Writing as an environmental practice

Through a series of thought-provoking workshops, York’s Sustainable Writing Lab (SWL) is working to promote the benefits of understanding writing as an intervention into the world and therefore an inherently environmental practice.

Left: Susan Moore (left) and Lauren Corman

Established in 2005 by Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) Professor and Canada Research Chair in Culture & Sustainability Cate Mortimer-Sandilands in collaboration with PhD student Lauren Corman and Adam Dickinson, 2005-2006 post-doctoral Fellow in environmental literature, sustainability & culture, the SWL is grounded in the rapidly developing field of environmental cultural studies. Environmental cultural studies emphasizes that "nature" is a concept, practice and institution constructed and shaped by social relations. From this perspective, the connections between writing and the environment start to become clear.

As a medium that intrinsically promotes ideas, writing constantly affects the world in a variety of complex ways. In addition to the more obvious influence of public writing on beliefs and decisions about environmental issues, ideas and understandings about the natural world are influenced through literary, creative, critical, academic and other kinds of writing. Practices and forms of writing also influence the kinds of ideas and information being represented, as illustrated by the differences between genres such as fiction and newspaper stories.

"We aim to promote a diverse set of public conversations about the multiple intersections between writing and environmental studies," said Corman. "By bringing together experienced writers and workshop participants, the SWL both fosters and celebrates a unique writing community on campus. We help centralize questions of writing within environmental discourse, and stimulate both excitement and inquiry into the craft and its relevance to environmental work."

To encourage engagement with these issues, particularly by FES graduate students, the SWL offers support to students wishing to study environmental literature, eco-criticism or other topics related to writing and the environment. The current post-doctoral Fellow in environmental literature, sustainability & culture is Susan Moore, who recently received her PhD in education from the University of Calgary. Moore acts a resource for those looking for more information or suggestions on how to pursue research in this area. Ten laptop computers are also available for students to borrow in order to work on their own individual or group writing projects.

The lab also promotes the exploration of issues of writing and the environment through an annual workshop series. Now in its second year, the series features discussions of those issues using creative and hands-on presentation styles. For example, in an Oct. 30 workshop, titled "The Poetics and Praxis of Interviewing," Corman and Moore presented different ways of conducting and writing about interviews through an innovative format that saw the presenters take turns interviewing each other and then discussing their respective experiences of the interview process. The pair then moved on to illustrate debates around writing about interviews, such as how to represent verbal pauses, how spacing and formatting changes can help represent unspeakable moments, and the general problems associated with textually representing something originally presented by another person through speech.

"There are important ethical issues that arise when dealing with representing interviews through text," explained Moore. "The issue of truth and truth-creation arises. Researchers have the responsibility to honour the stories told to them, but also to ensure that people being interviewed understand that their interview will become part of a text, and therefore necessarily an interpretation. That textual result is one version of the truth, but not necessarily their truth." To demonstrate differences that can arise through textual representation, Moore and Corman then had participants use the SWL computers to experiment with transcribing an interview and play with the difference found through arranging the same words into traditional sentences versus more poetic formats.

Similarly other approaches have characterized this year’s other SWL presentations, which included "Research and writing lived experience" and "Serendipity, spirituality and writing in Environmental Studies." With about 30 students participating in each session, the workshops are not only highlighting issues of writing and the environment but are succeeding in encouraging a wide range of students to explore issues related to environmental cultural studies.

Upcoming workshops include "Becoming a writer: a conversation with Elaine Morin", featuring a new writer from Calgary sharing the personal and professional stumbling blocks she has experienced. This workshop is scheduled for Jan. 22. The workshop, titled "Writing trauma", will present a discussion about the vicarious trauma that can be experienced by those who habitually write about oppression and suffering. This workshop is scheduled for Feb. 19. Workshops are held from 12:30 to 2pm in the Health, Nursing & Environmental Studies Building.

For details or to register, contact Lauren Corman at laurencorman@gmail.com.

This article was submitted to YFile by Arlene Williams, media & communications coordinator, Faculty of Environmental Studies