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.