Our nonfiction editor Maria Genovese and editor-in-chief Lauren Bender had this exchange with J. Drew Lanham, featured nonfiction author for our Volume 3 print issue. Here’s what he had to say about his editing process, hope as a natural resource, and his goals for the future.
Your essay demonstrates a deep connection with nature. Where did your love of nature begin? Are there any specific nature writers who you enjoy?
My parents were lovers of life and nature. My mother was a high school biology teacher for almost forty years and my father (deceased) was an earth science teacher. That I suppose was the nature of things. Growing up on a family farm nestled in the midst of wildness was the nurture. Because we depended on nature for much of our existence, the necessity to live in harmony with it as much as possible was apparent early on. Being outside climbing trees, jumping puddles, throwing rocks and watching all sorts of creatures run, hop, flit, fly, slither, swim and soar about was entertainment. It was a different kind of constant streaming that I was exposed to back then and so that was the genesis of it.
I’ve always been an avid reader and used to pull encyclopedias off the shelf to flip through them and tour the world that way. Writing-wise, I think one of my first exposures to nature writing was through the story of Rascal in Sterling North’s classic book. Then there was My Side of the Mountain (Jean Craighead George) and a couple of books from Sally Carrighar, One Day on Teton Marsh and One Day on Beetle Rock. These were some of the first books that pulled me in deep enough to want to know more and in many ways emulate the people (and animals) in the stories, to live their lives and visit the wild places depicted in them. Later, in my pre-teen and early teen years I was totally enthralled with field guides. The diversity of colorful life wedged tightly between the pages of these compact and informationally concentrated books thrilled me! When I finally found my first copy of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac it was a push over the ecological edge. The lyrical prose reminded me in ways of my life on our farm. I read Rachel Carson’s work once I got into college and rediscovered my ecological heart after spending three years imprisoned in engineering. Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson are the gold standards as far as I’m concerned. I’ve always enjoyed Edwin Way Teale too. Janisse Ray made me fall in love with my southern home all over again. John Lane, a friend I’ve dubbed the “Patron Saint of the Southern Piedmont,” keeps me grounded and inspired with his words. There are others too whose work informs and makes me want to lean in to their words: E.O. Wilson, Lauret Savoy, David Gessner—I love Camille Dungy’s poetry too. There are essayists out there few have heard of like Dorinda Dallmeyer and Shari Smith. Both of them are consummate southerners with a very progressive slant that bind our southerness together in ways that go beyond the stereotypes that often hamper us as a region. My shelves are full of luminaries and friends that I know I’ll leave out. Suffice it to say I’m taken by beautiful, lyrical prose that sings.
You are a professor of Wildlife Ecology at Clemson University. How do you balance your creative writing with the demands of teaching?
Great question that I’m sure my “facilitators” (department chair, etc.) often wonder about. Until I was about forty-ish, I didn’t create a whole lot. I was a typical researcher and thinking mostly about the design of field experiments and how best to get published in scholarly journals. I did that well enough to get tenured and promoted. That move gave me security as an academic but then allowed my mind to unthaw a bit too. As I taught students I came also to see that they needed the science translated into language that helped them see issues and possible solutions. I also wanted them to see what drives us—conservationists who have our professional skin in the game—to do what we do. And then too as students, they might be inspired to keep at it knowing that there’s beauty out there worth working hard to save. I came to learn that my words can do that in ways that the data may not be able to. So I still think of myself as an ecologist—as a scientist who puts the rigor of the work and objective reporting of it ahead of anything else. But in the end we have to get the science out to more than just our peers. In that way, my career as a professor of wildlife conservation and my journey as a writer have collided in the most pleasant ways. The convergence has been life-changing for me. I feel my teaching and my research is now more a mission than ever. I’m hoping that the folks who evaluate me value that priority as well.
Do you see any parallels between birding and writing?
They are both experiential things. You’ve got to do them—immerse yourself into them—to fully appreciate them. When the muse kisses you, the words whirl and wheel in magical murmurations. It seems almost effortless. When warblers and other migrants are dripping from the trees after a fallout, or shorebirds are coursing back and forth over a mudflat at low tide, and you’re identifying birds by feel and not dissecting them into field-guide pieces, the feeling is the same. It’s this effortless zone that helps you sense and create in ways that you just can’t do by a schedule of writing to a word count or by reductionist birding. Writing and birding are best when you can feel them deep down. That’s when it gets good.
