. John Tallmadge | Exploring Nature, Culture, and the Human Journey
Life is our dictionary.  –Ralph Waldo Emerson

White Paper Workshops on Writing

Learn More:  The Art of Nonfiction: Nature Writing and Personal Discovery

Offered at: Chatham College,  Pittsburgh PA  (1 semester seminar; combined weekend/distance format)


The Art of Nonfiction – Nature Writing and Personal Discovery

John Tallmadge, Visiting Professor

Course Concept

Nature writing deals with transformative experiences of place, encounters with other beings in nature, and the wisdom and insights that result.  It teaches us to see the unseen dimensions of the world, and to look upon the familiar with unaffected eyes.  By shaping experience into story, it elicits meaning from life, and it feeds the spirit by permitting the wisdom released by the sharing of these stories to become part of the storyteller's soul. In this way it completes a circle of gift-giving that embeds us in the living world. 

This course will explore nature writing as an artistic and spiritual practice, using the urban nature of Pittsburgh as a laboratory.  Our goals are to do a lot of writing, get outdoors for refreshment and observation, study models of technique and practice presented by fine nature writers, learn how to support one another, and produce several finished pieces of work.  But most important, to have fun with writing and life.

The course will meet during three weekends – February 3-4,  March 3-4, and April 21-22 – with informal or web-based activities in between.  Final projects and portfolios are due by May 7.

Course Format:

Our sessions are scheduled from 10 AM till 4 PM on Saturdays and 10 AM till 2 PM on Sundays.  We'll use a variety of formats including lectures, presentations, discussions, group activities, writing exercises, and field excursions.  Since this is a small master class, success will depend on everyone's active participation and willingness to share experiences, techniques, discoveries, obsessions, anxieties, blocks, and personal magic.  Although I have prepared a preliminary plan, the class will create the agenda as our work together and knowledge of one another progresses, in order to meet everyone's needs as fully as possible.  Web resources and processes will be designed and created by the class.

As a preliminary plan, I envision this course in three units:  writing process and practice, composition, and publication.

First Weekend suggested topics:

  • Personal introductions, overview, goals, logistics.
  • Writing process and practice
  • Nature writing as a genre and a practice of ecological identity
  • The magic circle of nature writing
  • Getting material: observation, field notes, appreciating urban nature

Second Weekend suggested topics:

  • Writing about a place
  • Writing from your own experience
  • Developing whole works from memories, notes, and journals
  • Research and use of scientific facts
  • Editing and revising
  • Giving and getting feedback

Third Weekend suggested topics:

  • Developing magazine and book projects
  • Writing queries and proposals
  • Working with agents, editors, and publishers
  • The production process
  • The writer in community

Requirements and Expectations:

  • The following required readings will inform our discussions and are available at the Chatham bookstore:

    Annie Dillard,  The Writing Life. New York NY:  Harper, 1989

    Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird:  Some Instructions on Writing and Life.  New York NY: Anchor Books, 1995

    Scott Slovic and Terrill Dixon ( eds.),  Being in the World:  An Environmental Reader for Writers.  New York NY:  Macmillan, 1993 (selections to be announced)

    John Tallmadge,  Meeting the Tree of Life: A Teacher's Path.  Salt Lake City UT:  University of Utah Press, 1997

    William Zinsser,  On Writing Well:  An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction.  New York NY:  Harper & Row, 1985

  • In addition to the required readings, everyone will be asked to spend one hour per weekday on writing practice, keeping a journal of freewritings and reflective notes or observations. I will ask to peruse these at the March meeting, and one item per week will be included in your final portfolio.  Additionally, you will be asked to post items from time to time or read samples to the group.
  • Everyone will be asked to prepare a 1000-word book review of a book about writing selected from  the following recommended list, with emphasis on practice and technique.  These will be published on the web for the class.

    Dorothea Brande, Becoming a Writer. Los Angeles CA:  J.P. Tarcher, 1981

    Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers.  New York NY:  Oxford, 1973

    Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones.  Boston MA:  Shambala, 1986

    Burghild Nina Holzer, A Walk Between Heaven and Earth. 1994

    Edward Lueders, Writing Natural History: Dialogues with Authors.  Salt Lake City UT: University of Utah Press, 1989

    John Murray,  The Sierra Club Nature Writing Handbook. San Francisco CA: Sierra Club, 1995

    Gabriele Rico,  Writing the Natural Way.  Los Angeles CA:  J.P. Tarcher, 2000

    Steven Trimble, "Introduction:  The Naturalist's Trance", in Words from the Land. Salt Lake City UT:  Gibbs Smith,  1988

  • Everyone will choose a writer they admire and researchhis or her writing process, then make a presentation to the class.  This will be written up for posting on the web and inclusion in the final portfolio.
  • Everyone will prepare two finished pieces of work: a preliminary essay or story of 1000-2000 words due March 15, and a final project essay of 2500-7000 words due May 7.
  • A final portfolio will be due on May 7, containing one item from each week's writing practice, plus revised versions of the first paper, the book review, the research presentation, and the final essay.