Tag Archives: nature writing

An Interview with Amy Leach

11 Sep
Amy Leach is the author of Things That Are, a collection of essays that Yiyun Li compared to "a descendent of Lewis Carroll and Emily Dickinson."

Amy Leach is the author of Things That Are, a collection of essays that the writer Yiyun Li compared to “a descendent of Lewis Carroll and Emily Dickinson.”

Amy Leach’s book, Things That Are, is a collection of essays that are equal parts nature writing in the tradition of Mary Austin and language play like that of Lewis Carroll. Her work has been published in A Public Space, Tin House, Orion, and the Los Angeles Review. She has been recognized with the Whiting Writers’ Award, Best American Essays selections, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Award, and a Pushcart Prize. She plays bluegrass, teaches English, and lives in Montana.

In this interview, Leach discusses using rare words, beavers as a proof of God’s existence, and why nature has captured her imagination.

To read Leach’s essay, “In Which the River Makes Off With Three Stationary Characters,” and an exercise on writing surprising descriptions, click here.

Michael Noll

One of the most striking things about your writing is your use of diction. In this essay alone, there are words that I knew but had to stare at for a moment before I recognized them in their new form (chatterboxy, sagitaries, heptangularly), words I’ve probably encountered before but couldn’t define with any certainty (glogg, yawing, gobbets, saltarellos),and words that I thought you’d invented until I looked them up (truckle, mouldywarp, bladderwort, mudpuppy), and words that I simply had never seen before (frumentary). I was reminded of the writer Alexander Theroux, who actively searches for forgotten words and has said that he believes it’s the duty of writers to keep such words alive. This keeping-alive philosophy extends to his work, which includes a book, Primary Colors, with three sections about everything that is red, green, or blue. I wonder if you feel this same way, especially given the last chapter of the book, “Glossary of Strange Beasts and Phenomena”. Are you trying to save wonderful things (and with words, the effort and thought and experience that went into creating them) from oblivion?

Amy Leach

I like the idea of rescuing words from extinction, of books being arks for drowning words; but I don’t know if my impulse is responsible enough for me to call what I’m doing a duty.  I just enjoy words so long out of use they are almost nonsense again, as they were before they were used.  English can be as fun as Jabberwocky.

Michael Noll

As I reread the essay, I was struck by how much of it is purely informational: here is what beavers do, here is what salmon do. It’s not until the final section, really, that you put that information to work in a kind of argument. This runs counter to the usual structure of essays, which almost always contain some rhetorical turn after the first paragraph or so, a move to transform an interesting detail or anecdote into a thesis. But you don’t do this. The first four pages contain more and more descriptions of beavers. The next three are about salmon and their parallels with beavers. And then, in the last two pages, you apply these parallels to human experience, where the essay’s meaning—if we want to use that word—becomes clear. Have you ever gotten pushback from editors or your first readers, anyone asking you to use a more traditional structure?

Amy Leach

 I did want for the beavers to be beavers, for salmon to mean salmon, rather than being proof of a point. I remember, in doing research on this essay, watching a little video of beavers in the wild. Down below, in the comments section, there was an excited dispute over whether beavers proved the existence of God or proved the nonexistence of God. Nobody was excited about the beavers–just about their own opinions, which beavers happened to support. The beavers could have been wolverines or worms: the conversation below would have been the same. This seems to illustrate the philosophical peril of starting out with a thesis (opinion) and using the rest of the essay (the world) to prove it. This is how I often think–in a thesis-driven way–but it’s not how I want to think, and I love how in writing you can work out the way you want to think.

Michael Noll

One of my favorite lines in the essay is this one: “The beavers’ reaction to the papal renaming highlights two of their especial qualities: their affability and their unyieldingness.” It’s so unexpected—even though the language is fresh and the opening situation (beavers being classified as fish) is almost fanciful, the descriptions of the beavers themselves are rooted in fact and observation. As a result, when I read the word qualities, I expected something about their physiology or behavior—anything but affability. It’s a word that seems to illustrate what you write at the end of the essay: that there is a kind of experience that “spills you into a place whose dimensions make nonsense of your heretofore extraordinary spatial intelligence.” Do you make choices (diction, sentence structure, details, metaphors) in your writing that aim for nonsense-making, or is this just an effect of your natural style?

Amy Leach

I suppose it is natural, my affinity for nonsense. If you’re naturally a sensible person and you try by conscious effort and choice to be nonsensical, it may just come off as quirky, effortfully quirky. It seems best to stay true to your own nature, whether that nature is sensible or not.

Michael Noll

Some of the essays in the book, like “Stairs,” are less about nature than human experience of nature and the world and experience itself. It makes me wonder if you can imagine a transition in which you begin to focus less on animals and plants and on something else (airplanes, societal structures). Or, do you think you’ll always focus on the natural world? After all, you live in Montana, where presence of the natural world is every bit the equal of the human presence.

Amy Leach

I wrote most of the book while I was living in Chicago, brimming with airplanes and societal structures–so these were the last things in the world I wanted to spend time thinking about. Where one’s real life is not swamped with airplanes and society, one could possibly afford to devote more imagination to them. Though I expect it will always be the green things and the creatures who have my heart, for they are real.

