Notes from the field

Leading a Writer’s Workshop, Part 3

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.

Leading a Writer’s Workshop, Part 2

A few weeks ago, I led three hour-long wildlife-writing workshops at the Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival at Creamer’s Field State Migratory Waterfowl Refuge in Fairbanks, Alaska.

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 …

Leading a Writer’s Workshop

Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival Art

I’ll be a featured speaker at the Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival, Aug. 28–30.

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!

The Nation’s Best State Wildlife Magazine

At least 31 of the 50 states publish a magazine about wildlife and outdoor recreation, promoting appreciation for America’s natural heritage. In any given year, only one of those magazines can be named “the best state wildlife magazine in the nation.”

I’m excited to share the news that this year, that title was awarded to Arizona’s magazine, Arizona Wildlife Views.

Published by the Arizona Game and Fish Department since the 1950s, Arizona Wildlife Views doesn’t have a big advertising budget. All its resources are devoted to developing articles that educate people about wildlife conservation and help readers enjoy Arizona’s great outdoors.

Our state’s wildlife magazine earned the top honor this year in the state wildlife magazine category from the Association for Conservation Information. This nonprofit association includes information and education professionals representing state, federal and Canadian agencies, along with private conservation organizations.

Arizona Wildlife Views also earned kudos for articles written by Randall D. Babb and Johnathan O’Dell, and for design. The awards were announced at the association’s annual banquet July 17 in Flagstaff.

Winning this national award means a lot to me, personally. I’ve worked on this magazine since 2005, and as my 10th anniversary draws near, taking the top honor in a competition I highly esteem is a thrill. But there are a couple things that matter even more than winning an award like this. One is the pleasure of working with the creative team on each issue: our wise leader, editor Heidi Rayment; our talented and funny art director, Cecelia Carpenter; photographer George Andrejko, who has served on staff for the past 26 years; and Madeline Gaffney, who keeps the administrative side running smoothly.

The other is this: producing a publication that helps people appreciate Arizona’s amazing wildlife. We have such incredible diversity here—more than 800 native wildlife species, not including bugs—and every one is worth celebrating. As Heidi pointed out, “We’ll never run out of good material.” Winning awards feels good, but this is the real reason I love my job.

Heidi Rayment and Julie Hammonds hold first place award, magazine category, Association for Conservation Information

It’s been a pleasure to work with Heidi Rayment for the last 10 years at Arizona Wildlife Views magazine.

What is “Wildlife”?

Many take the view that “wildlife” means every animal alive except humans and the species we have domesticated. By this definition, “wildlife” includes all residents of the taxonomic kingdom Animalia, which encompasses every animal from spiders to blue whales and hummingbirds to elephants—minus humans and “our” animals.

These people are confused by the rules of the wildlife photo contest being co-hosted by Arizona Wildlife Views magazine and Arizona Highways. If wildlife is basically everything but humans, farm animals and house pets, they ask, how come my butterfly picture was rejected? What about the wild horses I photographed roaming in a meadow beside the Salt River … why don’t they count?

I’m sympathetic toward those asking the questions. Wildlife photographers are some of my favorite people. Eyes open and hearts tuned to the natural world, they reveal nature with an artistry that sometimes still steals my breath, even after I’ve reviewed tens of thousands of wildlife photos. When these people ask why particular “wildlife” photos are being rejected from the contest, it makes me stop and think.

I appreciate the point of view that defines “wildlife” as broadly as possible. But for the purposes of this contest, we’ve adopted a narrower definition, one based in state law:

“ ‘Wildlife’ means all wild mammals, wild birds and the nests or eggs thereof, reptiles, amphibians, mollusks, crustaceans, and fish, including their eggs or spawn.” (ARS 17-101)

We do this because this year, as in previous contest years, winning photos will be published in the annual wildlife calendar issue of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine. The magazine is published by the Arizona Game and Fish Department. The department gets its authority to manage wildlife from state statutes, including the one I quoted. So, since this wildlife photo contest began, eligible photos have been governed by the statutory definition of “wildlife.”

