Modes of Imagination and Experience: An Interview with Scott Russell Sanders
“The only country I am certain of is the one here below,” Scott Russell Sanders writes in “Buckeye.” “The only paradise I know is the one lit by our everyday sun, this land of difficult love, shot through with shadow.” In this particular essay, Sanders’ words refer to Ohio—the place where he was raised—and yet they also evoke the intricacies of the human connection with landscape on a larger scale. This balance of the personal and the universal is one that Sanders knows well. His writing on the whole explores a sense of community and place, the human connection with the natural world, and the search for spirit in everyday life. His essays act as a powerful reminder of the importance of reflection and thoughtfulness in the midst of the distraction and chaos that often take precedence in our modern lives.
The author of twenty books of fiction and nonfiction—including A Conservationist Manifesto, A Private History of Awe, and The Force of Spirit—Scott RussellSanders pursued a degree at Brown University and later received his Ph.D from Cambridge University, where he was a Marshall Scholar. He is the recipient of the John Burroughs Essay Award, the Associated Writing Programs Creative Nonfiction Award, and the Lannan Literary Award, in addition to fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. His works have appeared in The Georgia Review, Orion, and Audubon, among other distinguished publications, and have been reprinted in The Art of the Essay and many other anthologies. His most recent book, Earth Works, is a collection of some of his most widely recognized essays, along with nine new pieces of writing.
Sanders taught for many years at Indiana University, where he is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English. He currently resides in Bloomington, Indiana, where he and his wife have raised two children and where he has served his community as an advisor for several environmentally-focused organizations and land trusts. I communicated with him via email, following his attendance at Chatham University’s 2012 Low-Residency program for the Master in Fine Arts in Creative Writing. During the ten-day summer residency, Sanders gave a keynote lecture entitled “The Way of Imagination” and led an intensive workshop for Chatham’s Creative Nonfiction program.
The Fourth River:You mentioned during your keynote address that you are involved in several environmental groups in your community in Bloomington, Indiana. Can you talk about the groups you work with, and speak to how this involvement shapes your writing?
Scott Russell Sanders: I serve on the advisory board for the Sycamore Land Trust, which protects natural lands and working farms in southern Indiana, and I have also served as an advisor to the Trust for Public Land, the Orion Society (publishers of Orion magazine), the Center for Whole Communities, and the Aldo Leopold Foundation. All of these organizations seek to foster a land ethic, to harmonize human actions with natural systems, to protect biodiversity, and to celebrate wildness. My most valued and instructive literary friendships have come through my participation in these organizations, especially the Orion Society. Work with environmental and social justice organizations has helped me to envision the larger story—the grand and ancient story—in which I am taking part. As I note in the preface to my latest book, Earth Works, I don’t think of myself as a “nature” writer but as an Earth writer—as someone trying to understand and articulate our place on the planet.
FR: Chatham’s MFA program is well-known for its focus on nature and place-based writing. While you were here, you had the opportunity to visit Fallingwater, as well as our sustainability-focused Eden Hall campus with its organic garden and forest trail. What impressions have you taken with you of Chatham and the Pittsburgh area?
SRS: I think that any university should pay attention to its home region, incorporating the landscape, geology, history, and culture of the place into the curriculum, and encouraging students and faculty to become engaged in the community. I applaud Chatham for its efforts in this direction, especially the work going on at the Eden Hall campus. To focus on sustainability means, or should mean, learning how to reconcile human needs with the constraints of the land, learning how to dwell in a place without degrading it.
FR: In workshop, you spoke at length about the value of staying in one place, in contrast to the constant movement praised by writers like Salmon Rushdie. Can you speak to the merits of being rooted in one place, especially as this sense of grounding relates to your writing life?
SRS: My book Staying Put is devoted to this question. In brief, I wish to challenge the notion, so prevalent in our culture, that mobility is always preferable to stability, that novelty is always preferable to familiarity. Of course I recognize that there are many good reasons for moving—marriage or friendship, the pursuit of an education or a job, the need to escape oppressive conditions (racism, poverty, environmental degradation, etc.). But there are plenty of voices, past and present, urging us to move on. I wanted to raise a voice on behalf of digging in, coming to know a place intimately, and trying to help improve the quality of life there. For the writer, deep knowledge of place provides a subject larger than one’s own life. My own apprenticeship as an essayist began with an effort to know the natural and cultural history of southern Indiana in some depth, resulting in the book In Limestone Country.
FR: How do you choose a topic for a new piece of writing, and how does a project usually begin to take shape for you?