Writing and art do not exist in a vacuum outside of the social and political atmosphere. Do you feel this is especially true of nonfiction? What is the value of incorporating these factors into your writing?
Yes. I think it’s all connected. If you can’t connect the dots between the issues of the day, world situation, and whatever you’ve chosen to express in art or words, then I think you run the risk of being labeled as irrelevant or perhaps passionless. Either one of those tags would seem to spell low readership or low return rate to me. Yes, there’s certainly good stuff written that sits alone and outside of the context of daily life, but then how does it connect with the reader? Nonfiction requires the reader believe the words you’ve written. It seems to me that being relevant is a part of that. I try to let people see who it is that I am. Writing is a place where we undress ourselves in the most intimate but most public of ways. Your naked brain and psyche is often out there for everyone to see. If you make the linkages between who you are in the world, how you became that way in the context of people, places, events, and then maybe how you or your lot impacts things going forward for better or for worse, then I think you’ve made yourself a sympathetic reader. It gets even better when people can sort of implant themselves in your voice and become empathetic. Then they aren’t just reading your story—they’re living theirs as well.
What are three things that readers can start doing today to help protect the environment?
Don’t get overwhelmed and depressed by the big picture. That old maxim of “thinking globally and acting locally” is key I think. What can you do on a regular basis to make things better? Is it picking up one piece of trash a day? Is it drinking bird certified coffee every morning? Is it making sure you speak up for the public greenspace in your community? Maybe it’s keeping your cat indoors for the sake of its health and the well-being of the wild things on which it will prey. Can you convince one other person to do something small that makes a difference? Those are the multiplier moments. I think we get stymied by the big issues that make us feel helpless. Hope is a natural resource that I think is currently in short supply. The best thing is that it’s totally renewable and free. Let’s make sure we mine, harness, and frack the hell out of our hope reservoirs—‘cause we’re gonna need all the help and hope we can get in the next few years.
In your essay you write a lot about hope, even ascribing the feeling to birds as they “find fair winds to speed them along on migratory journeys.” Where do you think hope comes from? Is it innate? Is it possible to cultivate hope in times of uncertainty (like the current one)? How?
Wow, you’d think I’d looked ahead at this question based on my responses in the last one, right? Yes, hope as I write about it with birds and other wild things is born of an instinctual knowing. For example, most birds aren’t taught to fly. They fly. They hatch and grow—are fed and fledge and flap and exercise and fall and falter in the process. But something hard-wired keeps them going at it. And then they fly! That’s a kind of faith to me. Can hope be cultivated in us? I think so. Like I said, it’s a renewable resource. It’s there but we must recycle and reuse it. I don’t think it’s Pollyannaish to say hope—or even love—is something we need desperately now. I think that leaning on one another—sometimes bitching—other times crying—and hopefully other times laughing—can build up hope reserves if the endgame is figuring out solutions for making things better through collective effort and change. I think true change comes through caring enough about something to cultivate enough hope in others so that some action occurs. In that way I think that hope is all we really have. If we don’t hope—aspire for better going forward, we’re screwed.
What are your hopes for 2017?
Hopes for 2017? A huge case of Orange King voter remorse and an election revolution in 2018 that takes this country back to some semblance of progressiveness. One party ruling in this way, where ignorance, lies, and insensitivity are leading the way to inane policies ripping apart reforms that truly had the greater good at heart, is not a good thing. Ultimately I think that everything and everyone—except for the privileged few—will suffer. Whatever the left wing version of the Tea Party is—we need that—desperately. I want to see more people speaking out in any way that is constructively, democratically peaceful and civilly disruptive such that the oligarchy fractures. That’s my hope.
What do you see as the most important tools for moving forward in a positive way in the wake of the election? What is your advice for those of us who seek to effect positive change in spite of our immediate feelings of disillusionment?
Have a voice and let it be heard. Speak up and don’t be afraid to let others know who you are. I think it takes courage to write or speak or express yourself in ways that move things forward. We can’t stay mired in the muck that November 8 created. We also can’t continue to go at things the same way. I think progressives and people with good ol’ plain common decency, even if they disagree about some issues, can come together over other issues that unite us in the most important ways. I do hold out some hope—even in the darkest days—but it isn’t easy. So again, find the common ground among your friends, but then see if there are ways to maybe reel some of the fringe in who are experiencing the remorse.
