even the structure, till you get an idea for the title. Other times, you may even start with a title and end up changing it towards the very end of finishing the piece. Some other times, you will be unsatisfied with your title till you give it some time. This happens, too. Be ready for all these circumstances. Titles can be straightforward, like a headline in a newspaper, some key words or phrases from the piece itself, a pun, or a title that catches the eye but the meaning or connection is revealed in the context of the narrative. When I write large narratives, I usually start with the most basic outline on the background, the focus of the piece or objectives, and the different stories that are to be incorporated within the narrative, framing them in little titled or untitled sections, and finally getting down to writing. For larger pieces, you need finer outlines to maintain the tone and connection – these are worked upon while writing as cues to the direction you’re aiming at without losing track. Sometimes if I tire myself out, I end with an outline for the immediate piece of the narrative to maintain continuity the next day.
- The plant – The beginning is key to any narrative. This is the position where your story starts. The trick is to capture attention. While the narrative is a larger piece, the beginning is a finer part of that narrative – this is where you decide where in that narrative you want to begin, and with what intent. Generally, a sentence that is not too long, not dense with exposition, and nor too descriptive, is a good what-not-to-do recipe. A beginning can be a punch-line – stating a fact key to your narrative at the outset, it can be a small journey to the focus of your story, it can be an animated, adventurous entry into the narrative, it can be a short and crisp description of a region you want to focus on, it can begin with a question or with humour – among many others depending upon your story. The second factor that matters is the pace – generally, we set the pace at the very beginning, but you can also play around with the settings – start slow, go faster, end slow, or any of the combinations of the three. You can also ‘jump’ – but reserve it only for narration. It depends on how much of exposition or introspection you intend to do – these are generally the slower pieces, interspaced with your narration that can be faster.
On quotes – Using popular or unique quotes is a way to set the tone, ambiance, or the essence of the piece. Quoting at the outset is usually to capture attention, but more-so to quickly align someone’s thoughts with what you wish to offer emotionally or philosophically. You’re free to do it, but do it selectively. It has become a trend nowadays, a cliché even. It is often used to tease your brain a bit to get engaged, but that’s not its purpose. When you start out, trick is to learn to engage the reader in your own words. I recommend using quotes on larger pieces and limiting their use in small ones (under 1500 words) – but really, there is no formula to it. I intentionally used it for this piece to push this point home, I like this song, but for me, it doesn’t really work in this article which I think has a beginning (and a straight-as-an-arrow title) to engage my attention as a reader – you should be the first and a better judge of your piece.
- The tree – I am skipping on the traditional beginning-middle-end exposition of storytelling. Instead, I am focusing on the organics of a story, how to build it from a seed to a tree. Why a tree, you ask. A story can be structured in the way of a tree. It also grows with time. How much time, you ask; that depends on you, but as with any tree that grows, we ought naught take forever to build our narrative! The heartwood is the strongest part of a tree – these are the fundamentals governing our world, they form our basis. To put it simply, the simplest science that distinguishes a bee and a fly is fundamental science, or an argument that you’re trying to opine on, for instance, the dynamics of human-wildlife interactions with a focus on retaliatory killings, has a lot to do with science (both, ecological and social) and ethics. Outer rings are your narratives that add to the heart of the story – your observations, opinions, evidences. These together form the xylem of the tree. Your structure, type, and shape provide life into an otherwise straightforward narrative – the phloem. And lastly, the branches are how you shape your narrative, and the emotions you evoke are the leaves.
- Warning! The writing anxiety – We better address the midlife crisis of writing before we finish our story, because that’s when it strikes. It goes like this: one day you’re on a roll, you sit with your beverage to tend to your garden, on the next day you slack off a little, and on the third you’re in a crisis – you don’t feel like getting anywhere; worst still, you don’t feel like looking at it. You are not lost; you’ve overcome the reading anxiety and the blank page syndrome. When you feel anxiety of finishing what you started, or worse still, disliking what you wrote, that’s writing anxiety. This attack is associated with depression, but not the kind influenced by external factors, this is on this piece you’re working on. One of the best remedies for it is to sit back and take a break. Don’t fight it – it needs healing. Don’t delete it – it needs a break. It needs to be treated tenderly. When you come back to it, read it in bits and pieces, take it back to the drawing board, the root stage, and start strengthening it up. I faced it once while drafting this piece, but then I decided to space out, physically as well as mentally, till I could sit with it again. When you overcome it, your outline should guide you to where you left off and where you planned to head.
- The flower – Oh here it is, the moment you’ve been waiting for. Mind you, this is not the end to your process, this is the conclusion of your narrative. What makes for a good ending is a million-dollar question. There is no straight answer to it, but you can broadly define it as a section that is symbolic for a beautiful or a tragic end to your narrative, or a big, concerning question sprouting from it, an end that serves as a beginning for something else, a quiet exit with nothing much to be said, a playful or humorous thought, even an awkward silence that your story demands.
