Eco-Fiction and the Emerging Writer

As an educator, I work with a lot of students emerging as writers. Most of these students are moving through undergraduate and graduate courses and finding their path through storytelling. In the last few years I’ve worked with more and more writers in the genre of speculative fiction, particularly in the genre of fantasy. Students are emerging in a culture of immersion into video games, graphic novels, video games, books, role playing games, cosplay, and other elements. It makes sense that the concept of world building is an important vision for fantasy writers. With these trends, we see writers take on these genres because of their experience, passion, and ability to write alternative experience. A few weeks ago I read an article about fiction around nature, the concept of eco-fiction. And while I wasn’t surprised by this genre distinction, it related back to the emerging writers I work with and thought, why aren’t they writing about this. 
Eco-fiction is a branch of literature that is nature oriented (non-human) or environment-oriented where the impact of humans are the central tenet of the story. Not surprising that it emerged in the 1970’s environmentalist vision of the world that hearld in Earth Day and other important values around conservation and natural preservation. It makes sense that a book like Overstory by Richard Powers is a high profile title with the vision of eco-fiction at its core. 
This makes sense as a crossover genre for writers who have worked in the realms of fantasy, to move into the concept of eco-fiction. Typically, fantasy writers are really good at creating hybrid characters or concepts for their stories. Fantasy writers are really skilled at showing irony and societal change through a slightly different lens. In our time of environmental concern and activism, the emergence of eco-fiction as a speculative tool, a social activist tool, and a near future vision makes sense. I don’t think all fantasy writers should be writing eco-fiction, but it is clear that so many of the skills honed in fantasy could transfer into the world of eco-fiction. In the preface to Where the Wild Books Are: a field guide to eco-fiction, Jim Dwyer mentions, “Dana Stabenow, for example, is an Alaskan Inuit ecofeminist author who has written both mysteries and science fiction.” It is clear nature and ecology as a mode to represent storytelling is diverse. When you think about the poetry of Mary Oliver and her natural vision of the world, Annie Dillard’s vision of nature brings poetry and essay creativity and vision into the view of literary and the general reading public. He defines in his preface that eco-fiction covers the focus of Lawrence Buell — that “non-human environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history. The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest. Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation. Some of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text” Some of the elements that we would think about in terms of an alternative universe is growing. Dystopian and natural cataclysm has been an emerging vision from a variety of writers, but because of the emerging prevalence in the studies of how we are affecting the environment, literature is moving along with those trends. While Overstory is a great example, the eco-muder mystery Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk won the Nobel Prize in 2018. 
Being a storyteller or a novelist is about defining the world you write in. It is clear that the escape and visionary worlds of fantasy are important to emerging writers. Diversifying the skills of writers to work in a variety of themes, different modes (plays, poetry, novels), genres, and other professional writing opportunities. This gives writers a dynamic and visionary approach to their own work, their own ideas, and the possibility of having their work appear in a variety of different ways. That starts when we realize how valuable and skilled writers can be and make small adjustments and changes to the way they see the world.  
As we consider what we read and what we are interested in writing, it is important to trace the emergence of genres that are moving to the forefront of our bookstores, our bestseller lists, and into our conscious reading habits. In the end, it may not be what we thought we would write, but it is what is important now. Check out reading lists of eco-fiction and read a few. And then think about how those ideas fit into your vision of writing, thinking, and creating. 
Further Reading

Let’s Talk About The Staff: Meta-Writers

Part of being a creative writer and a teacher is working on process and what makes storytelling and sharing important. From topics like plot, conflict, character building to philosophical constructs and patterns in narratology and hermeneutics it is easy to dive into the world of writing and get lost. The two sides are (1) the work and creating it and (2) process and purpose. I think of these two elements as my never dying metaphor of the coffee and the cup. The coffee is writing, stories, books, and output. And the cup is the aesthetic purpose for containing that content. All that being said, let’s talk about The Staff. 