On a daily basis, what do you think are the most effective messages to communicate and/or actions to take against the racial injustices present in our society?
Again. Speak up. When you see wrong—speak up! I think some white folks—especially some white women—now understand that the pedestal they may have thought they were on was really built for more efficient crotch grabbing. The silver lining in that very, very dark cloud is that now there’s a community of empathizers building common ground around injustice and intolerance. How can we let misogyny stand alongside racism or any other kind of oppression, prejudice, or hate? I’m hoping that more and more disgruntled people of color and women and people of every sexual orientation and persuasion come together to protest—but more importantly—to vote—against what black and brown folks have been experiencing for years. Many white folks now know that hate is real and the microaggressions they might have passed off as “locker room banter” or just “boys being boys” is being written into policy. So we have to join forces to form truly diverse and inclusive coalitions of people to combat what’s building.
If you were indeed a bird, what kind of bird would you be, and why?
That’s kind of like that favorite bird question I get, isn’t it? I’ve learned now to say “the ones with feathers” but that’s a little smart-assed, isn’t it? I really dig corvids—especially ravens and crows. I love their intelligence and swagger. They know things about us that we don’t know about ourselves. They talk about us in words we’ll never understand. They have winged wit and play and conspire to do things that we could only imagine. And of course, they’re black so…there’s that. Color me raven. Common Raven. I even do a pretty damn good imitation of one. Wanna hear it?
Who or what inspires your best work?
My best work is inspired by people who share the same prism. So those that can appreciate the beauty of sunsets over salt marshes or the thrill in the song of a wood thrush and not question the tears that might come from such a thing inspire me. Nature has never failed to inspire me in some way or another on a daily basis. Great writing inspires me to want to be a great writer.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
I was turned down for a writer’s workshop once because I called myself an “endeavoring author.” The decline letter said something like: “we’re looking for people who know they can write…” From that point on, for better or worse, I’ve called myself an author. My writer friend John Lane has always encouraged me during the editorial process to “Keep the strength to my sword arm!” I try to remember that when the going gets tough and hack my way through whatever comes.
Have you ever had a reader interpret a piece of writing in an unexpected way? What was your reaction?
Sure have. Sometimes you write things in between the lines that you hope some people see—and that most others won’t. I’ve had someone I’d never met before pull everything from between the lines that I wrote in one of the Home Place chapters. It was like being pulled into a counseling session. I was shocked, yet happy to be exposed in a way. It’s a sort of game I play sometimes. The thing is that the “in between the lines” stuff is sometimes subconscious—especially in the poetry I write. When someone “gets it” it can be a very satisfying—or sometimes a rather embarrassing thing.
Your publications include peer-reviewed research articles, poetry, and creative non-fiction. Do you have a favorite form of writing?
Flash poetry and the long non-fiction essay are my favorites. Both require almost diametrically opposed ways of writing, but then they are both driven and inspired in much the same way. I like the contrasts between the two and have even experimented with merging the two.
You describe yourself as a traveler and a wanderer. Could you share how different environments shape your writing?
I have this thing for land. In fact, I describe it as a serial love affair. Most places hold some unique charm that pulls me in. I love being in places where the contrast between habitats is stark—salt marsh and sunset sky; old-field edge and sunrise; seashore and winter cloudscape. I love the abrupt changes exhibited between place and time—landscape and season. The first thing I do when I’m in such places is write poems in my head. Not whole poems but lines come to mind. Sometimes it’s simply thinking of hues to describe what I’m seeing and feeling. There are so many places in my home state that elicit such emotions and actions—mountains, sea, and then the largely ignored piedmont in between. And then I love the eastern shore of Maryland and the salty savoriness of the place. Aldo Leopold’s farm and shack in Baraboo in almost any season inspires me to write about relationships to land. Prairie turns me on to think about infinite things. Yes—I love land and wandering to, on, and through it.
Do you have a writing routine? What do you consider essential to your creative energy?
