Writers on Writing #110: Nate Pritts
The Voice of the Wilder World--On Writing Outdoors
When I first started writing, seriously writing, with a disciplined attentiveness, I did so outside---perched atop a rock on the bank of a lake, in an open field under a yawning blue sky, lurking among the trunks of trees.
Partly this was practical, a response to my living situation in those early years of my writing life, which were always crowded with people, other voices and logistical demands. Writing outdoors meant I had slipped loose from all that, even if temporarily, even if just barely, and had found some ground (both literal and figurative) that I could call my own.
Still it was a choice I was making for my creative life, and even if it didn’t seem like much of a choice, it was ultimately an important one. I think all of us, when we commit to our writing, are presented with a series of choices. Certainly some decisions are made for us, and some we make without really knowing it. Some of them are mysterious, and should remain so. This is one, though, where I thought I knew what I was doing---and thought I knew why I was doing it too.
But there was intuitive sensibility at work here, a way in which I was listening deeply to the rhythms and rushes of my own energies. If all I needed was space, there were other options---the always empty “community meeting room” at the library, or even the mall food court (always bustling, but not necessarily with people who had any claims on me). I needed space, yes, but somehow I knew what I needed was wild space. Something was at work in me, a mystery beyond shape and heft, contained in---but deeper than!---substance. And all this conspired to draw me outdoors.
I wrote in nature but also about nature in those early poems. If my clearest and freshest thinking was provoked by landscape, it seemed that my words also dwelt on the vivid and breathing aspects of it as well. In one poem, the brittle and clattering sound of a squirrel navigating the skeletal walkway of bonebranch. In another, a cloud of gnats, churning and cycling and illuminated in the brassy early sun, a provisional mass that sways gently from side to side, hovering up and lowering.
And while these poems were often set in nature, I hoped to push them to say more than the surface, to do more than describe. I felt then that we can see our individual lives anew, refreshed by the wilder life of nature around us.
I know nature poetry is out of fashion, that the great mass of contemporary poetry is awash with digitalia. Much of this looks and operates within the parameters of Facebook and Twitter, with all the anxiety of online text chatter. I’ve written a lot of this type of poetry myself, though I hope that my work isn’t just appropriation and assimilation but offers an authentic scrutiny of what is gained and lost by employing these different modes of perception.
The background image on my computer screen is a panoramic shot of one of the Finger Lakes, an image that would be available to me if I, say, shifted a few feet to the right and looked out the window. But I can take this image with me, everywhere my computer goes, which is pretty much everywhere I go---the rich blues of the lake and sky, the startling and varied greens of the foreground grape vines and the distant hills, thickly covered with moody trees.
I mention this because, while I don’t think people have fully lost an appreciation for the deep and wild beauty of nature, I do think people have wandered away from an intrinsic connection to it—a personal and emotional connection, or even a physical and experiential one. And I think losing this connection threaten to cut us off from a fuller understanding of our very existence---one that has grown increasingly abstract and mediated.
I still feel that our awareness is most fluent and flexible in context, made athletic through the a style of perception by which we reconcile our inner lives with the outer landscape. We see and feel, we taste and experience and then we ruminate, we ponder… some of us write. We attune our awareness. And, as we do, we hear something beyond ourselves---the voice of the wilder world.
Like most of us, my writing habits have gone through several different incarnations. You probably know what I mean---for a while you can only write in the morning, very early, first thing, and in pencil on yellow legal pads, but then the time creeps later so that just before lunch is the new magic time, and now with a typewriter or laptop, and suddenly it’s different again and you find yourself dependent on the energy of the dark, it’s late at night and you sit in your current favorite chair with a black ballpoint and one of those un-ruled notepads, with the fabric spine. I’ve gone through all of those habits and cycles, those and more.
But I find myself now coming full circle. I write best out of doors. Sure, we all need our laptops and typewriters, mechanical tools to help us finish the job. After all, a large part of writing is work, hard work, diligent work. But I’m talking about the initial sparks and the first fiery throes, when the incipient energies of creation are allowed to run wild. When I’m able to give over some time to this mysterious work, I load up my backpack with a few books to read and a few pens (I’m not choosy anymore) to write with. I throw in a yellow legal pad. And I head out to the trails and start walking.
Nate Pritts is the author of eight books of poetry including the recent Post Human (2016), which Publishers Weekly says "leads readers through a poetic dystopia that reveals the fragility of the human relationship with technology,” and Decoherence, which won the 42 Miles Press Poetry Award and will be published in the fall of 2017. Pritts is Associate Professor at Ashford University where he serves as Curriculum Lead and Administrative head of the Film program. Find out more at www.natepritts.com.