On Creativity, with Leigh Calvez
I’ve loved working with Leigh on both of her books. Her passion for her subjects, and Nature in all her forms, is evident not only in her writing, but in the way she literally throws herself into her research. Though her work is journalistic, her methods have a great deal of creativity to them, so I was excited to see her answers on Creativity. I think you will, too.
KW: Thanks for joining me, Leigh. First up, what’s your relationship to storytelling?
LC: As a creative nonfiction writer, I am keenly aware of story. It’s my first priority when writing a book. Can I tell a good story with this material? Or, can I find a story into which I can weave the facts? As a nature writer, I want to draw the reader into the natural world with all the mysteries and intrigue the planet has to share. I believe story can do that. When researching a book I’m looking as much for a story to tell as I am for the science or biology of the animals I’m writing about.
For example, in The Breath of a Whale, I had seen blue whales before. I could have described them and their environment. I could have researched the blues online or talked with researchers over the phone from the comfort of my own home to gather all the biological information I would need. The facts were amazing on their own, but I wanted a good story to tell. So I tagged along on a blue whale research expedition. I went out into the wild to learn about the lives of the largest mammals on earth. How do they find the four tons of krill, the paper-clip-sized sea creatures they eat every day? Or how are they faring against the life and death dangers they face while feeding on those krill in some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world? I’m very pleased with how the blue whale story turned out. Getting up close and personal with blue whales was a true adventure!
KW: Do you read books in the genre in which you write? If so, is there a part of your process when you avoid doing so?
LC: Yes, I read nature writing. Books about animals and nature are some of my favorites. I love to read about amazing places and beings with whom we share the planet. I also read for research, gathering information from others on the topics I am writing about or when exploring different styles of telling a nonfiction story.
One of the first books I read that inspired me to want to write about nature was Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams. I was awed by the authentic style with which she told her story. She wove together two seemingly different storylines. One storyline was from her own observations, as a naturalist, of the rise and fall of Utah’s Great Salt Lake and the effects that it had on the bird species that lived around the lake. The other was more personal about her mother’s and grandmother’s deaths from breast cancer and the nuclear testing that had likely caused the cancer. Refuge is a beautiful tribute to both women and to Mother Nature. I have never forgotten that story.
There does come a time in my process when I cannot read. As I work on a book, I can feel the story growing and taking form in my mind. It’s at these times when I don’t seem to have the mental capacity to hold anything more. The story pushes on me from the inside, trying to spill onto the page. It can get a bit uncomfortable before I can get it all out.
KW: The concept of fallow time is one that fascinates me, as it can be a struggle for so many artists. Is fallow time an unwelcome visitor or a necessary gift to your process? What do you do to enrich/make the most of your fallow time?
LC: Fallow time is definitely a gift to me. After writing a book, I don’t want to write another word for quite some time, maybe a month or more. It takes time to rest and restore my creative writing muscles. At first this may look like a lot of couch time watching movies. Or, if it’s summer, getting outside for a camping or backpacking trip. Once I rest a bit, story ideas begin to take form in my mind or I can hear the first lines of a chapter or the description of a place or animal coming from the voice inside my mind that tells stories. Then I know it’s time to find my next idea.
As a nature writer, this fallow time makes complete sense to me. Growing up on a farm, I learned the natural rhythms of nature. Farmland lays fallow in the winter months before seeds are planted in the spring to harvest in the fall. My belief that we are not so different from the earth is the reason I write about nature.
When I first began writing, fallow time made me nervous. I often wondered if this was the infamous writer’s block. But I have learned to trust and even cherish this time of rest.
KW: How do you know when a book is finished? Is it ever? Is this a fraught-filled or celebratory moment for you?
LC: Oscar Wilde said, “Books are never finished. They are merely abandoned.” I believe that’s true. Every book, short story or article I’ve ever written could be revised. Sometimes, months later, I will find a better way of explaining some concept or remember something I forgot to say. So, at some point, I just have to let it go. That point comes when I send off a final revision. Hopefully, I have said everything of importance at that point.
The moment is both a fraught-filled moment and a celebratory one. Of course, I hope the book will be well received. This can cause a bit of stress until I get the first feedback from an editor or reader. My celebratory moment comes when I hold the finished book in my hands for the first time.
KW: Do you read reviews? If so, how do they affect your process?
LC: I do read reviews, but I try to take them with a grain of salt. Probably the best advice I’ve ever received was from my teacher, the nature writer Brenda Peterson. She cautioned me against putting too much stock into either good reviews or bad ones. I learned to write for myself, to say what I believe is most important and to tell the best story I can. If I believe I have done that, then I am satisfied. I take feedback I get into consideration and if I feel it’s valid, I try to work it into the next book or article I write. When I get a positive review, it’s always wonderful to hear when a reader has really understood or loved my writing. It puts a welcomed pressure on me to write my next great book.
From the review in AudioFile Magazine:
“The author offers up fascinating facts about whales, dolphins, and porpoises, such as how some dolphins can shut down half their brains at will. Long sentences with complex structures can be a challenge to follow. Narrator Karen White helps with an easy-on-the-ears narration. She handles scientific terms nicely, slowing down so listeners can digest them.”
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