Writing with Craig Childs

We’ve spent the last four days doing a writing workshop with Craig Childs. It wasn’t at all what I’d pictured when I heard the words “writing workshop”. We were camped on BLM land about three hours outside of Moab, Utah. We were surrounded by canyons and desert, miles away from “civilization”. I assumed we’d be using the picturesque scenery as inspiration to write.

Instead, our days reminded me more of my days on Wilderness Awareness School wolf tracking expeditions. We got up at 6:30, just after first light, and followed the sound of Craig’s flute to a series of rocky ledges, where we sat and watched the sun rise. Craig played flute and talked to us about place, about how these canyonlands are the one place on earth he could watch the sun rise every morning for the rest of his life. We sat for an hour, watching the dark rainbow of the sky grow lighter and lighter, ravens flapping by with the eerie precision of their wings. When the sun finally started to come up, it shot beams of perfectly yellow light over the mountains which turned into a glowing halo. And then the sun came, it got light, and we watched.

After sunrise and breakfast, we went hiking. The BLM land we were on was vast and lacking any trails, so we wandered. Craig would pick a landmark in the distance, like “that piece of white rock shaped like a whale”, and we would set off, solo or in pairs or small groups, going over slickrock and down through washes, until we got there. And then we wrote short pieces—stories of what we’d seen, a letter to people 10,000 years from now about what it feels like to be here. But mostly, we walked and walked and walked. We descended into canyons, climbed over boulders, found tracks in the sand, hid in caves, watched lizards scurry under rocks. We got back to camp around 6pm everyday, having spent the entire day exploring the landscape.

I had an amazing time during the four days we did this. Initially, I questioned the value of this time as a writing workshop—there was nothing else I’d rather be doing, but I felt like we weren’t writing a lot. And then I realized that Craig’s instructional methods were a lot more valuable than any traditional “workshop” could have been. We’re all intelligent, educated people, and we all offer good feedback on each other’s writing. If I wanted to write things about the beauty of the desert or the politics of water or anything else we’ve experienced, I have twenty peers and a professor who would give me helpful feedback. What Craig gave us was something far more valuable. He showed us his process—how he, as an author, approaches writing. He gave us tools to develop our own processes and insights. He showed us how to take a landscape you’re passionate about and tell a story about it. And no matter what I end up doing with my life, that’s a skill I want to have.

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