Book Launch! Seeds of Promise … a new adventure…

A year and a half ago, one of my students from the Field Studies Council courses approached me to see if I was interested in making an anthology of nature writing.

We hilariously thought it would take 3 – 6 months to complete! Hats off to all the publishers and editors out there …. we finally made it a year and a half later. I am so proud of the end result, it took a lot longer than we had planned because we were fitting it in around work and other commitments. We also approached publishers but ultimately decided to publish it ourselves so that all profits can go to environmental charities.

It was a huge learning journey, one I am so glad to have made. The icing on the cake is the beautiful illustrations by talented artist and writer Sharon Williamson.

You can find Seeds of Promise on Amazon, I promise it will take you on a journey of natural world discovery and intrigue. I also hope it will be a great point of inspiration to anyone looking at getting into nature writing. I’ve included a few pages at the back of the book specifically on getting started.

I hope you enjoy!

A Place on Mars…

I’ve been very quiet on here since summer, mainly due to a hectic schedule during September and over-committing myself to too many exciting opportunities, meaning my freelance work has had to take a back seat, while I have been getting my PhD and other commitments back on track. My day job at Converge (www.yorksj.ac.uk/converge) has just come through two years of external research on our project – with hugely exciting results, so it has been all go – celebrating the outcomes and future planning for our team.

As part of my work with York St John University I had the opportunity to go to London for a few days to network with our London Campus. We stayed in Canary Wharf, which I had never visited before. It felt such an alien landscape for someone who is so deeply connected to the natural world, I found it a surreal environment, you could have dropped me on Mars for the same effect!

I was however, both surprised and delighted to hear a bird of prey from the 10th floor of the hotel. It was also encouraging to see ecological work being done around all the concrete and steel. I saw a beautiful yellow wagtail on the Lilly pads at the campus ponds.

It was a brilliant reminder of how important the natural world is to me and to experience something so hugely different to my usual lifestyle.

On another note … for anyone looking to take comfort from the natural world with winter approaching, I am running a Winter Solace Writing workshop on the 30th of Oct. Details on my Events page here.

My friend the Pigeon. The Power of Narrative in How We Think and Feel about the World.

This beautiful and opportunistic racing pigeon dropped in on my allotment plot a few weeks ago when I was filling up the bird feeders. We noticed that he/she had a lot of twine tangled round one foot, and as they were very friendly – managed to get hold of him/her to remove it.

It’s not the first time we’ve helped a racing pigeon. Last year one arrived on our doorstep and took shelter. I had a very excited phone call at work from my children, explaining that they had put it in the the cat carrier to protect it and had given it some food. They dutifully let it rest for the day and then released it from the back yard in the evening. Much whooping and delight was had at the thought of our good deed. The only thing was….. when I left the house the next morning it was back on the door step! When I ignored him, he flew round to the back of the house and started tapping on the kitchen window with his beak. This went on for a few days until he finally gave up and hopefully flew home.

A lot of people are disgusted by pigeons, I’ve heard the term ‘flying rat’ on a number of occasions. I find it ironic that the only thing that makes pigeons so unclean is the dirt that we create in our cities. Many are grimy because they are surviving from our waste. They often have manky feet because their toes get tangled up in human hair and debris from our products.

Pigeons are amazingly intelligent and were celebrated during the war for their efforts in delivering messages. In York we have a string foot pigeon rescue group who de-string the city pigeons feet and make sure our pigeons are well fed and cared for. When you start really looking at them and forget all the narratives you have been fed, they are really quite beautiful colours and patterns. Also – there is little difference between a pigeon and a dove – only the colour of the feathers. Isn’t it funny that feral pigeons are shooed away and doves are upheld as symbols of peace and love. I often use them as an example when teaching nature writing and philosophy – sometimes it’s good to examine a story from many angles and also our own truths within that story.

