Outdoor and Environmental Journalism class draws on insight from area experts

This semester, I am teaching a new class here at the University of Minnesota Duluth. It’s really less a course and more just a great opportunity to invite some of this region’s top environmental and outdoor storytellers to come to campus, share their work and talk about how they tell stories.

I can’t believe I get paid to do this.

Each week, we’ll have a new guest. We’ll read their work. We’ll write about it. And then we’ll ask them a bunch of questions that basically boils down to this:

How’d you do that?

The hope is that these visits will show students that writing and storytelling take hard work, and that storytellers have their own unique writing processes that they use to help them go from the conception of an idea to a finished product.

The process approach to writing and the teaching of writing is something I was first exposed to in a class that has largely inspired this one. It was called Nature Writing, a class taught at Humboldt State University by English professor David Boxer.

In that class, I was exposed to the work of some great outdoor and environmental writers — John McPhee and Annie Dillard immediately come to mind. But what had even greater impact was reading “Write to Learn” by longtime journalist and writing coach Don Murray. Murray’s ideas demystified writing for me. He showed me that if I thought of writing as a step-by-step process, it would help me understand that writers like McPhee and Dillard didn’t just start typing and out poured the magical prose on their first attempt. To the contrary. Writing, great writing (or even good writing in my case), comes through a process in which an idea evolves through reporting, focusing and revision.

And more revision.

Years later, another Murray disciple, Chip Scanlan, of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said it to me another way: “Great writing may be magic, but it’s not magical.”

Murray helped me be OK with producing writing that wasn’t that good. He taught me that just like any craft, it takes persistence, repetition and a willingness to keep working to get better.

As the essayist Roger Angell notes in the forward to the classic text, “The Elements of Style,” “Writing is hard, even for authors who do it all the time.”

And I guess that’s my hope for this class I’m about to teach: That by reading a lot, writing a lot and talking with talented people about how they approach their work, a new group of writers will be encouraged to tell their stories.