Photos of the animals one generally thinks of first when thinking of Arizona wildlife are eligible: deer and elk, Apache trout, mountain lions and turkeys, waterfowl, hummingbirds, Gila monsters, rattlesnakes. In fact, Arizona Game and Fish manages more than 800 native wildlife species—the most of any inland state—and we’d love to see pictures of all of them. We’ll even accept images of mussels and snails (as long as they are native species).

What we can’t accept is fairly small: Spiders; butterflies and other insects; burros and horses (which are not native species).

What do you think? What is your definition of “wildlife”?

Don’t Break the Funny

Longtime fans of outdoor writing are not surprised to find humorous pieces in state wildlife magazines. The latest issue of Arizona Wildlife Views upholds the tradition with a funny boating story called “The Big Green Boat,” about the author’s misadventure on a spring break road trip.

Humor has a long history in outdoor publications. When you venture beyond the safety of your own front door, there are plenty of opportunities to mess up, fall flat on your tail and laugh at yourself. Writing about your own misadventures is almost as fun as reading about the mishaps of others.

When I started working for the magazine almost 10 years ago, our humor writer was the esteemed outdoor communicator Bob Hirsch. Patient with my new-editor learning curve, he taught me a lot about editing humor. It’s very hard; harder, I think, than editing technical writing. A fact is either correct or incorrect, clearly stated or muddily phrased. Fixing it is generally a matter of checking reference sources or tweaking punctuation. Humor, on the other hand, relies on the nuance and rhythm of words and paragraphs. You can easily break that rhythm if you start fiddling with it. Suddenly, the humor is gone, victim of your heavy editorial pen. Encouraging it to return is like trying to lure a shy rabbit from a hole.

This is why I approach editing our current humor content with care bordering on trepidation. I have broken a few pieces. When that happens, there’s no cure but to go back to the original and start over.

To prevent that, when editing humor or any other type of writing, I constantly ask myself: Is something really broken here, or am I just fiddling with it? Am I trying to impose my own rhythm on top of someone else’s? In other words, instead of editing, am I rewriting another writer?

An editor’s essential skill is asking the right questions, those that spark the writer’s fruitful thought and lead to productive change in the work. If I find myself moving words around or making cuts or additions instead of asking questions, I know I’m straying into dangerous waters. Editing is about teaching the writer to fish, not handing him a carp.

The creative music that plays in our minds as our fingers dance across the keyboard or slide a pen across the page is not always pitch-perfect. If it were, editors would be unnecessary. Humorous writing needs as much careful editing as any other type of writing. But the editor who tampers with a writer’s rhythms, especially those of a funny writer, does so at the peril of breaking the funny.

How to edit humorous writing? Carefully.

When to Capitalize and When to Italicize Scientific Names

People who write about wildlife sometimes need to use scientific names. A species’ scientific name is the one scientists use to be sure they are talking about the same critter no matter which country they come from or which language they speak. It is the recognized Latin name given to an organism. An animal may have numerous common names depending on local preference, but every species known to science has just one scientific name.

A scientific name is comprised of the genus and species. These two words are always written in italics. The genus is capitalized. The species is not, even if it is based on a proper noun such as a place or a person’s name. An example is Merriam’s kangaroo rat, named for C. Hart Merriam: Dipodomys merriami.

The questions that most often come up when dealing with scientific names and other elements of a species’ taxonomy are when to capitalize words and when to italicize them. (See “Kings Play Chess On What?” for more on taxonomy.)

Recently, I had to look up whether to italicize the genus when it stands alone, apart from the species. I was editing an article on trout and salmon and had reviewed it several times. Up to that point, I had left the genus name Salmo in roman type. Sometimes, when you edit, you get into a “fun” mental loop. One part of your brain says, “If I left it this way before, I must have had a good reason. I must have looked it up, and I just don’t remember doing it.” The other part replies, “It doesn’t feel right. Look it up again.” The two sides may haggle, with one side arguing that looking something up twice would indicate you are growing dull-witted. Ignore that judgment and all it implies. Look it up again (and again, if you must).

I did, and I’m glad. I found this great reference page on the National Geographic website that told me everything I needed to know (and then some):


I highly recommend bookmarking National Geographic’s page, if you sometimes have to publish scientific names or other information related to taxonomy and want to get it right. And by the way: The genus should be italicized, even when it stands alone. Thanks, National Geographic!


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