“People may think you need an avalanche or rabid grizzly to create a compelling story, but really one night in a tent with wet sleeping bags, wet kindling, and a broken stove can evoke most of the complexities of human emotion.” That’s what Leigh Newman said when we asked her about the qualities that make for a good memoir dealing with the outdoors. It’s a subject that she knows well: Her 2013 memoir Still Points North focused on her experiences growing up in Alaska, and how they shaped her life as she entered adulthood.
Newman was careful to note that references to the natural world alone don’t necessarily make for a compelling book. “I prefer to avoid the word nature or to discuss nature in any way. I prefer to read books that also avoid this term. There is no nature,” she said. “There are rocks, streams, crevasses, swans, bobcats, salmon, ferns, gnats, things that live as humans live — despite all obstacles and with no sense of the pristine that civilization has sought to box them into, trapped inside a terrarium of moldy imagination.”
The same qualities that make for a good memoir of the outdoors make for a good book, period. “I’m not sure if there is a difference between an outdoor memoir and so-called indoor one,” Newman said when asked about it. “The outdoors saturate even the most suburban of backyards and most urban of terraces. What makes a story involving life outside a building so meaningful and compelling is the person who invites you to confront the particular, beautiful loneliness of understanding that you may love a moss covered rock, but the rock doesn’t love you. It will let you sit on it. It will afford the view of the canyon. But that’s as far as the intimacy goes.”