My routine is really pretty sporadic. I am unfortunately all over the place when it comes to writing—place, time—all of it. I will say that I usually do write something every day—whether poem or some social media post that I’ll take and maybe incorporate into something larger later. I really do use social media as a blog now. It’s interesting to go back and rediscover some of the thoughts that flashed through and rework them. I’m notoriously undisciplined and need to get better. Maybe.
What is your philosophy on editing? What is the difference in time commitment between writing a first draft and editing it?
Philosophy on editing? That’s kind of a loaded question. It’s an interesting difference between what happens in the scientific peer-reviewed process and the kind of formulaic clinical blood-letting that occurs versus the myriad paper cuts that occur in the creative process. The best lesson I’ve learned is not to take it personally—mostly. In the academic process, there are quibbles with methods or stats or maybe interpretation that you can pretty much fix with a writing wrench. In that process you quickly learn to diagnose, fix, and move on. After all, it is publish or perish, and you need to crank out the widgets in volume, so the time for your psyche to get into it better be limited.
In the creative process the “damage” seems personal in many instances, because you’ve invested a different sort of skin in the game. For a memoir, as The Home Place is, there’s certainly a very personal tie to the work you submit for an editor to make better. I think the best editing comes when you establish a relationship with your editor. For a long-term project like a book this is obviously easier than with a poem or essay you submit to a journal or online magazine. I like to think about what my baseline is. What’s the key ingredient in the writing that’s essential to the story being told as I intended? If that baseline isn’t disrupted or altered in some way by the editing process to the point where the story’s foundation crumbles, then I can take it. I’ve gotten into quibbles over words or the turn of a phrase before, and sometimes that’s important. Being new to the creative thing means I have a lot to learn, and so with my editors at Milkweed I had to learn how to trust and re-trust them. In the end it all came out really well, as the editor to take me over the finish line, Joey McGarvey, knew that I’d had some frustrations over the long gestation that the book had become, and she deftly helped heal my bruised psyche. I’ve learned to take the editing as deep tissue massage. It hurts sometimes at first, but ultimately it usually loosens up muscles that’ll make you better in the end.
I once viewed first cuts versus final cuts very differently. I think it’s useful to compare the end result with what you started out with just to understand what the evolution’s been. It shouldn’t turn into a war of attrition though. It should be a negotiation on making the work better. I think you need to agree on what that “better” is too. Be open and discuss your differences with the editor if at all possible. I’ve been lucky in that all of my editors at Milkweed were very open to communicating with me. Daniel Slager, Patrick Thomas, and Joey McGarvey always had open lines. I think as they got to know me and I them, the agendas became clearer, and the missions for the book merged into what sits in bookstores now.
One last thing too: I think having edited so many theses and dissertations has helped me. Being an effective (and kind) editor teaches one to accept the help if given graciously.
Your recently published memoir The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature has received a great deal of praise, including esteemed reviews from Sierra Magazine and National Geographic. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers working towards publishing their first book? What do you feel contributed to your success?
I think good books emerge. By that I mean I’m not sure they can be constructed. Mine started as a single essay and grew from that. I didn’t envision it as a book from the start. So in many ways it probably appears to some as a series of essays loosely strung together. I suppose I’m the string between those essays. Birds probably are too. It’s a word by word, sentence by sentence thing. I might have an idea of what a chapter will be about, but I’m not good enough to see the multiple chapters all strung together in a book. I think that everyone’s different with regards to that, though, and the writing process is an evolution with no perfect end. That’s the satisfying and frustrating part about it. I’ve published a ton of chapters in anthologies. Each of those chapters has the potential to become a book. I may revisit a few in the future to see if there’s something more to them. My success so far is mostly attributable to my love for something (nature) that’s so strong the stories come relatively easy. If the passion is there, I think the “success” will come too. I also have a very supportive group of experienced writers who have my back—John Lane, David Gessner, Lauret Savoy, Janisse Ray, Dorinda Dallmeyer, Camille Dungy, Christopher Martin—all people with a ton of success that I can count on for truth and guiding light in the process. I think that’s a critical thing—being part of a community.
Did you always know that you wanted to write a memoir?
