If you judge the success of a writing workshop only by the number of participants, you’d have to say the most recent one I taught was a failure. During the Wings Over Willcox Birding & Nature Festival two weeks ago, only three people joined me in the dining room off the main hall of the Willcox Community Center for a two-hour exploration of writing about wildlife.
But one of the prerogatives of being an adult is, you get to define “success” your way. Nobody gets to tell you what earns an “A” and what earns an “F.” Going into this workshop, as with the ones I taught in Alaska last August, one of my goals was to learn how to lead workshops. I acknowledge that I’m a newby at this. I accept that experience is going to teach me things.
By that measure, I succeeded, because I learned something. If you want people to participate in your workshop, you have to advertise it ahead of time, via your own social media outlets and in the festival’s printed program. I’d offered this workshop too late for the organizer’s print deadline. So, my workshop was advertised online, but not in the four-color printed document every festivalgoer received when they checked in.
I did get three students, though, and I learned from them, too. One was a nature blogger, another had written for Arizona Wildlife Views in the past (and been edited by me, too). The third had come to the festival for personal reasons and wanted to capture some of his experiences and insights in writing.
Because there were only three, I was able to adjust my curriculum and talk with each of them about their specific goals and needs and questions when it comes to writing about wildlife. As with the previous workshop, there was time not just for talk but for writing. I also gave them time for revising their rough draft and for reading out loud. Everyone was diligent about all three. They were really into it. And the first drafts they read aloud made me glad I’d offered the workshop.
In the end, it’s not about the number of students. A workshop succeeds if every participant gets something out of it, and I learn something, too. I came away feeling humbled and honored to have helped people create something new, a piece of art, a piece of writing that expressed appreciation and emotion. Being a “workshop leader” sounds so grand. I know I’m more of a “workshop provider.”
I’d like to do this again, sometime.
Tomorrow, I will be teaching a workshop on nature writing (focused on writing about wildlife, of course) at the Wings Over Willcox Birding and Nature Festival in southeastern Arizona. This will be my second writing workshop at a crane festival … Not a bad trend! I am excited to meet the students and discover what we can learn from each other. I’m also looking forward to seeing and hearing sandhill cranes again.
Earlier this week, I visited Dogtown Reservoir, a little spot of blue in the ponderosa pine forest southeast of Williams, Arizona. My assignment was to photograph the reservoir for an article on fishing opportunities. I brought two camera bodies with two lenses mounted, both for taking wide-angle shots. I also brought a long lens, but left it safe in the car.
Of course, the wildlife-viewing was wonderful, as it nearly always is around water in our arid state. The moment I got out of the car, I saw an osprey hunting above the lake in long, languid, swooping glides. An hour later, I saw another large bird, which turned out not to be the osprey (my first thought) but a mature bald eagle. Yes, we have those here. As the sun fell toward the horizon, I also saw a great blue heron.
Did I get photos of any of these magnificent birds? No. I had the right lens, but not the right mindset. I was there to shoot scenics. My brain was geared for scenics. I couldn’t switch gears and take bird photos. I just couldn’t! So, this is the best wildlife picture I took during that visit.
Am I sorry about a missed opportunity? Not really. I saw those birds, after all; I just didn’t photograph them. And I did get the scenics I came for, as the light softened and warmed toward sunset. Next time, osprey. Next time, eagle. Next time, you great blue heron.
Writing about wildlife is a rewarding profession; not financially, of course, but personally and professionally. It involves going outdoors to observe and listen and feel, coming inside to research and interview, and finally sitting down to write about wildlife in ways that convey meaningful experiences and important bits of learning.
Still, sometimes even a committed wildlife writer might find herself wondering why we do what we do. What’s the point? Is anyone listening? Can people’s minds and hearts be influenced by words, in ways that help conserve the wildlife and habitats we care about?
Here’s one man’s answer. This came from Dr. Sammy King, unit leader of the Louisiana Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. King was the keynote speaker at the Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival, where I taught writing workshops in August. The holder of a doctorate from Texas A&M, he is working on the reintroduction of whooping cranes to Louisiana.
King took part in our Sunday workshop. At the end, when I asked participants for closing thoughts, this is what he said:
“I am a scientist, and in my opinion, scientists can only do so much to communicate the importance of wildlife conservation. It’s the work of people like you, the work of artists, that is vital in reaching the public with the conservation message.”
How’s that for encouragement?
The third wildlife-writing workshop I taught at the Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival will always hold a special place in my memory.
We did what I had already come to think of as the usual things: taking 15 minutes to write quietly, talking about writing, and reading an established author’s work (Hank Lentfer again, this time a different excerpt from “Faith of Cranes”).
We also did something new. I had told participants at the previous two workshops that if they wanted to read what they’d written aloud, they should work on it during the festival and come to the Sunday workshop. My concern was that pressure to perform right away might drain the pleasure from the 15-minute writing exercise. I didn’t want people worrying about what the group would think of their rough draft. I wanted them to feel free to suspend judgment and just let the words flow.
