My strongest childhood memories intersect with nature, and before I became the adult "me" (bill paying, zoom calling, lipstick-wearing) I was much closer to the natural world. In honor of summer as a time for enjoying the outdoors, this post is focused on a compilation of books that have a unique focus on the natural world.
Trees, Elephants, Octopi and Hawks
Scientists are starting to understand how trees talk to each other. This idea is fictionalized in the wonderful Pulitzer Prize-winning book of fiction, The Overstory by Richard Powers. I highly recommend this novel and how it asks the question, how do humans create networks with and in the natural world?
Seeing a recent article about elephants on the move in China reminded me of an amazing book from years ago, The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy which is completely told from the point of view of a small group of African elephants. This book is a tour de force and seminal for how to write from a very different point of view.
The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery is a first-person non-fiction investigation into cross-species love and admiration. In it, Montgomery traces the unique physiology of the octopus and comes to understand their beautiful alien abilities. She writes, “A lion is a mammal like us; an octopus is put together completely differently, with three hearts, a brain that wraps around its throat, and a covering of slime instead of hair. Even their blood is a different color from ours; it’s blue, because copper, not iron, carries its oxygen.” The deeper we investigate our fellow species, the more we can learn about ourselves.
And lastly, the wonderful nonfiction memoir H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald is about falconry, but also intersects with her grieving process and the passing of her father.
Writing prompt: Are there any distinct memories from your childhood that take place in nature? Summer camp? Swimming in a cold lake? The first time you rode a horse? Getting caught in the rain?
Pick a memory and exercise your descriptive muscles. For inspiration savor the words journalist Ligaya Mishan uses to evoke frankincense in this New York Times article on the history of using essential oils, "Over time, it was burned at temples from Karnak in Egypt to just north of modern Shanghai, and strewn over funeral pyres of the rich and powerful, giving off a dark scent with a warm halo, invoking must and musk, black pepper and sun-baked lemons, fallen pine needles and the fugitive sweetness of scorched wood."
It is time to flip the switch to "ON" and get started. These are the top tips for setting yourself up for success. Just remember, without a strong scaffolding, your structure is weak.
TIP #1 - Schedule a life-saver. Many people tell me that it is easier to get up earlier than to carve time out of their already existing schedules. Set an alarm for your appointment with yourself and your creative process. The time you choose should be when you are the most active mentally. Schedule your date and pretend it is your dialysis – your hookup to a life-saving process.
TIP #2 - Consider your writing time sacred but also realize that non-writing time is creative time. Carry a notebook like Joan Didion. When you live with creative awareness, you are seeing with a lens that allows you to take anything you find curious. Comb for details while you are awake, filing away insights and ideas from the environment of your life. The haircut of one of the moms at the playground, the mannerisms of a check-out clerk, the way that men wait for the bus. It is all there for you to harvest and apply to your writing time.
TIP #3 - Use ritual to your favor. One of my favorite scenes is Michael Chabon's film The Wonder Boys with Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp in his lucky pink bathrobe. Put together your ritual kit - some headphones, a soundtrack, tea or coffee, your favorite notebook, your phone on "airplane mode" - each time you follow your ritual you are harnessing the power of consistency.
TIP #4 -Harness your motivations. In the book, "Well Designed Life" author Kyra Bobinet uses some of the latest findings in psychology to help readers align "what they want to do, with what they actually do." Sticking with writing is about finding a stable motivation piggybacked on a strong emotion. By putting the two things together you have the purpose and the willpower. This is not, "I'd like to write" or "I could make some time" - this is more of "I need to feel heard" and "I am happy when I create" combined. A strong basic need mixed with emotion. For more info, here is Dr. Bobinet interviewed on a Stanford Medical Lab podcast.
TIP #5 - Use the buddy system. Get an accountability partner to check in with weekly, daily, whatever it takes. Set clear goals and make sure your partner is defining tangible milestones. If what you are saying you want to do and what you are actually doing is not aligning, go back to #4.
Have you ever met someone who seems addicted to their own pain?
Trauma may be what they know, or feel most comfortable with. Familiarity can be a false love – which is how we can become accustomed to keeping and tending our own little pain garden. Just like weeds, the stories in our pain garden are familiar, insidious, and help hold together the plot (as in story or the land we sow).
It is why people joke around that “they married their mother” or why adult children of alcoholics sometimes unconsciously choose a partner with similar unpredictable behaviors in their adult life – it may be bad, but it is what feels comfortable.
Imagine your pain as a 3 x 5 garden – what is in there? The red poppies of thwarted desire, the desiccated vines of hunger? The showy roses of damaged pride? In mine, I have the controlling trellises of perfectionism.
Writing Prompt: After imagining your pain garden, see what could grow there instead that is more nourishing. When you next feel the pain of unrequited desire, consider creating a new story to take its place.