Why Write? How and Where to find Inspiration…

Writing is my passion; but sometimes, it is really difficult to know where to get started and it is also really difficult to stay disciplined to find time to write. One of my students recently asked me where to find inspiration, without a class, or a group, how do we motivate ourselves to feel inspired to sit down with pen and paper? Here are my thoughts:

Writing for the Pure Pleasure of Writing:

Writing for me didn’t start with fictional stories, it started at the age of six when I picked up a pen and started documenting the things that I found overwhelming or awe inspiring in the world. I also loved the physical act of making the letters and words on the page and found it soothing creating the loops and swirls of hand written text.

Nicole Wood Jouve (2001, p12) writes in her chapter: On Keeping a Diary, in The Creative Writing Course book, that ‘writing is a source of tactile and visual pleasure. I like the activity of writing, somewhat under threat in the computer age. I enjoy writing as a craft. Something material in which the whole body can be involved.’ I think this is something that we don’t talk about enough, as well as enjoying the act of writing I also love typing, the satisfying click of the keys and words forming on a blank screen. If I am struggling to find the words or time to write, then sometimes I create lists. I have a game with my children when we go on holiday – we try to find 100 words to describe where we are. These lists are a great way of writing quickly and also a great resource to return to and write in depth about a place. Also a useful warm up before starting prose. I also sketch a lot (also easier with children around and something they find easier to join in with). I have included a reference for my favourite learning to draw book (see bottom of this post), for anyone that might want to explore this further. My sketches often inform later pieces of writing.

Writing as a Way of Making Sense of the World:

Writing diaries and journals are a great way of reflecting and recording what is happening around us, as Jouve also discusses, writing diaries can be like talking something through with a friend, it can help a writer to find their voice. It might not be writing that we publish, but might act as a helpful reference point or memory to return to which we can then build into something else. Jouve also mentions diaries as a point of transformation, we can explore different perspectives and who we want to be in the world. If we have something which we are focused on, keeping a record and an inspirational journal of our progress can help us to stay focused. For me it helped me to feel free, to explore difficult things and to savour memories, to get things down and let them go. The challenge with diary keeping is that we can fall into the trap of just ‘telling’ what happened in our day: ‘Today it was cold, we went to….we saw….. etc’.

Here are some interesting ways in which you could journal instead:

  • Use a journal as a research tool. I keep a nature journal, if I find something interesting I often start with the facts about a species when nature writing and see where that leads me. Often as I build up information and what I like to call ‘sketches with words’ other more imaginative ideas start to form. I use my journals often as a reference point for poetry.
  • Try writing a record of your day as if you were showing someone your day without telling them about it. Imagine you are writing as if they are retracing your steps alongside you. We often think our lives are boring, but when we start to explore our day with a narrative voice it is often surprising the things that we can turn into an interesting story. Play with humour and drama through your writing.
  • ‘Found fiction and poetry’ – if you visit somewhere with information leaflets or hand outs – try using them as a source point of journalling. Take some ‘found words’ in the form of a leaflet and circle the words which stand out to you, or snip up the words and re-order them. See what arises from your subconscious. This is a great way of playing with words and vocabulary. We can all get stuck in language patterns and with our favourite words, this is a great way of shaking things up.

Writing as a way of Connection:

I think this is the main reason why most people write. We have something to say, or a story to share and we want to put our voice into the world. I often hear that writing is a solitary act and people comment that it must be lonely. I would disagree. Writing for me is like baking, when we have created something delicious there is nothing more rewarding than other people enjoying what we have created. Writing is my way of connecting with the world. I miss the days when everyone wrote physical letters, when the post would drop on the matt and I would carry a folded letter in my pocket for the day – a friend’s words close to me. The challenge is finding the right audience. We don’t want to over-saturate people with our voice and there is nothing more disheartening that entering lots of competitions or writing to publishers, only to be rejected and feel silenced. I think of it this way, publishing is the icing on the cake, but it’s not the only thing that my writing is riding on.