On Sunday, we had three who were willing to read aloud. First, a poet gave us a lovely poem, and I made a few encouraging comments. Then one of the photographers began to read a short prose piece, with something he’d observed about the way cranes move. We all could picture it as he read aloud: Three cranes in a field, feeding together, taking turns on guard, elegant necks making graceful patterns … and then as he read the final word, tears came to his eyes and he choked up. And so did just about everyone else in the room, including me.
Wanting to acknowledge the importance of the moment but also to give him some cover in case he was embarrassed to be showing emotion, I said a few encouraging things about his work, as I had about the poet’s, and we went on to give the third person his chance to read aloud. But inside, I was trying to figure out what had just happened.
I realized something in that moment. Maybe I should have known it all along, but that’s when it truly hit home. People didn’t come to my workshop to learn how to write about wildlife. They came for the chance to show how much cranes mean to them.
People love cranes. It’s that simple. They certainly didn’t need me to teach them that. They just needed me to create a space within which they could say it.
All those weeks of preparation and worry beforehand—were they a waste of time? Not really. That’s what I needed to do to feel ready. But in the end, leading a wildlife-writing workshop is not hard. Give people a format for expressing their feelings for wildlife. And prepare to be blown away.
These were my first attempts at teaching this craft in a small-group setting. I didn’t know in advance who would attend, or how many people would show up, or whether festival-goers would attend just one workshop or all three. I didn’t know how familiar they’d be with nature writing. This is a great argument for inviting participants to pre-register … the first of many lessons learned.
I prepared lots of materials in advance: handouts, a list of helpful resources, different writing prompts. I developed an outline for the workshop, then filled it in with way too many ideas, knowing I would never cover them all but feeling it was better to over-prepare than to show up empty-handed.
The day I arrived, I found out the conference organizers thought the workshops would happen outside, under a canvas awning. It was about 40 degrees. I had planned to invite attendees to do about 15 minutes of writing. Is it possible for frostbite to set in at 40 degrees? I didn’t want to find out. So I worked with the organizers—a very kind, cooperative group, tolerant of my prima donna writing-teacher ways—to move the workshop indoors.
My nerves on that first night were made manageable by the fact I hadn’t slept much the previous three nights: an interesting argument for the benefits of insomnia. I was simply too tired to sweat it. As the workshop began, I introduced myself to a small group of would-be nature writers, then asked them to tell me one thing they’d like to get from the workshop. Off we went.
First, we did 15 minutes of writing. Success! Nobody’s fingers went numb. Then we talked about preparing a first draft, finishing it, and revising. I read aloud from a lovely memoir called “Faith of Cranes,” by Alaska writer Hank Lentfer, whose descriptions of sandhill cranes we found inspiring. We talked some more about the writing process. And then it was over. The workshop had gone well! I was floating on air (and suddenly aware that I was very, very tired).
After a good night’s sleep, the challenge Saturday was to do it all again. I gave the group (most of whom were new) a different writing prompt. We read aloud again, this time listening to the words of Aldo Leopold, whose powerful essay “Marshland Elegy” was published in his classic work “A Sand County Almanac.” We tried, and mostly succeeded, to ignore interruptions from other festival-goers crashing in and out of the visitor center, unaware of our group and what we were doing. We talked about some of the same things, and some new topics. It went well enough, but afterward I didn’t feel the same “I survived!” euphoria as I had the night before.
Still, in the first two workshops I’d learned some useful things. People love to sit in a quiet room and write together, and they get excited about reading aloud. Silly me … I’d thought leading a writing workshop would be hard! All I really needed to do was show up, be encouraging, and create a space within which people could do a little reading and a little writing, without much distraction.
And wait until you hear what happened the third day …
A rainy Sunday afternoon finds me finalizing plans for leading a writer’s workshop next weekend at the Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival near Fairbanks, Alaska.
Today’s task was to find some examples of wildlife writing that I can share with workshop participants, to start them thinking about things like using action verbs and selecting meaningful details. What a great excuse to dive into my bookshelves and reacquaint myself with some amazing writers. Mary Oliver’s poetry, Richard Nelson’s lyrical prose, Aldo Leopold’s passion, Diane Ackerman’s eye for detail, Annie Dillard’s quiet voice … it’s as if I’ve been hosting a party, and all the guests are raconteurs with fascinating stories about the topics I care about most. The time has flown by.
For workshop participants, I promised to provide “a collaborative, structured environment for learning about, and doing, wildlife writing.” There will be opportunities for participants to begin a first draft, make solid plans for finishing and revising it, and read their work to a supportive audience. We’ll hear what various writers have said about sandhill cranes. I’ll share some of the guidelines I keep in mind when doing my own writing. All of that will be offered in under an hour and a half each day.
That’s the plan, anyway!