Writing with Landscape—A Workshop with Laura Watts

By Martín Fonck, Saskia Brill & Noemi Quagliati

“Stuff happens off camera, the pen only moves so fast, you can only sit in one chair, not all the chairs in all the room. This is good, honest objectivity because it has good, honest limits. The instruments for observation are here, not over there, and definitely not everywhere all at once. What you read has a partial perspective” (Watts, 2018:6)

In February 2020, we, the members of the doctoral program from the RCC, invited Laura Watts from the University of Edinburgh as our guest speaker for the Lunchtime Colloquium. We were curious to hear about Laura’s work not only because of her interesting research on energy landscapes, but also for her experience in creative and speculative writing. Laura is an ‘Ethnographer of Futures’ as well as a writer, artist, and poet. Her research, based on the Orkney Islands, explores ‘landscapes on the edge,’ where she asks how futures are imagined and made.

Landscapes and temporalities play a huge role in many of our own projects and in our writing processes. We therefore asked Laura to present her ethnographic experience and perspective on speculative futures at the RCC lunchtime colloquium. We also wanted to organize a writing workshop in which we could learn from her experiences in a more informal setting, and explore creative, speculative, and experimental ways of writing with landscape. She agreed, and so we invited doctoral students from our program and fellows of the RCC to apply to the workshop with an image of the landscape they are working with. Even though we didn’t have a concrete idea of what exactly would happen in the workshop, we expected that these images of landscapes would help to provoke writing in new ways. And since we did not only want to talk about writing, but to have space for our own creations, we decided to base the workshop on practical exercises.

We started the workshop on a Friday morning at 9am. The desks in the conference room were prepared with the images of our landscapes as well as pens and blank paper for everybody. As the participants entered the room, they roamed around, going through the images as you would in an exhibition before finally stopping at a familiar picture. When we started, we were sitting in front of our selected landscapes, ready to explore possibilities of writing about and with them.

Landscapes laid out on the tables the beginning of the workshop
Landscapes laid out on the tables the beginning of the workshop

To start the day with a bit of inspiration, Laura gave us a presentation about the craft of writing and her vision of scientific narratives. She reminded us that when we write, we produce knowledge and worlds. With that comes the responsibility to reflect thoroughly. Going back to the beginning of science in the 17th century, she illustrated how the production of scientific knowledge began with the requirement of evidence (Daston, 1991), alongside a specific use of language. This language was characterized by the separation of the author from the setting.  The passive voice was also used to create a sense of objectivity. This style has been central for the creation of authority, which has then generally been attributed to white men. Scientific language thus strongly incorporates gender and power into the process of knowledge production and is therefore entangled with an epistemological and emotional position.

Laura Watts giving her talk “Speculative Worlds - A Writing Craft”
Laura Watts giving her talk “Speculative Worlds – A Writing Craft”

She then remarked that, although technologies and experimental setups have fundamentally changed over time, the language used in science has not. By stating this, she also invited us to find new, contemporary uses of language for our respective scientific setups and communities. Exploring creative ways of writing allows us to put ourselves into different perspectives and spaces from which we can then imagine futures. Laura showed us the effects that the setting, voice, punctuation, rhythm, repetition, sentences shape, etc. can have on the message conveyed. She invited us to give space for the exploration of creative ways of writing with our landscapes and to not be afraid of making mistakes. Recognizing the presence of landscape in our research and the emotions it provokes is an empirical and honest exercise.

After this really inspiring input, we moved to the first practical exercise of today:

Choose an entity of your landscape and make it speak!