Ways to get started writing for connection:

  • Look for local writing groups, I struggled to find a long term group that met the level and depth of writing that I wanted to do, however there are now many more writing forums and groups happening online which offer much more variety. So I would encourage you to have a go. It’s great to meet with others interested in writing and sharing words. In particular, I love teaching nature writing not only for the work that is produced but also for the stories that are shared when we are discussing what we have written. Having a weekly group is a great way to carve out time to write and to keep the momentum going.
  • Explore education. I thought I had missed the boat in pursuing a writing career, until I discovered that you don’t have to have English degree to complete an MA in creative writing. Starting an MA in creative writing was the best thing that I have done. It gave me focus, inspiration, stretched me out of my comfort zone, but most importantly connected me with others who were as interested in creating writing as I was. I can not describe how inspiring and motivating this was and it was worth every penny.
  • Investigate publications, competitions and magazines that have writing prompts and inspiration. There are some great resources to help get you started. I have included a few ideas at the end of this blog. My word of caution would be that ‘comparison is the thief of joy’. Like great baking, enjoy other people’s writing for what it is. Beware of your inner critique who will tell you ‘You will never write like that, you will never get published etc etc’. This is just your inner self trying to protect you from upset, ignore it and keep going. If publication is the icing on the cake but not the end game focus, there is no harm in entering competitions and publication calls – but be sure to have other areas where you can share and receive feedback from your work. There is room for us all in the world and many other ways of connecting with people through words than just publication.
  • Finally and most importantly, read. Don’t be scared of losing your own voice. Reading is the best way to align yourself to the style and forms of writing that you enjoy. It helps us to understand what we do and don’t like, we need to taste other people’s work as a way of connection to inspire our own words. Reading with others and reviewing books is another great way of exploring the form and creating connections.

Writing with Purpose:

I’ve broken my own rule today, of only writing short blog posts. The reason I have this rule as I think many people make a habit of blogging just for the sake of writing and posting regularly without much thought about what they are sharing just for creating content. I try to write with purpose, when I have something important to share on my blog, but also try to keep it brief and easy to dip into.

A great way of getting inspired to write is to find a passion. For me it is the natural world. I will never get bored of exploring this incredible world. Writing helps us to examine things around us in more detail and properly observe what is happening. It’s a way of looking at the world with wonder and awe, remembering what it was like making new discoveries as a child.

Try examining Why you write. Complete a 5 – 10 minute free-writing exercise jotting down all the reasons that motivate you and what interests you in the world. This can be a great way of exploring what motivates you, whether it’s creating fiction, keeping a journal, poetry or a specific genre that interests you. For anyone struggling with allowing themselves creative time, The Artists Way by Julia Cameron is a lovely way to get started and to give yourself permission to nurture your inner creative self.

Some ideas for writing with purpose:

  • If you are interested in writing novels and fiction use the real world for inspiration. Take a notebook to a cafe or park, use your observations as start points for sketching out characters and ideas for storylines.
  • Look to the old stories (folklore, mythology and fairy tales) to inform your writing. Can you create a modern tale from old? Folklore can make a great foundational structure in which to build a modern tale.
  • Find a passion, look around your home, what things are you drawn to, what have you collected, what do you surround yourself with? Whether its particular art, plants, pets – explore this further through your writing.

Writing as a habit:

As Mary Oliver mentions in the Poetry Handbook, one of the first things we need to do is simply to show up! Being disciplined in writing time and pushing through the barriers, the inner critique and the why is one of the hardest steps. I like to start with one notebook and a commitment to fill it. I rely on timers to prompt me to write, I book writing time in my diary and set an alarm for a set amount of time to get me started. By making it a regular habit it will become easier to stay focused. If you choose a theme or purpose to your writing this will also help, so that you can build and re-visit different ideas as your writing journey grows.

