"Vigorously told deceptions and battle scenes." ~Publishers Weekly review of Eolyn

"The characters are at their best when the events engulfing them are at their worst." ~Publishers Weekly review of High Maga

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Landscape of My Imagination

I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein when I was in high school, as part of my English class. To this day (and it’s been a long time since then), the cover art of my high school edition of Frankenstein remains vivid in my mind: A man in 19th century dress, his back to the viewer, his figure small but distinctive in a vast landscape of ragged mountains and hidden valleys.

It was wonderful surprise – while I was refreshing my memory of Shelley, Frankenstein, and Romanticism – to come across this same image on Wikipedia. It didn’t take much; just one click on “Romantic” from Wikipedia’s Frankenstein page. The artwork, entitled Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, is by Casper David Friedrich, a painter of the Romantic period.

I also remember our classroom discussion of Frankenstein, where our teacher talked about the importance of wilderness for the Romantic movement. Shelley is a prime example of this.  In her timeless novel, she devotes ample attention to the untamed landscape in which her characters live. Were she alive and writing today, I suspect Shelley would find herself embroiled in some vigorous debates with fellow authors, who now live in a world where generous attention to landscape is often seen as an impediment to a story rather than an integral part of it.

My own writing is heavy on description and landscape. I believe a reader cannot fully understand the characters of a story unless he or she also experiences the setting in which they live -- this because the landscape with which we interact shapes who we are.  I would have been a happy camper (literally and figuratively) had I written during the Romantic period. As it is, I am constantly challenged by my readers and fellow authors to strike a balance between my own convictions regarding the importance of landscape and more contemporary lines of thought, which often insist setting is not only unimportant, but actually in the way of the 'real story'.

Why shun landscape in our stories?

This question has come back to me often during these last few years, as I’ve engaged with different perspectives regarding what makes good writing. It has resurfaced again these past few weeks, as I reflect on my experience as writer-in-residence at Andrews Experimental Forest and the short story inspired by it – a story that in its current draft is, perhaps even by my own standards, ‘too heavy’ on description.

But what is ‘too heavy’? What determines the point where we stop looking out the window, because we just don’t want to see anymore? Why is that cutoff in a different place now than it was some 200 years ago, when Shelley wrote her immortal tale?

The biologist and philosopher inside me can’t help but wonder whether rejection of landscape is simply about ‘good technique’ in writing.  Perhaps it's more than that.  Perhaps it is also a reflection of the context in which so many of us now live: a world where wilderness has been fragmented and pushed to distant corners of the earth; where we have no point of reference for the organic nature of our surroundings, living as we do in climate controlled spaces, attached to our ipods and cell phones, purchasing pre-packaged boneless meats, avoiding fresh fruits and vegetables because they must be peeled, treating our next door neighbors as somehow less ‘real’ than the person we just met on Facebook.

Not that the modern lifestyle is bad perse; just that we lose something, I think, if we let ourselves become too absorbed by it. There’s a larger world out there; larger even than the internet. Filled with sensory experience -- sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures. A world that would speak to us, if we let it; just as the forests of Moisehén speak to the Magas and Mages of Eolyn's world.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Romantics like Shelley, I have read contemporary fiction that takes place entirely inside the mind of the main character. While I appreciate the artistry behind this approach to storytelling, it has little appeal to me as a reader. A disembodied mind in an organic world seems not so much a reflection of real life as a precursor to madness. I cannot engage with someone who is so removed from their surroundings; indeed from their own flesh and blood.

I suppose for me as a writer, the landscape and its components – forests, plains, valleys, rivers, cultivated fields, mountains, plants, animals, rocks, weather patterns, and so forth – will always be characters in their own right, and deserve to be treated as such. My protagonists interact in intimate ways with the environment in which they live; so, then, should my readers. 

And even though I tend to cull descriptive passages as I move toward the final draft, I'm rarely fully convinced that by doing so I'm creating a better story. Indeed, it often seems like I'm deforesting the landscape of my imagination, just as we have deforested the landscapes of our planet. 

This post is part of a series of reflections inspired by my week as a Writer-in-Residence at Andrews Experimental Forest.  To learn more about my week at Andrews, visit the links in the box entitled "Spring 2011 Residency at Andrews Forest" on the right hand bar.