This is not a structure. It is a reflection on creative nature writing. It is not an exhaustive, nor the only way to go about writing, of course. Experiment. Writing today is extremely structured, the disciplines of journalism and scientific reporting often overpowering, or, if I dare say, leaking into the mellow, flexible tone of the common tongue. I’m fine with it because I’m used to it as I’m sure you are, but creative nature writing is also an ode to nature, it is organic, like music.
On reflection of one’s composition
The piece has ended, but the work hasn’t finished. This segment is important for two reasons: to look at the piece through a microscope – that is review, edit, and revise it; to look at it through a telescope – give it a run-through to understand the type, shape, and pace; these are important before you finally publish it, though I do not dwell upon the nuances of publication.
- Patience – The first of this segment, but the first for all of writings is to be patient with yourself. After you rest your hands, let your piece age for a few days – hours, at least – but have the story in your mind through this phase. Change your activity; go for a shower, jog, speak to someone on something completely unrelated, but never let the little specks of ideas go. Having your narrative in the back of your head is a way for our brain to process it on the periphery as you engage with something else. Our brain processes it subconsciously, that’s when the ‘shower thoughts’ strike. Just make sure that you note it down least you forget it, which you will, unless you recite it till you note it. Come back to your piece after you give yourself some time from it.
- Be your worst enemy – It is that time now; to wear the hat before you let someone else wear it for you. You’ve already been through the different stages of work required after you end your piece. It is well known that you are your worst critique. It is better to embrace this alter ego than hate it, you will be surprised by the perspective it shows you. But don’t be too harsh on yourself, in the end, you should feel good about your composition.
- Revise – There is no escaping this. This is not only for the grammar but also the structure, even the sound of it – it is as much about the written word as it is about the spoken word. After you’re done with the written revision, recite it. Speak it out loud in your own tone, then speak it in the tone of your favourite narrator. You will notice that the emphasis on words or statements changes. I usually go by how it will sound as my favourite narrator.
- Weeding – It is integral to gardening. Your first draft is likely to require some weeding. In writing, the weeding is to look out for incomplete ideas, tangent schools of thoughts, and for missing citations and accidental plagiarism – when you extract information word-by-word from somewhere and miss out on citation, or forget to mention where you borrowed evidences from. Revision and weeding usually goes hand-in-hand, but for longer pieces they are better treated separately.
- On accents – I used the word ‘accent’ a few times in the first two segments. What are accents in written form? Every era of literature has its unique style – in the context of India’s natural history, if you read any of the Fauna of British India series of books, any of the pre-independence shikar stories, and then read the stories written by post-independence and contemporary Indian conservationists (from a field biologist to a forest-dweller to a wildlife manager – everyone is) – you will see peculiar accent in their writing style which draws its roots from that specific culture. Even within Indian literature, you will find distinct accents from someone belonging to the princely states, a bureaucrat, a professor, to someone who’s a grassroots researcher, even a taxonomist or a naturalist. Your accent changes with experience, but conforms to the era you’re born in, but there are immense inspirations you can borrow from. Mine comes primarily from Tolkien and all the fantasy tales I’ve read (no, not GoT!), but also from scripts of wildlife documentaries (I was a superfan of Austin Stevens!). On a more personal level, think of it as a distinct style, flavour, in your writing… I admit, it comes with writing away… an accent is not for your reader really, it is inherent to the writer – like the natural tone of your voice. For me, an accent is also a way to leave some cues for oneself or for someone else to find, like cultural references, shoutouts, winks, something to remember someone by. It’s not useful, but it’s fun. Sometimes I hide titles of my favourite songs in my stories – mostly in titles or in captions, or integrated into the piece itself.
- The fruit – Write for yourself first, if it satisfies you, you’ve seen fruition.
You don’t have to take my word for anything I said. Sometimes, you just write away, like Bukowski (he has a lot to say on that in ‘so you want to be a writer?’). This is especially how we all begin, by writing away, taking it one step at a time. To become a persistent writer, your ‘just writing away’ will automatically fall into a cycle (which is different from a routine) – somewhat similar to mine that I describe here, and with this realisation you will be able to think parallelly about multiple narratives – that technical report you have to finish, that concept note with a deadline, that manuscript you have to revise, that article from your childhood memory, or that poem you are slowly beginning to put into words one line a day after all those years. All at the same time. Well, not literally at the same moment, but it will help you compartmentalize your narratives, helping you shift gears as you shift from one form of writing to another.
So that’s what I think I’ve learned.
This is for the writers who are facing the blank page syndrome, a writer's block, or what have you, but more importantly it is for those who're hesitant to begin.