Useful books and resources:

Creative Writing Books:

Magazines: (These are a few I have enjoyed, however a quick google search of ‘creative writing magazines’ will bring you a lot of options – so if you have a specific genre or interest such as poetry I would encourage you to delve a bit further as there are some great resources available)

  • The Literary Review a great way of delving into literature. I’ve made some great discoveries of texts I might not have come across through this magazine.
  • Mslexia a magazine (online and on paper) for women who write. Packed full of interesting articles, writing prompts and opportunities to enter your own work. I only discovered this recently but found it full of interesting ideas.
  • SpeltMagazine – this was recommended to me recently – A poetry and creative non-fiction magazine which celebrates the rural experience. A lovely resource for anyone interested in nature writing.

I hope that this blog post was useful!

Best wishes,

Emma

The art of ‘Showing not Telling’ in Creative Writing.

The Art of Showing, not Telling, in Creative Writing

I’ve recently been teaching a new term of Exploring Nature Writing for the Field Studies Council (https://www.field-studies-council.org/?s=explore+nature+writing ).The aim of the course is to support participants to explore nature writing, as well as honing their skills as writers. My students asked for some more info on the technique of ‘Showing not Telling’, so I thought I would include it here, as it might be useful to others.

So – what is ‘showing not telling’ in writing, and how can we practice this technique?

Have you ever read a novel, that you just can’t put down and you feel like you are living in the world of the story when you are reading, and you a desperate to find out what happens next? You have probably experienced writing that focuses on ‘showing rather than telling’.

An engaging piece of writing stays one step ahead of the reader. The reader is an active participant in building imagery and piecing together the story as they read. This makes the journey far more interesting and intriguing.

When we simply ‘tell’ a reader what is happening, we are giving them the story on a plate, with no work necessary. ‘Telling’ something is getting straight to the point, in a factual, matter of fact way.

Here is a brief example of telling versus showing:

Telling:

This week I encountered a wild deer when I was exploring woodland along the coast of Fife.

Showing:

As I made my way along the track I left the sound of the waves behind me and climbed steadily through lines of silver birch and sycamore trees. The undergrowth snagged at my ankles and the breeze dropped as we left the open shoreline. Celandine flowers shone like a blanket of stars in the dim light. The shrill cry of a wren called out from a blanket of ivy that wove its way around the roots of an ash tree and covered the whole trunk in a carpet of green.

Stopping to breathe for a moment, I noticed something flicker with movement from the corner of my eye. There, ahead of me, a deer, as still as a statue, ears pricked, wide eyed, staring straight at me. It leapt into action, gone, as fast as it had entered my line of sight. I blinked, a second later and I would have missed it.

In this brief example, you will notice in the ‘showing’ section that I did not mention specifically that I had been walking along the coast. I indicated this with the ‘sound of the waves’. Instead of saying ‘I walked through woodland’ I tried to give the feeling of the woodland, showing that it was a broadleaf wood by naming the trees and the foliage and creatively painting the scene in the readers imagination ‘celandine flowers shone like a blanket of stars in the dim light’. I used details such as the wren singing to bring the woodland to life through the senses.

I tried to recreate the fast encounter with the deer by using short sharp descriptions, punctuated with commas which built the suspense and action.

I didn’t mention that I was in Scotland, but if I had been building this into the story, I could have shown the reader this through other means, perhaps talking about an encounter with a person and building in local dialect or showing the reader through the types of buildings or a mention of the history of the area.

Personally, I think there is a balance between showing and telling. As writers we need to find the sweet point between not dragging the description out so far that the reader becomes bored, but also not just telling everything so that there is nothing left for the reader to find out. I once saw an interview with Sarah Hall, discussing her brilliant book The Wolf Border. Sarah explained that she had completed extensive research into wolves as part of writing the book. One of the hardest parts of completing the story was deciding that she had to leave out a lot of the interesting information about wolves that she had discovered. Although it was fascinating for Sarah, she appreciated that an extreme level of detail about wolves wasn’t relevant to the story as a whole and would risk losing a reader’s interest.

