Writing in nature

On a clear day last month, I took a group of young writers outside. With paper and pen in hand, we spread out to write—one went into a small wooded area, a few sat in the grass, another climbed up a large oak, and a couple of them sat at tables under trees. They were tasked to simply describe something they saw. Later, we reconvened to share descriptions of ants, trees, Spanish moss, and cold air. These descriptions later evolved into wonderful creative writings.

The activity proved to be fruitful, and I attribute this to the depth and beauty the natural world offers us. When we, our students, or our children are facing writer’s block, boredom with the usual prompts, or simallgau-63427_1280-1ply a tiredness of being at the desk, outside is a good place to be.

Connecting our lives to the natural world around us is not a new concept. It is for good reason that we plant trees in street medians, spend Saturday afternoons at parks, stare out at the vastness of the ocean, and can’t help but be overwhelmed when we look up at a clear starry night.

It’s an ancient connection that gets to our core of being. I see this connection in the readings I teach—creation stories, the Psalms, Indian animal fables, Jesus’ parables, and poetry from all over the world.

Thomas Merton, a writer and monk who lived in a hermitage in the woods of Kentucky, believed that creation must be experienced and observed. He began many of his journal entries by writing what he was observing in the forest around him. He wrote descriptions
like this one:

Mists of damp heat rise up out of the fields around the sleeping abbey.  The whole valley is flooded with moonlight and I count the southern hills, and almost number the trees of the forest to the north.  Now the huge chorus of living beings rise up out of the world beneath my feet: life singing in the watercourses, throbbing in the creeks and the fields and the trees, choirs of millions of jumping and flying and creeping things.  And far above me the cool sky opens upon the frozen distance of the stars.

He did this as if he had to—as if these things had such an influence on his contemplative life and writing that he had to acknowledge them first.

Nature is a good place for a writer—young or experienced—to begin.  To get you started on your outdoor writing adventure, here are some ideas:

  1. Keep a nature journal.
  2. Sit outside away from people and do nothing. Write anything that comes to mind.
  3. Describe the smallest thing you can see outside. Do it with great detail.pen-1342655_1920
  4. While on a hike, imagine a story that might take place in that setting.
  5. Personify an aspect of nature that you see.
  6. Spend 15 minutes outside observing the world around you. Write about what you notice most.
  7. Go out on a very cold or very hot day. You might be uncomfortable. Try to find the good in what you feel and experience.
  8. When you are outside, which of your senses are you most thankful to have?
  9. If you don’t like to be outside, write while you are outside and tell what you don’t like about it.
  10. Write about the element of nature that speaks to you most.
  11. Write a story or poem about a leaf falling.
  12. Describe what a bird might see.
  13. Read outside. Remember, the key to being good writer is to read.
  14. While inside, read about nature and look at pictures of nature. Let these images and readings inspire your writing. For example, browse through the bird images of Alexander Wilson, American Ornithologist. Tell what you see. Describe how the birds might feel if you touched them. Think of any movement the pictures might suggest.

The options are plentiful and nature is ready for you to experience it—so get outside and write!

 

 

 

WHY WRITING IS IMPORTANT

Writing well is an important skill when your English essay is due. It’s also important if you wish to pursue a career in journalism, editing, or content writing. However, writing well has many benefits, and a list from Marquette University tells us what makes writing so important.

  • Writing is the primary basis upon which your work, your learning, and your intellect will be judged—in college, in the workplace, and in the community.
  • Writing expresses who you are as a person.
  • Writing is portable and permanent. It makes your thinking visible.
  • Writing helps you move easily among facts, inferences, and opinions without getting confused—and without confusing your reader.
  • Writing promotes your ability to pose worthwhile questions.
  • Writing fosters your ability to explain a complex position to readers, and to yourself.
  • Writing helps others give you feedback.
  • Writing helps you refine your ideas when you give others feedback.
  • Writing requires that you anticipate your readers’ needs. Your ability to do so demonstrates your intellectual flexibility and maturity.
  • Writing ideas down preserves them so that you can reflect upon them later.
  • Writing out your ideas permits you to evaluate the adequacy of your argument.
  • Writing stimulates you to extend a line of thought beyond your first impressions or gut responses.
  • Writing helps you understand how truth is established in a given discipline.
  • Writing equips you with the communication and thinking skills you need to participate effectively in democracy.
  • Writing is an essential job skill.

 

[This list was composed and posted by Marquette University]

 

 

 

Improve your English grammar by learning a foreign language

A couple of weeks ago, a high school History teacher told me, “I learned most of my
English grammar by studying Latin.” I can relate to and agree with this through my study of Spanish.latin

I started studying Spanish two decades ago. The first word I learned was from the mother of a friend from Mexico. She spoke no English. One afternoon I went to his house and he wasn’t home. His mother told me something in Spanish and it was clear from the look on my face that I had no idea what she had said. She then continued to repeat “Biblioteca, biblioteca” as she pointed up the hill toward the library. When I arrived at the library, I found my friend and I realized I had learned my first Spanish word.

From that day, I decided to make it a point to learn Spanish. I took Spanish through high school and college. I studied Spanish in Guatemala for three months, working one-on-one with a Guatemalan teacher, five days a week, eight hours a day.

studying-spanish

After Guatemala, I volunteered at a maternity home where many of the clients were Spanish speakers. I tutored students in Spanish at a college. Over morning coffee, I spoke Spanish with a friend of Puerto Rican descent. Then, throughout my English graduate studies, I sat-in on as many Spanish college courses as I could.