We had 15 minutes to come up with a sentence or a short paragraph which we were to present afterwards. Selecting the entity, we wanted to let speak dragged us deep into the composition of the landscape—thinking about what the entity would say from a previously unconsidered point of view revealed its many dimensions. We wrote a few words, crossed them out again and tried anew. We soon realized that a landscape in itself portrays a limit. Concrete spaces and specific perspectives have to be chosen. The limited amount of time forced us to think fast, to not overthink and to go with the flow. The following presentations of the individual works revealed the many different ways in which this task could be approached. We heard underground water, moonlight, reindeers, trucks, rocks, and molecules speak—to mention just a few. They expressed concerns about changes within the landscapes, reflections on their own state of being, thoughts on their role in the world, or their fear of death. And even though we only had a few minutes to come up with these different forms of expression, every single contribution had a beautiful sense of depth, creativity, consciousness, and/or humor in them that deeply impressed the rest of the group.The first practical exercise: a before and after shot of the writing desk

In the following discussion, we did not only discuss the opportunities this change of perspective can offer. Concerns about ethics, the limits of thinking through non-human experiences, and the rationale behind the exercise were also raised. Speaking for an entity is challenging. Some of the participants felt blocked during the first minutes. However, it was interesting to see the different ways in which the pieces of writing addressed this problem. What to do when you feel that blockage? First, try to leave your ego behind and start exploring. Maybe it is not necessary to name the limits of the landscape with words. The structure, the rhythm, or the voice can also help us to give a shape to these limits. The ending is also a crucial aspect of our stories. It is, in fact, what ultimately gives a plot its meaning. The very last sentence can even change the plot all together. It sets a limit to the story that is being told and the temporalities we think with. It is thus not just about how we write, but how we conclude. With this in mind we went on to the second task for today:

Chose that same entity and make it speculate about its future!

We had again 15 minutes to come up with a sentence or a short paragraph. This exercise made us think in temporal dimensions very different from our own as humans, be they those of an insect that has no more than a day to live, or chemicals that will exist for eternity. What would an insect fear? What the hopes of a sward? What does a truck work towards? And what would a rock be waiting for? It certainly felt weird, maybe even unsettling, to think that way. But as soon as we put ourselves into the “shoes” of “others,” the landscape changed its appearance. The focus shifted. The future changed.

In the presentations that followed, the contributions were extremely diverse and used language in a beautifully figurative way—even though (or perhaps because) many of us don’t speak English as our first language. For us as scientists it felt scary yet refreshing to speculate about what could be to come, not knowing exactly what is or will be, daring to make assumptions about a distant future based on the present. And it felt equally scary yet refreshing to use a language beyond academic structures. Laura’s invitation was to not feel limited by the different audiences we have in mind while writing. If you want to explore new ways, start writing for yourself. How does the text speak to you? Which emotions does the text provoke for you? Only start thinking about the audience when you come to edit the already written text.

We as organizers are deeply grateful. We are grateful for Laura’s time and the knowledge about the craft of writing she shared. We are grateful for the curiosity of our fellow students and fellows in taking part in this little adventure. We are grateful for everybody’s courage in presenting “first drafts.” We are grateful for the collective and creative space that emerged that morning in the 4th floor conference room. We are grateful for the critical questioning of methods and approaches. And we are grateful for the delicious food we had in the breaks alongside inspiring, cheerful, and deep chats. For us, this felt like a good way to do academia otherwise. To hold space for experimentation and exploration. To dare to speculate. And most importantly to do that collectively with our landscapes.

At the very end, Laura gave us one last task:

Write your experiences or thoughts about this workshop today as if you were tweeting about it!

Here are some of the results:

Thinking in place, space, time, across scapes and shapes, finding words for wolds, imagining consequences. Strudel in my head #writingwithlandscape @LauraWatts @RCC

#writingworkshop with @LauraWatts: Writing from an environmental point of view can change your perspective. #writing #otherwise

“Writing with Landscape” workshop at @carsoncenter: “As the time goes by, the blank space on my sheet gets smaller – covered by the black ink of my pen. Thinking through, with and about writing means to do our job properly. Thank you @laurawatts.” #AcademicTwitter

The Entanglements across times & dimensions

of conversations never had

shifting identities – desires memories longings

and a possibility of convergences. Of hopes.

The assumption of Authority, Modesty, and One

Truth. These are our symptoms. Dear Doctor, how do we write in less

fossilized forms?

Today was about breakdown, building from the ruins & the importance of creativity.

The craft of words. We bring our landscape. We explore writing. First, giving a voice to an entity and then speculating about futures. However, impossibilities emerge. In fact, in landscape there is always a distance. But writing is always a way of giving a shape, a rhythm to destruction.

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