Here are some top tips for ‘Showing not Telling’.

  1. Use the sensory world to bring your writing to life:

If you are struggling to show rather than tell, imagine that you are on the end of the phone describing something to someone who can’t be right there with you. Use your senses (sight, sound, smell, taste and touch) to accurately bring the scene to life. You are painting an image with words, so that your listener, or reader can also accurately see the scene in their minds eye and feel the world that they are in. Small details can show the reader a lot, such as the flowers in my example – which demonstrated what type of woodland I was walking in.

2. Be specific in your choice of descriptive words.

As Mary Oliver mentions in her book ‘A Poetry Handbook’, there is a difference between a ‘stone and a rock’. The word ‘stone’ sounds round and smooth, it draws on the vowel sounds of ‘o’ and ‘e’, whereas a ‘rock’ ends with the consonants ‘ck’ which give a hard, sharp sound. Rock. It sounds jagged. The words you use will paint a picture in your readers mind, being careful you can create very accurate imagery. Again, simplicity is key, use adjectives sparingly, too many will risk becoming overbearing for your reader.

3. Write then edit.

Don’t get hung up on getting it right the first time. The most important thing is to get words and ideas down on paper. You can go back and edit later. When you have completed a first draft of your work, read it back to yourself out loud. This may sound strange, but speaking the words help us to find snags and tripping points in the flow of the writing. They can also make us realise where we have skimmed over something by ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’.

4. Test out your work on an audience.

If you can, find a few friends, or even better – a local writing group, who are willing to read and comment on your work. I would recommend finding others who are interested in writing too. You don’t need to give thousands of words, a few hundred to a maximum of a 1000 will do (no more than a couple of sides of A4). This will be plenty to demonstrate tone and voice and to gain valuable feedback on how your writing is received.

5. Read, read, read.

The best way to learn more about ‘showing rather than telling’ is to read a lot. We can learn so much from other authors. Read as widely as you can. We can identify which work really speaks to us, as well as what doesn’t work for us. Having a go at writing in the style of different authors can also help us to understand technique in just the same way many art schools ask budding artists to practice in the styles of the great masters. This doesn’t mean we are going to plagiarise their work, or copy them in our final pieces, but it can help us to explore and understand the craft of writing in closer detail.

For anyone interested in finding out more – I have found the following books useful:

  • A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver (A dive into figurative language and the construction of poetry. I found this book a little heavy at first, but took my time, making notes as I went along and have found it to be one of the most useful books that I have read in considering language and sounds in constructing imagery.)
  • On Writing by Stephen King (I think this book is a must for every budding writer. Part memoir, part creative writing course book I really liked that Stephen King gives examples of exactly how he edits his work and also his long journey into writing. This book is a great starting point.)
  • The Creative Writing Course Book, Eds – Julia Bell and Paul Magrs (I just got this book out of the university library, each chapter has a contribution from a different author examining different aspects of writing. There is some excellent advice on ‘training the eye’ in observation and detail.)

On a final note – writing doesn’t have to be with the aim of publishing. It can also be done for the simple act of observing more closely, or for our own enjoyment, don’t get caught up in comparison with others, write for a love of language first. Everything else will follow.

And just for fun ….here is a pic of my lovely dachshund!

Easter break….

A week on the Scottish Coast. Each day filled with sea air, beach combing and woodland walks. We were lucky enough to find some plant fossils in the shale rocks.

Much needed time for writing and creativity after a busy couple of months. Looking forward to delivering more nature based creative writing courses over the next few weeks including a nature writing poetry master class and a woodland inspired four week writing course which I am planning for June / July.

I always love returning to the home comforts of Base Camp and my gorgeous cats! I think they enjoyed having the house to themselves for a week, although we have been getting lots of cuddles .

Contrasts …

The crisp winter days are capturing my attention. Mid afternoon sun falling through the woodland paths where we walk our Dachshund (when she is in the mood for walking).