Kind of. I remember writing something back when I was nineteen or so. I was trapped in my engineering internship hell, and I took out a piece of yellow paper that was lying around and started writing a story. I think I got a paragraph in—maybe less. I’m not even sure what I wrote, but I do remember sketching a pine tree on the piece of paper. I need to find that. I think it’s buried somewhere in my basement. In any case, that was probably the memoir climbing out of the primordial ooze. But the true genesis came at the Wildbranch Writing Workshop, back in 2004 or 2005, I think. Again, it was a place essay that my instructor, Diana Kappel-Smith, had assigned. 500 words was the task. I ended up with close to 3000 that night, I think. And then it grew from there. Janisse Ray was the first person to suggest that it could be more than a good essay. So like I said before, for me good books arise from a single good story. How the book grows from the story is where the hard work comes in.
Has publishing a book changed how you view the writing process? Is there anything you would go back and do differently if given the chance?
Not on the creative end, no. Other than having to jump through the hoops that everyone does once a book is born, I don’t let that process affect me on the side where I generate ideas and string them together in some pleasing and readable way. The other end of it, where the business comes in, is a bit frustrating to me. I’m a writer and not an entrepreneur. I suck at administrative stuff, and it’s easier for me to put things off than to tend to the business I should be more attentive to.
What aspirations do you have for the future, either personally or professionally? How have your writing goals changed over time?
I’m working on the next book that’ll dive into the connections between nature and culture. It’ll be a book that ranges widely, geographically, to span my world experience, but then it’ll always circle back to my southern home range somehow. I want to be respected for my writing beyond this first book, and I’ve already put a little pressure on myself to be a better writer this time than I was the last. That means getting better at “showing and not telling.” I’m inspired by other writers and artists, and I want to incorporate the work and words of others in this next effort.
Professionally, I can’t really see myself being anything else other than a college professor. It is who I am. I love the academic life—except for the meetings, pettiness, and sometimes oppressive caste system it’s built on. I don’t have designs on being anyone’s dean or department chair. I’m not a cat herder or ego shepherd, so I’ll stay in my pointy-headed professor’s corner. As long as I’m making a decent salary for watching birds and writing what and when I want, I’ll continue to teach, do some research, and of course push the mission of connecting the conservation dots to broader audiences.
My goals haven’t really changed that much other than to keep the current momentum going. I want to get better and have more people read and appreciate the work I do. That’s enough, I think.
Do you believe that one goal of writing is to educate and promote social awareness? Do you feel an obligation as a writer to do so?
I think the goal of a writer is first and foremost self-expression. Many of the words we write are an expression of who we are. If the writing is true, then others may want to read it. In the larger realm of what the writing promotes, I think it’s critical now more than ever that writers speak loudly and clearly. I do feel an obligation to do so, because writing is the way I craft. It’s my talent. My grandmother used to tell me not to “hide my talent under a bushel.” She meant that we’re tasked to use our gifts to make the world better somehow. That’s what I want to do. I want to write lyrically about nature. I want to make swallow-tailed kites soar from the page and wood thrush song float between the words. But then I want people to see my color too. I want them to understand the struggle of identity that so many experience. I want people to think and feel. That’s the obligation I hold most tightly to—think and feel.
Are you currently working on a new project?
I’m working on two books—one is a compilation of my old blog posts with some poetry stitched in between. The other is a book about the connections between nature and culture. It’s quasi-memoir that’s interwoven with interviews and of course tied together with feathers as the main focus. I’ve also been thinking about some other work on radio and the web.
Because Mud Season Review grew out of a writing workshop, we like to ask our contributors: what is your favorite, or most memorable, workshop experience?
Wildbranch Writing Workshop in Craftsbury Common, Vermont. I went there to find Janisse Ray and learn from her. A 500 word place-based essay turned into 3000 words and then almost ten years later a well-received and widely read book. Her words and mentorship spurred that on. Wildbranch was (is) a place perfectly situated to inspire. The distractions were minimal, and the instruction was perfect. There seemed to be very little pretense. Diana Kappel-Smith, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Chip Blake, Joel Vance, Ted Gup, Sandra Steingraber, Tovar Cerulli—I met all of these authors and had the opportunity to learn from most of them. The friends I met there have been like manna in my life that continues to fall from above. I think it’s a portal to something else. Yes, that sounds odd, but for the time I was there it was other-worldly. Maybe it was the time in my life for such a thing to occur. I’m so grateful that it did.