ABCs of Creative Nonfiction: N is for Nature

Posted by on Jul 19, 2016 in Uncategorized | 2 comments

newglasses2I refuse to cede nature writing to the poets and novelists. In nonfiction, we describe the world around us, using the tools of fiction as well as tropes of our own, to make deeper connections and larger points. We can employ these tools while describing the natural world.

Mood

Look up. Your lighting has been provided. There are at least ten different types of clouds; altocumulus or striped, nimbostratus or dark and threatening. A writer’s thoughts can be scattered as the clouds, his pain can be piercing like the sun, or the gloomy weather can contrast with his sunny thoughts – weather is the situation for our story.

Setting

Describe the landscape. The flat, frozen fields of Hasting, Michigan in shades of white and gray and blue offer one backdrop; a swath of I-95 in the Berkshires, with strata of stone exposed provide another. In a piece I wrote, nature establishes time and place:

When the thermometer stays too low too long, and the pristine snow has melted and refrozen so often that the best of it is concrete gray, I bundle up and head to the yard to gather forsythia branches.

Diction

After you’ve chosen a thing to describe, consider your words. A narrator who talks about her grandmother eating a leaf from her “heart plant” differs from one who calls the plant “fox glove” and is far from one who calls it “digitalis.”

Character

As you describe people, mention their approach toward nature – does a man walk around a flower in bloom, or trudge through a puddle? If a child picks flowers for her mother, how long are the stems? You could describe each character’s attitude toward one specific thing — a pet, the rain, the smell of roses.

Pacing

Changes in the world around the narrator can enhance the drama – raging flood waters and rapid currents provide one form of drama, while fruit left to rot on a tree or grass grown over a path indicate something else.

Tools of Nonfiction – a strand for the braid

Nonfiction has tools which fiction lacks, and nature gives us new ways to employ them. A natural phenomenon can serve as a strand in a braided essay, linking the concrete to the abstract. In my essay intertwining moving our children from Texas to Connecticut, forcing forsythia to blossom when winter becomes overwhelming, and the underlying theme of wisdom and hope, the physical description of the branches provides a bridge:

Granted, when I first pick them they resemble nothing more than pretzels with bumps. But I cut them anyway. Tall, graceful branches tower over the top of my largest vase and interfere with supper. The shorter branches reach out at sharp angles like Martha Graham dancers. They stand in the middle of the dining-room table, where we see them night after night – each night slightly shorter than the one before.

The Speculative “I”

Use the gap between what is and what is desired to employ the “speculative I.” You’re looking at crepe myrtle but craving lilacs, or sitting in one climate while pining for another (think California Dreaming). Flash back to a similar time, place, plant, flower – remembering a tree like this or another incident in a football stadium in autumn. Or flash ahead – what will it look like without you?

Research

Keep a journal of what you see, smell, feel and hear – the sound the coyotes make when they are hunting versus the sound they make when they’ve killed, changes in the tree you pass each, etc. You don’t have to grow things or live in the country to do this. In college, there was a mud puddle under my window that I used to gage the weather. Black mud meant warm weather, white meant to bundle up, etc. As an exercise, choose something to observe over the course of a week, see what you learn, then think how you can use it.

Read

Read with an eye toward how other writers incorporate nature, looking for a good approach to steal. Read books about plants, trees, foods, tides – become conversant with the language of plants and animals.

Edit

Take something you’ve already written and add more details from nature. You’ve written about a house – now add the yard. Even in a piece set inside, people enter a room wearing coats or shorts, hats or sleeveless – write about the smell of the air. Describe the state of the plants in a doctor’s office, the precautions your aunt takes for a day in the sun, the number of flattened young animals on the road as you drive to work. Own your descriptions; add concrete images that drive home the abstract.

Writers use everything around us. Nature is as much a tool of nonfiction as it is a tool for poets and novelists.


Ann McLellan Lardas graduated from Wellesley College and received her MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University. Her poems and essays have been published in “Religion Under Communism,” “Caelum et Terra,” “Orthodox America,” “Living Orthodoxy,” “Orthodox Family,” “The Christian Science Monitor,” “Survivor’s Review,” and “Radish Magazine.” She believes that you can find enough nature to write about anywhere, and to prove it she writes about nature and the rest of the world here.

2 Comments

  1. This was a wonderful introduction to the restorative powers of nature! As a preschool teacher in a nature-based program, I have seen the therapeutic powers of nature for so many children wit vast arrays of learning challenges. What is most heartwarming is the therapeutic and empowering effect that engaging with our world can have on families and caregivers. Thank you for sharing, and for doing much to foster a connection with nature for all.

  2. Thank you! I love the idea of a nature-based preschool program!

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  1. “N is for Nature” – ANN LARDAS - […] editors at Spry Literary Journal have a series of abecedarian essays on non-fiction. They published mine on using nature…

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