Last week, I spent five days in the North Woods in Wisconsin. I spent five days in the North Woods in Wisconsin for work, leading and chaperoning twenty-three 14 and 15 year olds. Camp Manito-wish YMCA provides a 10 day leadership camp for the students I work with. It would be difficult to get more immersed in nature than at Camp Manito-wish, which specializes in canoe, kayaking and hiking trail trips for days or weeks at a time (literal camping–no electricity, no running water, no bathrooms). The camp grounds is an isolated world and could be writing inspiration for the setting for a novel in any genre.
Want a rural fantasy? I’d bet if you follow the dragonflies they’ll lead you away like will o’ the wisps.
Feeling horror? Each night one of your cabin mates goes missing. They turn up, surfacing and sputtering their way out of Boulder Lake. Too bad no one will talk about the experience and you’re the only one left who hasn’t been taken.
How about sci fi? And you thought the well behind the cafeteria was just a boarded up well. Take a closer look at that escape pod.
Better yet, take a closer look at the map of the camp grounds. I find I only know a place once I’ve walked it and I believe that’s true to fiction as well. Our sensory details come from knowing our setting as intimately as our characters do. When writing, it matters where your characters walk and where they have walked. If you could interview their feet, what story would they tell?
Yet, there wasn’t much time for writing. And while taking a night hike or sitting by the water’s edge should have been a relaxing experience sparking creativity, the whole five days bred stress and stymied all will to even carry a pen and journal. Watching high school students all day and then sleeping in the same cabin with them, means you are never alone and always responsible.
I just got back from a yoga retreat at Kripalu, Center for Yoga and Health with my mother this past weekend. At Kripalu, experiencing nature was a way to experience ourselves. We walked over the sloping hills looking out over the Berkshire Mountains, laid out blankets in the grass and ate our meals outside. We stopped when we were tired and walked when we wanted to walk and where we wanted to walk. I didn’t create new fictional worlds or draw a map or start a new story. But some essays I’ve been working on are starting to come together and stories I needed to take a break from now appear fresh. We listened to the stories our feet told.
And while Kripalu will never be the raw nature of Camp Manito-wish, both walks in nature are lessons in writing:
- Take what you can away from even stressful experiences in nature. I didn’t get much writing done at Manito-wish, but I can always come back to the smell of wood chips after a downpour, or stumbling to the cabins in the near-dark after a bonfire. That map’s not going anywhere.
- Take what you can away from relaxing experiences in nature. Where does your mind go when you’re relaxed? When you lay outside and let your pen fly, what do you write? Maybe it’s a new story, but maybe it’s an old story told in a new way. Maybe right now it’s not a story at all and that’s okay too.
Wherever we write and whatever we write about, we’re storing experiences and taking in the world around us. Wherever you go, happy trails! Happy writing!