While admitting that front-end research is an important part of the writing process, author and poet Janisse Ray insists that statistics alone aren’t what change a reader’s mind.
Ray, who is based in Savannah, Ga., told an audience at Lander University Wednesday, Apr. 6, that what matters most is developing a sense of trust with her readers. “I do research,” she said, “but it is a minor part of what I do.” Instead, when Ray is out in nature, the notes she takes are meant to help her capture the natural world that surrounds her so that her writing can channel those experiences in nature to her readers.
“I have to open my heart wide enough to reach out and grab your heart,” Ray said. “You have to trust me.”
Ray first came to prominence with her New York Times notable memoir, Ecology of a Cracker Child, published in 1999. Since then, Ray has published seven other books, including her most recent book, Wild Spectacle, which came out in October of last year and was the subject of her visit to Lander. Her work, which according to Ray “explores the borderland between nature and culture,” has earned her a spot in the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, as well as several awards. Among them are an American Book Award, Pushcart Prize, Southern Bookseller Award and the Southern Environmental Law Center Writing Award, to name just a few.
As part of her visit to campus, Ray also spoke to some of Lander’s creative writing classes, discussing her craft with Lander students, allowing them to ask questions, and leading them through writing exercises. Many of those same students were also in attendance later that evening for Ray’s reading. “It can be easy when we are passionate about something to want to lecture, but it’s through beauty and vulnerability that we create the possibility of real change,” said Laura Martin, assistant professor of English at Lander University. “This is what Janisse does so well and what she teaches others to do. When she visited my creative nonfiction class, she guided the students through the development of vivid scenes rich with detail. She also helped them write about the connections between their own experiences and the community, country and ecosystem.”
Members of the audience at Ray’s reading wanted to know how she is able to elegantly express in her writings the grief she feels in relation to environmental issues. She shared with the crowd a word to describe it: “solastalgia,” the emotional or existential distress one feels as a result of environmental change. “I think most of us suffer from reactive attachment disorder,” Ray said, a condition that prevents a child from forming healthy emotional bonds with their caregivers and one that Ray is familiar with through a family member. “We have not been allowed to attach to our mother, who is mother earth,” she said.
But Ray also insists that her work is meant to inspire hope amidst the environmental challenges she sees facing our world. “Everywhere I go, people ask me if I’m hopeful, how I stay hopeful, how I become hopeful,” Ray said, though she thinks that is the wrong question to ask. “There is this assumption that the opposite of hope is hopelessness.”
“I don’t think that we should be overcome by grief,” she continued, “and I don’t think that we should be overcome by hopelessness because I think the true answer is in love.” For Ray, writing from a place of love for the earth and sharing that love with her audience is the best way to inspire others to change the world.
“I cry,” she said. “I grieve about things, I write out my grief… but I really just try to love harder and harder.”