Moravian College Writers' Conference 2017 Preview
My name is Alicia Pisano, and I’m the 2017 Moravian College Writers’ Conference student intern. The Writers' Conference is happening on campus February 3-4 (you can stay tuned to Conference updates on Facebook and Twitter!), and in today's post I asked conference faculty members Kate Brandes and Mary Heather Noble--both writers who originally trained as scientists--to reflect on writing, sustainability, and the natural world.
Kate Brandes has spent most of her career working as a scientist on environmental issues, driven by her love of nature. However, she says science alone can’t account for strong feelings about nature and place.
“What I’ve found through my work is that personal history, feelings, emotions and influences, as well as community and so much more, affect how people feel, think about, and act in the place they are,” she says. “I like to consider these complexities through story.”
Noble, like Brandes, places great importance on place in writing. “I often look to landscape to make sense of the world around me,” she says. An environmental scientist and writer, she agrees that when people connect personally to a place, their feelings toward sustaining it will grow stronger. Hopefully, she says, that connection will make them think about the environmental decisions that are made in connection with that place.
“For instance, if I write a scene in which children are playing in a stream bed, collecting frogs and salamanders the same way readers did when they were young kids, I’m forging an emotional connection through the sensory details,” she explains. “Now if I pan-out in the scene to describe the abandoned industrial facility that exists upstream, the reader is jolted awake — not only by the discolored soils and NO TRESPASSING signs, but because these images have now intruded into their own memories of nature.”
Noble’s goal with environmental advocacy writing is to personalize the impacts of environmental pollution, and in doing this, make people feel a sense of urgency about what they have learned.
For both writers, the personal impact of writing is immense.
“For me,” says Brandes, “fiction offers a way to explore different viewpoints and lives.” But nature will always have a place in her writing, which often includes themes of abandonment, identity, and the idea of home and boundaries. “I’m not sure I could write fiction, especially a long work, that didn’t include elements of nature.”
Similarly, due to her work as an environmental scientist, Noble says sustainability and environmental issues form the backbone of her work. Her current book-in-progress focuses on themes of toxicity, both literal in an environmental sense and figurative in a social or psychological sense.
“I find myself relying on nature as a metaphor to express what I want to say,” she says, but admits it is not always intentional. “I think the integration of nature into my creative writing is more likely a function of my surroundings when I am wrestling with a particular issue.”
One such example is her experience moving from Oregon to Vermont. After coping with the transition and unexpected grief by exploring nature, she found inspiration in a barred owl. The species, Noble says, threatens the survival of northern spotted owls in the Pacific Northwest as it expands westward. But researching the interconnectedness of the two species--and finding connections to her own story--resulted in her essay, “Eulogy for an Owl,” which was featured in Creative Nonfiction and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Regarding the Moravian College Writers’ Conference, Brandes is most looking forward to meeting other writers who are interested in these themes of environmentalism, sustainability, and place. Her workshop, “Using Setting as Character to Write Better Fiction,” focuses on “how to enliven your story by instilling the soul of place into the hearts of your characters.”
“How characters perceive and react to where they are says so much about who they are,” she says. “So I’m also looking forward to leading the workshop that will focus on this element of fiction writing.”
Noble will be co-leading a craft session with Diane Husic titled “Cross-pollinating, A Conversation: How Literary Art and Science Can Enrich One Another.” Noble is excited to work with others who wish to cross the boundaries of professional disciplines and writing, and discuss the joys and challenges of working in multiple spheres. She says as someone from such a more hierarchical field like science, “I initially had a lot of difficulty with calling myself a writer. And once I finally embraced my creative identity, I found myself second-guessing my scientific capabilities! I think this feeling is common among people who work in interdisciplinary/hybrid fields: always wondering whether you are skilled enough in one field or the other.”
Noble, who calls storytelling “the most authentic form of activism out there,” is eager for the opportunity to work with activists and others who want to write about something they care deeply about.
“Our work is needed now more than ever. The timing of this conference couldn’t be better.”
Kate Brandes is an environmental scientist with 20 years of experience, a watercolor painter and a writer of women’s fiction with an environmental bent. Her first novel, The Promise of Pierson Orchard, will be published in April 2017. Her short stories have been published in The Binnacle, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Grey Sparrow Journal. Kate is a member of the Arts Community of Easton (ACE), the Lehigh Art Alliance, Artsbridge, Pennwriters, and the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. Kate lives in a small town along the Delaware River with her husband, David, and their two sons. When she’s not working, she’s outside on the river or chasing wild flowers.
Mary Heather Noble is an environmental scientist, writer, and mother whose work is inspired by social and environmental issues and the intersection of the natural world, family, and place. She was a 2015 Oregon Arts Commission Fellowship recipient, and her essay collection, Plumes: On Contamination of Home and Habitat, was selected by New York Times bestselling author Karen Joy Fowler as the winner of the 2014 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature (sponsored by Ashland Creek Press). Noble’s work has also been honored with first prize in Creative Nonfiction’s The Human Face of Sustainability contest and as a finalist in Bellingham Review’s 2016 Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction. Her writing has appeared in About Place Journal, Fourth Genre, High Desert Journal, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Minerva Rising, Orion, Pithead Chapel, Quartz, The FEM, The Sun, and Utne Reader. She is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing Program at the University of Southern Maine and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Geology from The Ohio State University, and a Master’s degree in Environmental Science from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She lives with her family in Vermont.
Alicia Pisano is a junior English major with a concentration in writing studies. Raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia, she now lives in Ventnor, New Jersey-- in a part of the New Jersey shore she hopes to explore in a series of interconnected short stories following a story cycle independent study next semester. She is the student intern for the 2017 Moravian College Writers Conference.