In the novel The Staff, there is a lot of brewing in the village society.  Taska is shunned and honored at the same time into taking in a prisoner and keeping him and protecting him all at the same time. This is, of course, the main thread and plot of the story. How will she deal with him and how will the village allow her to deal with him?
But during the course of the story, Taska is working on these brittle parchments that are stacked on a shelf in the corner of her cottage. This is where the novel gets a little meta in that she is writing the story of how she sees the world (in a novel about a woman and how society see her). She speaks openly to her parents on these pages and eventually she begins to forge something new there. In the oppressive nature of this story, we have the social constructs and the hidden rules that don’t make sense in the beginning. Then we start to see how the village operates and who pulls the strings. It is through many of the other characters that we (as readers) start to accumulate some of the treachery around our main character.
But it is there in Taska’s writings that we start to define two possibilities (1) she is totally crazy and that there is a reason for her being isolated and shunned; or (2) that she is rewriting her story, putting it forward and creating hope and vision. This is where we find one character rewriting her story, breaking out and changing the way her narrative appears.
Meta-stories in fiction can be extreme and can be found in experimental fiction. They can also be more mainstream. But this isn’t a case of breaking down the fourth wall (finding the author as a character in the story somewhere), but more a case of a character rewriting the path or the plot. The concept resonated with me that the main character is writing her own story. I didn’t plan that but felt she needed a conduit for speaking to her parents and eventually seeing the future. I actually considered early on to have her pray in the church, and her verbal discussions to God would act to deliver the same information. Yet, Taska senses (if she doesn’t know) that the church is helping to make the rules that she really doesn’t understand. That is why she has the exchange with the reverend about the bells not tolling in the morning. And he mentions that no one can hear them. When she says she can, it doesn’t change his mind. She knows they never saw her as a believer, a member of their society.
What other books or stories have writing or storytelling built right in? I am fascinated by The Arabian Nights because of the different variations of stories and themes, but that is like a collective compilation. Nobel Prize winning Naguib Mahfouz wrote an updated version called Arabian Night and Days which in a novel form is more focused on linked stories. Probably the most effective use of writing in a novel is Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. Through this epic story we see Zhivago and his world changing and shifting. And we often see him writing, but we never read the out put. It is suggested and mentioned that he is writing, but we don’t read it at the moment of creation. However, at the end of the novel the poetry there. And as you read those poems, it is a brilliant retelling of the story through a poetic lens. It was very emotional for me to read the poetry at the end of the book.
Keep track of people who write in novels. They may be telling you something, or sending out a lifeline. They may be plotting, sharing, confessing. In some cases, they may be trying to break out of the narrative altogether. — #
Let’s Talk About The Staff is a series of discussion articles based on the novel The Staff by Ron Samul. For more information, check out the novel and read other linked articles.
#narrative #metafiction #writingcommunity #Coffee&Cup

Let’s Talk About The Staff: Jumping Boy

This post may contain spoilers. 

The Jumping Boy is a unique and probably the most memorable character in the novel The Staff. The Jumping Boy plays a strange and often comforting role in the novel. He first appears around the church when a meeting happens, and while it explained that the Jumping Boy was always around, it was never clear which family he came from. He is just a runt. This shows that even in a small village, there is a sense of casting out things that people don’t want. And the child lives feral. In this small hamlet it is better to not claim this daft young man than embarrass a family name. 

“There was a boy in the village that nobody spoke to because they all knew he was an imbecile. He never spoke or laughed when someone would try to amuse him. He would wander the village and do things that seemed like that of a curious child, but he wasn’t playing as the other children did. He would never go and explore the woods, or walk around the rocks and look for crabs by the ocean. The only thing he truly seemed to enjoy was jumping up and down.”

The second time he appears, it is a meeting with Philip and Emmit concerning a box. Philip watches the Jumping Boy as he plots his next move concerning his political and personal relationship with Emmit. 

The next time we see the Jumping Boy is when he shows up around Taska’s cottage. This scene is intentionally created to play Cain’s blank mind to that of a feeble mind. Cain is weary of this child and perhaps looks down on the silly boy. But the child’s behavior is contagious. And seeing how much fun he brings to the three of them, even Cain can’t help but join in, even if he doesn’t understand why. 

“She hadn’t felt this light and easy for years and year. So many difficult and tragic events had belabored her sense of happiness. It had been so long.”

And the scene ends with the boy jumping out of the doorway and into the darkness. 

“Taska let out one final laugh as he disappeared into the falling twilight. For a long time they sat in silence. Words would have only interrupted and trampled the ardent happiness that the heart held captive for the rest of the night.”

After the Grounding of the Fleet, he is there, standing with Taska, reminding her to be brave and face the village head on. He becomes a tailsman for Cain and Taska. He reaches out for her hand and holds it while they wait on the Grounding of the Fleet.  It is noticed that he is calm, he is just a boy. When Taska push the child away and ignores him, Cain shows emotions. Something that has been vacant in his life. 