Long shadows fall across the paths. I’m waiting for the first signs of Spring, snowdrops and bulbs pushing through the frozen ground. The starlings are gathering in the trees at the back of our house. All the woodland paths are punctuated by a chatter of bird song.

A sense of movement and change is in the air, each day a new beginning.

Happy New Year!

We welcomed the New Year with a walk along Hunmanby Gap beach today. A few brave folks were having a New Year’s day dip in the Sea. Strolling along the sand, listening to the waves rolling in and feeling the wind on my face was enough for me.

I would love to claim credit for making pebble pictures of 2022 and a spiral, but we found these along our walk. Today’s adventure was a treat for our Dachshund who doesn’t care for walking much, but does adore the beach. It’s so cute to see her giddy with excitement on the sand.

I was thinking about New Years Resolutions as we walked. Mine this year is to keep on keeping on. Writing is a lengthy process, it’s too easy to give up. I’m going to press on with writing daily and forging ahead with my PhD. The process is as important as the end product. Over the last 7 years I have gradually phased more art and creative writing into my life, I’m looking forward to devoting more time and attention to writing and creativity during 2022.

Happy New Year!

I wish all the best for everyone for 2022!

The beautiful lightness of Grey

‘You get to know grey in Scotland in winter. Either you make yourself miserable wishing for summer’s saturated hues, or you embrace grey in all its endless subtleties.’

Samantha Clark – The Clearing. A Memoir of Art, Family and Mental Health. (2020)

When I first started teaching people to use writing to connect to the natural world, I ran a ten week ecotherapy class called Winter Solace. We looked at the beauty of nature through the winter months and talked about using the winter months to take a cue from nature and take a rest.

In grey we can find many shades and hues of colour, something the artist Samantha Clark wrote about in her memoir The Clearing . A beautiful poetic book, with so many themes I could identify with.

We make our own happiness with the narratives we tell ourselves about the world. Instead of focusing on the cold grey winter months, I choose instead to look to everything that is beautiful, dew drops on a spiders web, the delicate veins of a leaf skeleton, the sliding colours of a river…

The world is what we make it.

Dreaming of St Cyrus…

Last summer, completely by accident, I stumbled upon the breath taking nature reserve of St Cyrus. I only found it because we were looking for somewhere to let the dog stretch her (very short sausage dog legs) and to break up our journey travelling through Scotland.

We followed a track that took us from the road across a wooden footbridge and sand dunes to the beautiful wind swept beach of St Cyrus. We weren’t expecting the vast stretch of sand before us, but there was also another surprise that was one of the strangest things I have ever seen in my life.

We walked for a mile along the beach and found an inlet of rocks and granite stone. In one of the inlets thousands and thousands of sprats had been trapped by the tide. Maybe chased in by birds? The whole pool was glittering with fish as they jumped to get air. Another young group of walkers was trying to dig them a trench to reach the sea. It was an eery sight as the pool glittered and fizzed with fish, many that hadn’t made it lined the edges of the shore line.

Further around the inlet the rock pools were deep and round with perfect clarity, lined with shells and fronds of jewel coloured seaweed.

The whole bay was stunning, there was hardly another person for miles. A few tiny bothies were visible set back in the dunes. Someone had used driftwood to create some fabulous shelters, some of the wood was so weathered it looked like rivulets of water in the sand.

I woke up this morning dreaming of the beach, of the crunch and dig of sand under foot, the sound of the wind sweeping the bay and the pull of the tide.

At the end of the walk, we found the visitor Center with a poem carved into stone marking the placement of a time capsule. If I could bottle St Cyrus and take a lung full of sea air whenever I felt like it, I would have done so!

Marram Whispers
Secrets over time
Blown Sands.
Colour dusted wings
Dance over
Flowers of memory
Lark silvery notes
Soar above the sea
Rhythmic sighs:
Wind woven sounds
Singing the song of
St Cyrus

By Lesley Harley