SRS: Occasionally I compose an essay in response to an invitation from an editor, who suggests a topic or theme that intrigues me. For example, recently I was asked by Kerry Temple, editor of Notre Dame Magazine, what I could make of a phrase he had overheard on the radio—“useless beauty.” Those two words immediately set me thinking about a chambered nautilus shell my wife and I keep in a niche above our woodstove, about mathematics, fractals, wildflowers, the circling flight of hawks, the crystalline interior of geodes, and a host of other beautifully patterned things. This invitation led to a new essay, which brought me fresh insights. Often I am moved to write an essay by a journey or an encounter—such as “Mind in the Forest,” inspired by a week-long sojourn in an old-growth forest, or “Voyageurs,” inspired by a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Wilderness. Other essays begin from a memory (“Under the Influence” arising from recollections of my father’s drinking), a puzzle (wondering about gender roles led to “Looking at Women” and “The Men We Carry in Our Minds”), an object (“Buckeye,” “The Inheritance of Tools,” “Two Stones”), concern about an environmental or cultural issue (“The Mystique of Money,” “Common Wealth,” “Simplicity and Sanity”), or questions about ultimate things (“The Force of Spirit,” “A Private History of Awe,” “Silence”). In each case, I begin by making extensive notes, sometimes over a period of months or even years, gathering ideas, images, analogies, anecdotes, inklings. When the notes feel sufficiently rich, I look for patterns, such as a narrative arc or a sequence of related images or surprising connections. Next I search for a place to begin composing, and I try out first sentences, maybe two or three, maybe a hundred, until one convinces me, and then I try out possible second sentences, and so on. As you might imagine from this description, I write slowly.
FR: You have said that the phrase “Creative Nonfiction” is not your favorite way to describe what you write. What is it about this phrase that seems imprecise or misleading? And how do you prefer to identify your work?
SRS: The “nonfiction” label doesn’t tell us much, since it applies to every kind of writing other than novels and short stories—dictionaries, histories, instruction manuals, phone directories, scientific papers, biographies, newspaper articles, recipes, grant proposals, travel narratives, encyclopedias, on and on. It is rather like dividing the items in a grocery store between “cheese” and “non-cheese.” The latter category would include toilet paper and arugula, salmon and laundry detergent. Not very useful. As for the honorific, “creative,” it begs a question: Doesn’t all good writing require creativity? (Incidentally, I suggest that if we are stuck with the term “creative writing,” for symmetry we ought to add “destructive writing,” a term that would include most advertising copy and military press releases and corporate reports, to name a few obvious examples.) I prefer to describe what I write as essays. The term “essay” has a history stretching back to Montaigne; it has been embraced by a host of worthy writers, from Hazlitt and Emerson to Woolf, Orwell, Baldwin, and Dillard; and it suggests, through its etymology, a process of inquiry grounded in direct experience rather than free invention. One can of course add any number of adjectives to provide a more refined description, such as the lyric essay, travel essay, and the like.
FR: Which writers have influenced your life the most? Where are readers most likely to see that influence manifest in your work?
SRS: My fiction shows the influence of William Faulkner, Italo Calvino, D. H. Lawrence, Ursula Le Guin, Graham Greene, Jim Harrison, Wallace Stegner, and Wendell Berry. My essays have been influenced by Berry, as well, and also by Thoreau, Baldwin, Orwell, Woolf, and Peter Matthiessen, among many others. The writers who have influenced my life—as distinct from my writing—would again include Berry, as well as Thoreau, Thomas Merton, Gary Snyder, ancient Chinese poets, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Aldo Leopold.
FR: Annie Dillard wrote one of her books in a library basement with the window shades drawn, so as not to be too distracted by the world outside—yet she also drew her own sketches of the view outside her window and taped them to the shades, for inspiration. To what extent do you need or want to be inspired by your surroundings when you are writing? Have you written in any dark library basements lately—or can you write “just anywhere”?
SRS: When I write, I need to be able to lift my gaze from the keyboard or notebook and look out a window. I need to see clouds, trees, flowers, birds, and squirrels; I need to see joggers, dog-walkers, parents pushing strollers, delivery trucks dropping off packages, kids riding scooters, bicyclists pedaling by. I want to feel connected to the ongoing world, both human and wild. When teaching, research, or travel take me away from home, I’ve usually been able to write in hotel rooms, forest service cabins, campsites, dormitories, and airport lounges. But my favorite place for writing over the past four decades has been a tiny study on the second floor of our small house in Bloomington, Indiana. My library is here, my files are near to hand, my desk and shelves bear talismans that link me to people and places I love. Here, I feel that I am writing from within a web of relationships.
FR: Were there any books or essays that were especially difficult for you to write?
SRS: All of the essays about my father were difficult to write, not only because they were occasioned by his death, but also because his character was—and remains—puzzling to me. The essays that come the closest to describing if not solving the puzzle, I would say, are “The Inheritance of Tools,” “Under the Influence,” and “Buckeye.” The passages about my mother’s dementia in A Private History of Awe were painful to write, as they would be for anyone watching a loved one dwindle from vigor to death in a matter of months. The challenge in writing Hunting for Hope was to identify and articulate sources of healing and renewal that I could believe in, and could persuade readers to believe in, while acknowledging the enormous social and ecological problems we face. I wrote A Conservationist Manifesto while struggling to keep at bay a sense of despair about the human prospect. Writing from the Center arose from an effort to convince myself that useful and meaningful literature could be made anywhere, including in my own home region, far from the centers of cultural power.
FR: I was moved by your book The Force of Spirit. Did you feel it was risky to write that book, and did focusing on spirit lead you to any unexpected epiphanies?