“He saw the boy’s reaction. Watching the child’s face wounded Cain greatly with a pain that he felt through his chest and down to his legs. Not like the pain of the glass triangle, piercing into his hand, but that of something incomprehensible. It was a deeper pain that emerged from the pit of his chest and spread all over his body, dissipating into numbness at his fingertips. The concussion of his feeling broke him. It was cold.” 

Clearly, this symbol of innocence shows up as freedom, simplicity, and happiness. But Cain now realizes that this feeling of togetherness, their past fun, now feels like something broken and changing in him. 

He shows up when Sophia tries to stop Taska from going to Old Lady Gertrude’s house. When that scene ends, the Jumping Boy is just spinning around like a wild animal. “The jumping boy ran after Taska and Cain, laughing and spinning in a surreal dance, mocking the severity of the wounded souls.”

Just before the Annual Visit, it is mentioned that on cold nights, the jumping boy would sleep at the base of the blacksmith forge. He takes the men from the boat to the door of Philip and his family. 

Finally, it is Cain who tells the Jumping Boy to “Jump!” and the boy smiles and laughs at him has he is marched up to the tree at the end of the novel. 

It is not clear when this strange kid was born in the novel, but I wanted to add more complexity, more depth to the village. Looking at the length of this article, he played a significant role in the book. The boy is Cain’s alter-ego. He is innocence born from guilt and neglect. And while Cain knows his fate at the end, he still thinks that the jumping boy should be jumping. 

Let’s Talk About The Staff is a series of discussion articles based on the novel The Staff by Ron Samul. For more information, check out the novel and read other linked articles. 

Reading List / What Inspires

Haruki Murakami said “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” He makes an interesting point. So, simple advice would be wander away from the books everyone is reading and try something different. But it comes with a catch – you might have to work harder to understand the books and the ideas. It is okay to not understand a book or an idea. Research it, try to understand why you don’t get it. And make that a project. I know that seems like a lot of effort for a summer beach read, but the challenge comes with critical reading skills, the ability to not give up when it gets hard, and you will feel like new ideas and visions of the world are shifting. That is a good thing. 

As people have finished my book, they have reached out to me. Some people mentioned that they wanted to go on read a new book as soon as possible. In one case, a reader went on to classic literature (win). I thought I would list some books that are some of my favorites in the hopes of inspiring a new pathway of reading. This list is an alternative to some of the mainstream reading that is hyped in the media and in book clubs. There is nothing wrong with best-sellers – if you like them – read them. They are popular and you can probably find someone in your social circles to talk about these books. These books on this list are likely available in libraries and used bookstores. If you don’t want to spend money on the titles, find them cheaper or through your library. I have an amazing used bookstore nearby called The Book Barn, but there is also an online retailer called Thrift Books that can find used books for you.  

Some of the titles here are directly inspired books that connect closely with The Staff as a story. They are also stories and connections that resonate with me as a writer. They may not be your favorite books, but they should move you into the hinterland of your bookstore, away from the prepackaged  lists, and into your own vision of the world. Find a writer that you love and read ALL their books. I just finished reading Erich Remarque’s collection of work and they were brilliant (All Quiet on the Western Front, et al.). Challenge yourself and you will find that reading is like binge watching a show on Netflix, you will want more. These aren’t in any order. 

Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter 

The Black Obelisk by Erich M. Remarque 

Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

The Lottery (short story) by Shirley Jackson

The Birthmark (short story) or any Nathaniel Hawthorne

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles 

Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima 

A Gracious Plenty by Sheri Reynolds 

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk 

The Familiar (experimental fiction) by Mark Danielewski 

1984 by George Orwell 

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

If you are someone who likes a particular area of history, explore writers in that time. Don’t be afraid to look up writers from 1800-1860 and find out what is available. Give in to what you want. If you find a writer that moves you, read all of it. And then find out who inspired them and read more. I tend to read writers; not books. I know I like Murakami so I will read whatever I can find. Be passionate and find your own amazing journey through books. 

Lastly, when you read something you are excited about, tell people. Shouted out on social media. It isn’t that they don’t care, they probably just don’t know about the books you are reading. Talk it up and compare notes. It is a great way to share books and ideas. 

Let me know on social media what you are reading and what is inspiring you. Click the share buttons below and shout out what is important in your reading. 

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