September 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write Surprising Descriptions

9 Sep
One reviewer said of the essays in Amy Leach's Things That Are, "If Donald Barthelme had made nature documentaries, the commentary might have sounded like this."

One reviewer said this about the essays in Amy Leach’s Things That Are: “If Donald Barthelme had made nature documentaries, the commentary might have sounded like this.”

At some point in your story or novel or essay, you’ll need to write a memorable description, something better than red or big or happy. So, you start free writing and brainstorming to find the right words, but they’re all variations on the usual and expected. You want to find something new and startling, but how?

For essayist Amy Leach, writing eye-opening descriptions seems almost as natural as breathing. Her essay, “In Which the River Makes Off With Three Stationary Characters,” is, in a way, one long description that develops and moves in surprising ways. It was published in The Iowa Review and included in her collection, Things That Are. You can read it here as a sample of the book or here at JSTOR.

How the Essay Works

As we grow older, we fall into patterns of seeing. We perceive not the thing itself but our expectation (built on years of seeing) of what the thing should look like and what it is. A good description, then, wipes away those years of seeing and allows us to see the world the way we saw it as babies and children: for the first time. Watch how Leach strips away the usual ways of perceiving in the first paragraph of “In Which the River Makes Off With Three Stationary Characters”:

In the seventeenth century, his Holiness the Pope adjudged beavers to be fish. In retrospect, that was a zoologically illogical decision, but beavers were not miffed at being changed into fish. They decided not to truckle to their new specification, not to be perfect fish, textbook fish; instead they became fanciful fish, the first to have furry babies, the first to breathe air and the first fish to build for themselves commodious conical fortresses in the water. If Prince Maximilian, traveling up the Missouri River, had taken it in mind to categorize them as Druids or flamingos, beavers would have become toothy Druids, or portly brown industrious flamingos.

The last phrase of the paragraph (“portly brown industrious flamingos”) would have been an inconceivable string of words without the rest of the paragraph. But, by introducing the idea that beavers might not actually be beavers, Leach removes the usual way of viewing the animal and gives herself the opportunity to see them as something totally new. The same thing is true of the description that ends this next two sentences:

The beavers’ reaction to their papal renaming highlights two of their especial qualities: their affability and their unyieldingness. They affably yield not. If they are deemed fishes, they respond by becoming lumberjack fishes.

How amazing is that phrase: lumberjack fishes? And how impossible it would be to pair those words in a passage that looks at beavers in the usual way.

Despite the inventiveness of the descriptions, Leach actually arrives at them in methodical ways:

  1. First, she introduces a wrong way of viewing something: the Pope says beavers are fish.
  2. Then, rather than correcting the wrong idea, she accepts it as a fact: okay, if beavers are fish, then these are the kind of fish they are.
  3. Finally, she introduces more wrong ways of viewing the beavers (if they’re already fish, why not make them flamingos?).
  4. This last, previously inconceivable way of viewing beavers creates the opportunity to describe them in new ways.

It might be tempting to think that these descriptions (lumberjack fishes, portly brown industrious flamingos) are simply cute, but Leach uses them to set up alternate ways to view not just beavers but nature as a whole and our place within it. In fact, the collection of essays as a whole repeatedly offers new ways of thinking about basic human experience—and these new ways are almost always tied to descriptions that scramble the usual order of things.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write surprising descriptions using “In Which the River Makes Off With Three Stationary Characters” by Amy Leach as a model:

  1. Introduce a wrong way of viewing something. This happens in real life on a daily basis. Two people witness the same event and describe it in different ways. The resulting miscommunication can turn tragic or comic. But there are simpler ways to introduce an odd perspective. Take any common human interaction (lovers meeting or fighting, workers conferring, cashier checking out a customer) and label it as something that it clearly isn’t. In other words, write a scene in which two people kiss and then suggest that it’s a fight. Or, show two people shaking hands or passing money and suggest that they’re in love. This mashup challenges the ideas of loving and fighting and the typical way that we view these common scenes. You can actually do this with any interaction that you’ve already written in a story. Simply label it as something that it isn’t.
  2. Accept the error and write as if it applies. What if the people kissing really are fighting? What if the people shaking hands are in love? What would that mean? Are they pretending? Acting a certain way in public, for show? Fulfilling an obligation? Or, does love mean something different than we think it means? For instance, there are office wives and husbands—think about how odd that pairing and description is. Try to explain how the scene you’ve chosen can look one way but be called something that it doesn’t seem, at first glance, to be.
  3. Introduce more wrong ways of viewing the same thing. If we can have office wives or husbands, what other kinds of wives and husbands can we have? Bar spouses? Church spouses? Internet spouses? Or, if a coworker can be an office wife, what else can they be? An office sister? An office mother? An office lieutenant? An office gravedigger? If you’re going to break the bond between words and bind them to new, unusual words, don’t stop. Keep going to see how far you can push the idea.
  4. Describe the encounter or person or thing. What is a handshake between lovers? A pillow handshake? A spooning handshake? What is a kiss between people who are fighting? A blistering peck? A wolfish smooch? You can do better than these example. Play around. Try to surprise yourself. The immediate goal is to find an interesting description, but doing so may require creating an entirely new way to view an essential part of the story. 

Have fun!

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