AWP 2012: Writing the Wilderness

March 9, 2012 § 2 Comments

By Scott Russell Morris

Wilderness Writing / John Bennion, Catherine Curtis, Scott Hatch, and Bentley Snow

John Bennion started out the panel explaining why wilderness writing programs are an effective way to teach students about writing, essays particularly. He gave a framework for the whole presentation, giving five points which he and all of the panelists worked around through their discussion of writing in the wilds:

  1. Because the wilderness is complex, writing also becomes more complex.
  2. Camping and backpacking isolates students from the familiar
  3. Students see themselves in dangerous and/or uncomfortable situations, which makes them see themselves differently
  4. Students travel together and feel support for their individual experiments
  5. Extended time with teachers/professional writers helps students develop the full writing process and critical thinking skills

Bennion drew parallels between the essay and the wild: both are boundless and both need exploring. Often times, learning inside of a classroom is difficult because it is repetitive, methodical, and mundane, and does little to encourage students to think outside their own worlds, to think beyond their everyday experience. But when students essay in the wilderness, they are put out in unfamiliar territory, and so they must turn deeper within themselves to reach understanding and connections.

Working within the parameters Bennion descried, Catherine Curtis talked about risk in wilderness programs. She said that a wilderness writing program should push us to the boundary of our comfort, which is not always the boundary of our skill. Of course, these programs don’t send students out alone, but students become experts (in writing and outdoor activities) by being guided by other experts, by doing what experts do, and by reaching the boundaries of their physical, emotional, and writing abilities. Sending students out with experts also gives the teachers a chance not just to mentor individual writing projects, but individual writers. The wilderness setting, immersive environment, and writing exercises all serve to give teachers and students chances to engage in actual skill developing activities, because the risk required makes students stretch their skills.

Building on this idea of a writing community, Bentley Snow emphasized the way that wilderness settings build community between students. He quoted Shakespeare: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” He then went on to tell us about a rather uncomfortable situation when he almost peed his pants on a bus, and how—after he had finally relieved himself—he told the fellow students about his trouble, how close he had been, and so many of the students began telling him about times when they were in similar times, times when they had actually peed their pants. And while the discussion of bowel movements made most of the people in the audience pretty uncomfortable, Bentley’s point was clear: wilderness writing programs make people trust each other with information that they otherwise wouldn’t have, and that trust then effects the writing, because they are then willing to share their writing and insights with each other (Look for a peed-pants essay from Bentley soon.)

Scott Hatch’s presentation dealt mostly with the logistics and such of putting together a wilderness program, his thoughts essentially being that you don’t have to be an expert hiker, etc, to put this together. Partner with your school’s Recreation Management, Environmental Studies, Biology, Geology, etc, programs to find a professor to team with. These departments often already have the resources needed to put on such programs, and such teamwork also encourages environmental stewardship in the Humanities and makes the programs run smoother.

One of Hatch’s main points though, besides the practical parts of the program, was how valuable these writing programs are for supporting the Humanities. He said that teaching which is going to expand the students’ thoughts and abilities needs a classroom with “infinite walls.” Such programs can’t be undemanding and still be meaningful.

If you’d like more information on running an outdoor writing program, the panelists invite you to check out


Scott Russell Morris is finishing his MFA at Brigham Young University this semester. He likes essays, squirrels, and good food.

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§ 2 Responses to AWP 2012: Writing the Wilderness

  • Lyn Fenwick says:

    I find that writing my book about a homesteader in my community more than a century ago is more successful when I am staying at our farm near his homestead. I credited my success with the solitude, but your essay has made me consider the importance of the surrounding environment to the writing itself. I know that the prairie in Isaac’s time was very different from the present agricultural community, but visiting the country cemetery where he is buried, walking his land, picking sand hill plums in my pasture as he did–even relishing the solitude in which he lived make a difference, I believe. I am not in the wilderness (though some of my city friends seem to believe that I am), but the environment matters to the writing. Thank you for helping me consider that importance.

  • matt says:

    Great ideas, there’s always so much happening in the world than what one can realize unless you’re there and experiencing it. New situations can spark all types of new ideas, as well as the prolonged relatively distraction free environment (no cell phone towers I guess, 🙂 )

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