Writing Nature: A Creative Perspective
In the age of climate anxiety and environmental uncertainty, the natural world has become of increasing concern among writers of fiction and poetry. From novelists such as Jon McGregor, Jeff VanderMeer and Melissa Harrison to poets such as Alice Oswald, nature is playing a more prominent role in creative work, with authors consciously engaging with present ecological developments. This subject has also caught the imaginations of creative writing PhD researchers across the UK, many of whom are undertaking practice-based research in a bid to reposition the place of nature in fictional contexts – from passive backdrop to focal point.
Andrea (A. J.) Ashworth is a writer and PhD candidate at Edge Hill University, Ormskirk. She is the author of the short story collection Somewhere Else, or Even Here (Salt Publishing, 2011; Edge Hill Prize shortlist), as well as editor of Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontës (Unthank Books, 2013). Michael Wheatley is a writer and PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the inaugural recipient of the University of Worcester Black Pear Press Prize for Fiction and the author of the short story collection, The Writers’ Block (Black Pear Press, 2019). Both writers are undertaking practice-based research in order to produce novels that engage with and incorporate the natural world in deep and authentic ways.
For her research, Andrea is writing a literary novel that features the dragonfly in a strongly embedded way. Set in the present day, it is the story of a young bereaved boy called Henry who is facing certain challenges – including estrangement from his father – as a result of the death of his mother. The novel, provisionally titled Dragonfly, details these difficulties as well as the friendship that forms between him and dragonfly watcher Clara – a meeting that provides the starting point to the story and which, through the vehicle of the dragonfly, offers the possibility of hope for Henry and his father. The dragonfly – in particular its entomological properties, such as life-cycle, biology and behaviour – inform both the structure and content of the novel, with the insect being used in a real and symbolic sense throughout. The novel will also feature a strand from the point of view of dragonflies in a bid to foreground and give voice to the natural world.
For his research, Michael is attempting to reframe weird fiction as an ecological mode by writing a hybrid novel of the Weird and literary fiction. Set on Rathlin Island in the 1890s, the novel’s protagonist, Canice, feels a spiritual connection with the sea, believing it to be a manifestation of God. After Canice learns of the sentience of the oceans, however, she must re-evaluate her relationship with nature as the lines between human and nonhuman become increasingly blurred. Drawing upon Timothy Morton’s theory of dark ecology, the novel seeks to chart the shift in human perception from a deep ecological harmony to a dark ecological uncertainty.
During the conference, the writers will present a shared reading of their novels-in-progress, followed by a reflective discussion which will investigate the challenges of incorporating elements of the natural world into a fictional realm; the tension between narrative pull and the inclusion of scientific fact; formal experimentation; and representing the nonhuman. The authors will also talk about their desire to foreground the natural world instead of conforming to more traditional, passive representations, especially with regard to the environment being used purely as setting or backdrop. As published short story writers, Andrea and Michael will also make reference to the challenges of moving from short to longer-form fiction, especially in a PhD context.