If You Are a Writerly Fox, What is Your Henhouse?
Earlier this week, I was in the audience at a speech given by a man who has been captivating audiences, commanding stages and stirring up thought for 50 years. I knew almost every story the speaker told, and almost every joke and anecdote, and I knew the way he gets at a crowd, and uses pauses and rhythm to drive home his points, but I was still amazed at his prowess and still blown away by his courage – because this guy was a fox in this audience’s henhouse. Some of them were awed by him, fearful of him, cowed by him, impressed by him and, as to be expected, others were full of hate for him. Afterwards in the parking lot, someone yelled and gave him the finger. But here’s the thing: he loved it. He is a teacher and a storyteller and his highest wish is to take stand, make a point and get you to think in a way you might not have thought before. If that means suffering some slings and arrows from an outraged audience? Small price to pay.
Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, writing to entertain or inform, persuade or celebrate, this should be your wish, too (at least if you wish to be published and read.) What do you have to say and do you have the courage to stand up and say it? That’s the question you should always be asking yourself.
The speaker I heard was my dad, Rod Nash, author of a book called Wilderness and the American Mind, which has been called “the book of genesis” of the environmental movement. Look at any book written in the last 50 years on wilderness, environment, ecology, national parks, wild rivers, and look at the curriculum of any environmental studies class, and odds are extremely good that this book will be cited as a source. Nash (as I shall call him, because Dr. Nash sounds so formal and Daddy? I’m trying to be professional here!) founded the department of environmental studies at UCSB and taught there for 30 years. He has written many other books, including The Rights of Nature and From These Beginnings, a textbook on American history. In addition to his formidable intellectual achievements, he has spent his life in the wild – on mountains and rivers, in the desert and on the sea. He recently completed his 70th descent of the Grand Canyon – but as he is quick to say about this epic achievement, “The river doesn’t care.”
The occasion of this week’s speech was the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, a seminal moment in the history of American wilderness, the moment at which we realized that we might be, in Nash’s words, “loving the wilderness to death” -- and better do something to stop ourselves before it’s too late.
The audience was The Isaac Walton league, one of the nation's oldest conservation organizations, which was founded by the author of The Compleat Angler – a classic book that was first published in 1653 (!!). Their tagline is “Defenders of soil, air, woods, waters & wildlife.” Seems like a good fit for a guy like my dad to speak to, right? Seems like they would be aligned in their thinking – except they weren’t. Some conservationists seek to preserve wild places for their own pleasure, so they can hunt and fish (or snowmobile or ski.) On the surface, this seems like a noble goal. But to someone like Nash, who believes that humans are the problem, it is anything but noble.
Nash teaches that wilderness is, by definition, a “self-willed place.” (Will is the root of wilderness.) It is not a place where man has imposed his will. It is not a place that is gardened, managed or changed in any way for our own pleasure, comfort or convenience. It is a place that is allowed to do, unfettered, whatever evolution wants it to do, and his point is that we need such places for the health of our planet and ourselves.
So in the first 30 seconds of his keynote address, Nash threw down the gauntlet – asking the audience to think about the wisdom of celebrating the pile of dead raccoons that had just been shown on a slide a few minutes before. (A beautiful young woman had shot the animals. In addition to being an accomplished hunter, she was a mountaineer and a volunteer. The organization had given her an award.)
I was sitting in the back of the room and when Nash mentioned the raccoons in the way he did, there was a collective gasp. When he did it again a few minutes later – this time asking them to think about their founder and his goals and ideals and how they were carrying that forward and whether or not that was, indeed, noble – there was nervous laughter, a kind of,“Ha ha, he’s kidding, right?”
For the first five minutes of the speech, I clenched my stomach and my toes. I wondered if people might start walking out or throwing things. I hoped my dad might cut things short, say something nice, move on to more common ground, less threatening topics. But once I remembered that he was doing what he was doing on purpose, I relaxed, and settled in to watch a virtuoso at work.
He made his big point -- that we have a choice about the future of our planet and our species, and that this choice might well begin with, among other things, respecting the rights of the raccoons – and then he took questions. About 15 people leapt up to line up at a microphone on the floor and challenge him, ask for clarification, try to rattle him, catch him in a trap. This was the best part of all. He owned them. He showed them exactly what is means to believe something to the marrow of your bones.
“Are you opposed to hunting?” someone asked incredulously.
“No I’m not,” Nash said, “but I believe we should eat what we kill. Sure would put an end to war quickly, wouldn’t it?”
“Did I hear you correctly when you alluded to the fact that rivers have desires? Do you believe rivers are sentient?”
“Rivers desire to run to the sea,” Nash said, “So in that sense, yes, they have desires. They desire not to be dammed. As for being alive – this is a personal belief, but I’ve spent much of my life on water and there’s no way you can do that and not come to believe that water is alive.”
Yes, he angered some people, and bewildered others, but he got many of them to think in ways they might never have thought before – to think about what wild means and why it matters -- and that’s exactly what he wanted. That’s exactly what he came for.
After the talk, I kept wondering if I would have the courage to do what my dad did. The answer is that I doubt it. But even so, it got me wondering: if I did have the courage, who would be in the audience? If I was a writerly fox, what would be in my henhouse?
· People who think that writing well should be fast, should be easy?
· People who think that writers don’t need to be well compensated for their expertise and their effort?
· A culture that doesn’t celebrate creativity at every level, and that makes it hard to be a writer? (These are the topics I think about in relation to my book coaching business, but they are, not surprisingly, also the things I write about in my fiction and my non-fiction. They are the topics I have been obsessed with all my life.)
It’s all well and good to ponder these questions, but I’m chicken to even take a stand on everything amazon is doing – the Hachette situation, this brand new e-book subscription service. I’m chicken because I love amazon. I use it all the time. But I also love bookstores and don’t want them to go away and don’t like how hard things have become for them because of what amazon is doing. I’m chicken because I love writers and don’t want them to be devalued by a corporate steamroller. I want to keep writing books and keep making money from people who want to read them. But I also love free enterprise and business and the forces that move people to make things and build things and sell things.
So I would be scared to stand up and speak my truth because the truth doesn’t ever seem clear-cut to me. It’s a hard thing to trust. But what if I could find my truth and trust it and speak it with the kind of conviction my dad has – and has had for 50 years?
Wouldn’t that be awesome? To know what kind of writerly fox you are? To stride into the henhouse and say, “This is the way it is, hens.” And to smile when they gave you the finger.