Saraband Books have recently launched their ‘In The Moment’ series, a collection of accessible books that examine the environment and our interaction with it. One of the first to be published is Linda Cracknell’s Writing Landscape, a collection of essays which touches upon being in and writing about nature, and how our relationship with our surroundings can be nurturing and nourishing. It’s a beautifully written book, and SNACK caught up with Linda Cracknell to learn more.
Your latest publication is called Writing Landscape. How do you describe it?
It’s a collection of essays or personal stories which reveal how I connect with places and draw words from the experience. The locations are mostly in Scotland, although one is in France and South West England. They include a stranding on the tidal island of Erraid, immersion in Birnam Wood, possibilities for enchantment in Old Town Edinburgh, a night of fear in a bothy, and explorations of the work of other creative people out of doors.
It’s a visceral and inspirational read in that you really lead the reader through the landscapes with you. Do you have readers in mind when you write, or is it all about the craft of writing and how that makes you feel?
Initially, I simply try to capture my own experience in words, but at some point readers drift into my focus and I want to give them something of the sensory detail and the spirit of the place too. I don’t think I’ve ever pictured a particular reader, but they might be someone who is curious and prepared for vicarious experience, perhaps open to the idea of doing some daft things outdoors themselves.
Throughout the book, there are references to literary and other inspirations, such as Edwin Morgan, Joan Eardley, and Jessie Kesson. Could you tell us a bit about their influences on your writing, and this book?
Various artists and writers are touchstones in this book. There’s the pithy precision of Edwin Morgan’s marvellous starlings and the way he captures the – mainly disappointing – human response. Joan Eardley wrangles with storm, salt, and lashing reeds in order to paint, putting us right inside the experience. And Jessie Kesson leads us through the choked lanes of an Elgin slum and then lets us fly with ‘peesies’ [lapwings] in open fields when, full of joy, she walks out with her mother. I wrote about Kesson previously in Doubling Back, my book of walks in pursuit of memories, having admired how she partners her written places with the acute sensibility of an aching but imaginative child or young woman.
Robert Louis Stevenson is mentioned, someone who also wrote about nature and travelling despite being best known for fiction. In terms of his non-fiction, where would you suggest readers begin?
RLS pops up several times partly because in 2019 I had a fellowship in his name in Grez-sur-Loing [France], where he first went when abandoning the family lighthouse engineering business to be a nomad and artist. Although he is best known for novels such as Treasure Island and Kidnapped – which of course I read before travelling to Erraid – he was also a brilliant essayist and non-fiction writer. I was particularly drawn to essays such as Walking Tours, where he applauds a shorter day’s walk in order to relish the overnight stop. But there couldn’t be a better place to start reading than Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, where the reader inhabits both his razor-sharp perceptions and his inner thoughts as he fashions his own adventure.
There’s something almost meditative about the practice of taking note of your landscape and surroundings. Is that how you think about it?
That isn’t why I do it the way I do, but it certainly has that effect. As I say in the first essay, on a walk I sometimes stop, write ‘HERE I AM’ at the top of a page in my notebook and jot down all the senses, thoughts, feelings and things around me which define that state. While doing this, I am inevitably ‘in the moment’, and other concerns fall away or are at least suspended. When I move on again I notice that I often feel lighter and freer in spirit.
Your fiction has always had a strong sense of place. Is that a result of what is set out in Writing Landscape?
Yes, absolutely. My novel, Call of the Undertow, arose from repeated circuits of the small area around Dunnet Bay in Caithness. The experience of being scratched by marram grass or ducking beneath the slashing attacks of Arctic terns got tumbled with some of the folk tales I read and observations of contemporary people’s behaviour, resulting in situations and characters that took on their own momentum. Even close to the end of drafting that novel, I was still discovering details of setting or character through observation.
You also teach creative writing. Are the ideas and themes in Writing Landscape things you discuss with your students, and how is it working with writers at such an early stage?
Observation, or noticing, is at the heart of my teaching, whether in urban settings or more ‘natural’ ones and with people of any age or level of writing expertise. I always insist on going outside to move and pause and open the senses. Our habitual ways of observing – or not noticing much at all – don’t lead to fresh writing, and so I always suggest disruption. One of my top tips is to start by eliminating sight, which amplifies the other senses; great surprises in discovering the world can be found through our fingertips or by listening carefully. Or we can look in a different way – upside down, through a frame, through a magnifying glass. It doesn’t take long for words to emerge from such sensory exploration and this discovery process encourages novelty in the writing itself.
At its best, writing feels like a form of ‘play’ and I’ve included some tips for things to try at the end of the book: ‘Serious Noticing for Playful People’. All it takes is being in a receptive human body with access to language.
Are you working on anything you can tell us about?
I’m on the closing stages of a memoir in which I attempt to reconnect with my seafaring heritage in North Devon and beyond – I’m descended from Drakes and Chichesters but my feet always want to be in contact with land! Inevitably the journey involves testing my sea legs and getting salt on my skin.