I never planned to be a Spanish teacher or permanently live in a Spanish-speaking country. I wanted to learn a new language because I was aware of the well-known benefits of doing so: a greater ability to complete analytical tasks, an worldbooksresizeintroduction to a new culture, a competitive edge in the job market, and so on.

When I completed my MA in English, my family and I moved to Ecuador. There I took Spanish classes, but most of my time was dedicated to teaching English. As a new teacher in a classroom, I found that teaching the English language was not much different than learning the Spanish language. I discovered that all my years of studying Spanish helped me to better understand the English language.

Anne Merritt points out in “Why learn a foreign language? Benefits of bilingualism” that learning a foreign language draws our focus to the mechanics of language: grammar, conjugations, idioms, and sentence structure. Merritt says, “This makes you more aware of language, and the ways it can be structured and manipulated. These skills can make you a more effective communicator and a sharper editor and writer.”

If we want a better hold of English and we want to improve our reading and writing skills, we should remember the words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.”

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Tips From a Linguist: How to be a better writer

Writing well can be challenging, and the work is sometimes intimidating. In an effort to make the process easier for all of us, Eric Barker of Time reached out to Steven Pinker to talk about the rules and science behind good writing.

vintage-1170657_960_720Pinker offers tips for becoming a better writer. He is a cognitive scientist and linguist at Harvard, and he was recently ranked as one of the top 100 most eminent psychologists of the modern era.

His latest book is The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Below are six tips from the Harvard linguist to make you a better writer.

  1. Be visual—make your reader see

“We are primates, with a third of our brains dedicated to vision, and large swaths devoted to touch, hearing, motion, and space. For us to go from ‘I think I understand’ to ‘I understand ,’ we need to see the sights and feel the motions. Many experiments have shown that readers understand and remember material far better when it is expressed in concrete language that allows them to form visual images.”

  1. Don’t assume everyone knows what you know

“…another bit of cognitive science that is highly relevant is a phenomenon called ‘the curse of knowledge.’ Namely, the inability that we all have in imagining what it’s like not to know something that we do know. And that has been studied in various guises in the psychological literature. People assume that the words that they know are common knowledge. That the facts that they know are universally known… the writer doesn’t stop to think what the reader doesn’t know…Show a draft to some people who are similar to our intended audience and find out whether they can follow it. This sounds banal but is in fact profound. Social psychologists have found that we are overconfident, sometimes to the point of delusion, about our ability to infer what other people think, even the people who are closest to us.”

  1. Don’t bury the lead—tell the reader what your point is

“Readers always have to fill in the background, read between the lines, connect the dots. And that means that they’re applying their background knowledge to understanding the text in question. If they don’t know which background knowledge to apply, any passage of writing will be so sketchy and elliptical, that it’ll be incomprehensible. And that’s why journalists say, ‘Don’t bury the lead.’ Basically, a writer has to make it clear to the reader what the topic of the passage is and what the point of the passage is. That is, the writer has to have something to talk about and the writer has to have something to say… The exact place in which the point of a text is displayed is less important than the imperative to divulge it somewhere not too far from the beginning.”

  1. You don’t always have to play by the rules, but you should try

“That’s right: when it comes to correct English, there’s no one in charge; the lunatics are running the asylum. The editors of a dictionary read a lot, keeping their eyes open for new words and senses that are used by many writers in many contexts, and the editors add or change the definitions accordingly…There is no tribunal. There’s no rules committee when it comes to English. It’s not like the rules of Major League Baseball which are exactly what the rules committee stipulates them to be. That would just never work with language. There are hundreds of millions of English speakers and they are constantly adding new terms to the language. They’re constantly changing shades of meaning.”

  1. Read, and read a lot!

“I don’t think you could become a good writer unless you spend a lot of time immersed in text allowing you to soak up thousands of idioms and constructions and figures of speech and interesting words, to develop a sense of writing at its best. Becoming a writer requires savoring and reverse-engineering examples of good prose, giving you something to aspire to and allowing you to become sensitive to the hundreds of things that go into a good sentence that couldn’t possibly be spelled out one by one.”

  1. Revise

“Much advice on good writing is really advice on revising. Because very few people are smart enough to be able to lay down some semblance of an argument and to express it in clear prose at the same time. Most writers require two passes to accomplish that, and after they’ve got the ideas down, now it’s time to refine and polish. Because the order in which ideas occur to a writer is seldom the same as the order that are best digested by a reader. And often, good writing requires a revising and rearranging the order of what you introduce so that the reader can easily follow it.”

Writing Ideas

Writing2Finding a topic isn’t always easy. There are many strategies for coming up with ideas based on a particular subject—brainstorming, freewriting, and mapping are all great ways to think of ideas for an essay.

Brainstorming involves listing everything that comes to mind when you think about your topic: impressions, emotions, reactions, and facts. Freewriting is when you write nonstop for a specific period of time, letting your mind run free. Mapping (or clustering) is a more visual way to discover ideas and relationships.

But where do you start? Sure, a topic can be “anything.” The world of “anything” can be an overwhelming abyss, though.

To get you started, Michael Gonchar has put together some terrific prompts. Through the Learning Network, you can access “301 Prompts for Argumentative Writing” and “500 Prompts for Narrative or Personal Writing.”

Each prompt is a question. The question can be used as a starting point for brainstorming, freewriting, or mapping. You can use your answer to develop more specific ideas for writing.

So, when you are told to pick your own topic or you are just looking for some ideas for your writing, you can scan these thorough lists for some inspiration.