Writing the land, with Jane Adams
Review, by Jeni Bell
What do you get if you put a load of writers together in a room on an atmospheric autumnal day?
Why, a successful nature writing workshop, of course!
Author Jane Adams led the latest Writing the Land workshop here in Shaftesbury and, honestly, I don’t think there could have been a better day for it. With low-lying mists settling in the Vale and the odd splatter of rain adorning the hips and haws in the hedgerow, we weren’t short of inspiration. And it wasn’t just outside that was inspiring; inside, over plentiful cups of tea and plates of biscuits, the ideas flowed. We looked at the work and writings of other well-known nature writers as Jane encouraged discussion around the idea of what nature writing actually is, what it means to us as individuals, and how we can incorporate it into our work. For some, nature writing may well be the traditional field guide approach or the observational diary; for others, it might be found in fiction, or more personalised pieces of prose. We were reassured that there is space for all of this around the table, that our voices and our experiences are important, and that this workshop was a safe space to try out a creative slant to writing about nature.
Through discussions and readings, Jane was able to demonstrate one of the key features that makes nature writing (or any writing for that matter) stand out: the use of the senses. She asked us to think not just about what we see in nature, but what we might hear, or smell, or perhaps even taste – these are the things that will transport readers from the page to the place. Armed with these new ideas (and new notebooks and pencils kindly supplied by Jane), Jane took us on a short walk to Castle Hill, to take in the view, spend time with the trees, and put into practice these new writing tools we had been taught. We were encouraged not to overthink but to just jot down the things that caught our attention, to connect with the wildness of words by exploring our senses and our feelings towards them. How did it feel to see a lone crow on a branch? What memories were triggered by the feel of tree bark, or the scent of rain on leaf mulch?
Back at the meeting house armed with ideas, and freshly filled mugs, we turned to the task of transforming those notes into a short piece of prose. Jane reassured us that it didn’t matter if it was messy or not quite finished, that actually, sometimes just the act of freewriting without editing ourselves as we go is an essential part of the process. Most participants shared their work at the end of the session; reading out the detailed, intricate, and at times incredibly moving words that they found throughout the session. It was truly fascinating to hear these pieces, all inspired by a visit to the same place but all so incredibly different – just proving that there is something in the field of nature writing for everyone.
This workshop asked us to think differently about what nature writing means to people. It was a safe, relaxed space to try out new approaches and techniques within our own writing. Jane was a brilliant tutor, encouraging, reassuring, and offering well-thought-out teachings and readings that sparked interesting conversations and led to some beautiful pieces of work being produced. What a way to spend a Saturday morning – surrounded by autumn mists and wild words.