SRS: It is risky to write about religious experience in a non-dogmatic, inquisitive way. True believers dismiss you for not sharing their dogma; atheists dismiss you for entertaining possibilities that they have discarded (in other words, for not sharing their dogma). It’s also risky because the experiences, hunches, and intuitions are so ephemeral and elusive that they slip through even the finest meshes of language. What philosophers call Being and scientists call the Universe is inexhaustibly mysterious; nobody has ever understood it completely, and nobody ever will. Yet here we are, trying to make sense of our existence and the vast cosmos we perceive around us. We can learn from what others have discovered or proposed, of course, but ultimately we must decide for ourselves what our lives mean, how to behave, what to seek. I have sketched my own approach to these questions, and my tentative answers, in several books, most directly in The Force of Spirit and A Private History of Awe.
FR: What is the biggest risk you’ve taken in your writing, and what would you like to say to young writers who are just starting out about taking risks on the page?
SRS: Writers often think about risks in terms of subject matter—material that is painful or shocking or taboo. Since publishers and readers have a taste for the sensational, it’s not surprising that many contemporary novels and memoirs deal with incest, addiction, suicide, airplane crashes, narrow escapes, international intrigue, spying, stalking, murder, and mayhem. I rarely find myself drawn to such books. The risks that interest me are those that come from striving, at the limit of one’s powers, to create an artistic form, express an idea, convey an experience, or describe an emotional state. It is the risk of trying something hard, and failing, or only partly succeeding.
FR: In our summer workshop, you referred to E.B. White’s essay “Once More to the Lake,” in which he revisits a significant place from his childhood later in life with his son. What appeals to you about White’s work, and what do you think he can teach new writers who delve into his work?
SRS: E. B. White’s best essays are marvels of clarity and restraint. He is a master of concision, physical detail, setting, and tone. We should be grateful to him for keeping the essay alive as an art form during several decades when it had all but vanished from the American literary landscape. At the same time, he relied perhaps too much on gentle irony, and he took too modest a view of what the essay might accomplish. So we needed Loren Eiseley, Rachel Carson, James Baldwin, Peter Matthiessen, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, and other ambitious, wide-ranging writers to come along after him and provide more ample models of what an essay might be.
FR: What 2 pieces of advice would you offer to new non-fiction writers?
SRS: You won’t be surprised that I recommend reading widely in the best writing you can get your hands on, and keeping a journal or notebook in which to store materials, try out ideas, and practice turning experience into language.
FR: In your essay “Cabin Dreams,” you address the way in which achieving one dream sometimes means having to let go of another dream. What is the biggest dream you’ve had to let go of, in order to pursue your current path?
SRS: From the age of five or six until the age of twenty, I imagined myself becoming a scientist. I loved everything about science—forming hypotheses, designing and conducting experiments, gathering data, interpreting results, ultimately explaining how some portion of the universe works. I still love science, and I follow developments in various fields with keen curiosity. But I came to realize, during my college years, that I was more deeply interested in literature and writing, and so I turned from the study of physics to the study of English. I’ve told the story of that shift in A Private History of Awe and, more briefly, in the title essay of Secrets of the Universe.
FR: In the documentary “No Impact Man,” a family of three spends a year attempting to have “no impact” on their environment. They compost at home, ride bicycles instead of in cars, and give up electricity for six months. To what extent do you think such extreme projects can affect the regular Joes out there? Do you have advice to offer to working folks who are unable to give up their cars or electricity for a year, but still want to be a part of a larger ecological movement?
SRS: I worry that such “extreme projects,” as you call them, may convince some people that conservation requires levels of sacrifice achievable only by saints or zealots. In fact, most of us waste so much—of water, food, paper, electricity, gasoline, packing materials, clothing, discarded appliances—that we could cut back significantly without in any way degrading our quality of life. On the contrary, our lives would be enhanced by reducing our levels of consumption. Drive less, fly less, eat less, buy less, watch less television, ignore advertisements, learn to distinguish between needs (which are finite) and desires (which are infinite). Take walks, cook your own food, grow some of that food, ride a bike, learn to fix what you own, share tools or cars or machines with your neighbors, join co-ops for shopping and banking. Above all, refuse to define yourself as a “consumer.” Instead, think of yourself as one who creates, savors, and takes care of things. None of us can avoid having some impact, for good or ill, on our households, neighborhoods, workplaces and schools, and ultimately on the planet. But each of us, by taking thought and making changes in our actions, can cause less damage than we presently do.
FR: What are you currently working on now? And what is it that inspired you to return to writing fiction, after so many years of writing non-fiction?
SRS: Over the past five years, while publishing A Conservationist Manifesto (2009) and Earth Works (2012), I have been working on a novel, which I expect to finish and begin submitting to publishers within the next month or so. I’ve returned to fiction after a long hiatus in part because the effort of writing A Private History of Awe (2006) was so exhausting, in part because I missed the experience of inhabiting characters who are quite different from myself, and in part because I wanted to explore the theme of healing and restoration, which seemed better suited to a novel than to an essay. The two modes—fiction and essay—draw on different parts of me. By shifting back and forth between these modes, I come closer to expressing the full range of my imagination and experience.