Writing Lab for the Week of April 10th // Open Until Thursday, April 11th, 5:00PM EST
Welcome to the Writing Labs – this week Kate Siobhan and Noah Pelletier will be giving critiques on your work.
IMPORTANT: The lab is not meant for first drafts of assignments. Due to recent curriculum changes, we will be accepting original drafts of your coursework here in the writing labs while they remain in their current form. However, please pay special attention to the assignment parameters. If the assignment has a word limit, stay within that word limit. Disregarding assignment parameters may disqualify your work from critique.
What you submit here should be your best work. In other words, please do not dash something off quickly in order to meet the lab deadline. We do our best in here to give comprehensive feedback and hope you will respect this by meeting our best effort with your own.
Assignment One, Assignment Six, and Assignment Twelve are not eligible for critique here unless they have already been critiqued by faculty and revised.
+ Reply to this thread before the deadline. Posting your own thread might cause you to miss the deadline, so check and make sure you’ve posted a reply to this thread — not a new thread.
+ You must have already completed and gotten feedback on your first assignment before being eligible to post to the lab. You may post revisions of assignments or any other work you would like critiqued.
+ Please post questions about your work with the link to the work or the work itself.
+ Please proofread your work and keep typos to a minimum so we can focus on issues like narrative and character instead of it’s and its.
+ Please limit yourself to one piece of work for review. Your piece doesn’t need to be a course assignment. It can be anything travel writing related you’d like feedback on. However, if it is an assignment or assignment revision, please be sure to let us know for which chapter you wrote it.
+ Please note that revisions from this lab will have to wait for critique until next week’s lab. We can’t review your piece twice in the same lab, in other words.
You have until 5:00PM EST on Thursday, April 11th to post your work. If you don’t know what time that is, it’s this time here.
Here’s a piece I’d love some feedback on . It has not been used for any Assignment. I really want to write a good piece on this subject. I don’t think I’ve ‘hit the spot’ but haven’t quite figured out why. Any help appreciated.
Trekking mountain gorillas is one of the rarest wildlife experiences on earth. Just 800 of these magnificent creatures remain on the planet, ranging across the Virunga mountains which span the borders of Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. Last year I fulfilled a long held wish to visit the gorillas during a trip to Rwanda.
My day started at the Volcanoes National Park headquarters, 2100 metres up in the Virunga mountains. I was entertained with traditional song and dance by a local group, as park rangers organised me and my fellow trekkers into groups and briefed us on the gorillas we would be visiting. There are eight habituated groups of gorillas on the Rwandan side of the Virungas, and a maximum of eight people can trek each group on any one day. That means just 56 people a day can visit the Rwandan gorillas, paying the princely sum of $750 to do so for just one hour.
My group were a typically eclectic bunch – a recently married South African couple in their twenties, a pair of determined Aussies in their late sixties, a trio of middle aged French women, utterly enthralled by the beauty of Rwanda (magnifique was their unanimous judgement!), and me, a single Brit in his thirties swapping my regular wildlife fix on the East African savannah for a very different experience in the rain forests of Rwanda. We were to trek the Sabyinyo group, named after the Sabyinyo volcano which means ‘old man’s teeth’. The Sabyinyo group consists of 8 gorillas, including Guhonda, the largest silverback of all the gorilla groups in Rwanda.
After a short drive from the park headquarters to the trail head, we were soon walking through potato fields in glorious early morning sunshine. Local farmers looked on at us curiously, no doubt wondering why all these mzungu (Swahili for ‘white person’) had travelled so far and paid so much to climb a mountain – literally – to get a glimpse of their gorilla neighbours. As I looked up, all around me were green fields, imperious mountain peaks, and clear deep blue skies. The only thing matching the scenery was the peace and tranquillity. The silence was broken only by bird song, and the distant noise of local children playing.
Soon we crossed the boundary into the national park, and began trekking in earnest. For almost two hours we stooped under branches, dodged nettles, and navigated up and down the mountain side grapping trees, shrubs and each other to stay upright, until, just as our stamina was starting to fade, we are told by our rangers that we were very close to the gorillas. After some hard trekking the sense of anticipation amongst the group was palpable.
We stopped to catch a breath, share a smile and check that we were all fit and well. We were, and it was now time to meet the gorillas. The rangers asked us to leave our bags behind and with cameras in hand we moved forward through the forest.
At first, we were limited to short glimpses. It was a wonderful sight but at the same time nerve racking – the gorillas were all around us moving through the thick bush. They appeared here and there, often very close, and then disappeared again after a few seconds. After a short while we were ushered further down the mountain side, carefully following the guidance of our expert rangers, and soon we came to a clearing in the forest. The gorillas had now settled and the family were together, including the Silverback – all 180kgs of him. Whenever he came close my heartbeat quickened and I had to momentarily fight the temptation to turn and run. Fortunately, gorillas are remarkably gentle unless threatened, and are well used to human company. Being so close to the Silverback was a thrilling moment, but it was perhaps bettered by the two baby gorillas that played, tumbled and fell in front of us. They play fought just like our own children do, except cuter, and probably better behaved too!
Soon – all too soon – our one hour with the gorillas was over. We gathered our belongings and left them to continue their day. Our trek back to the trailhead was much shorter and soon we are again walking through the potato fields in still brilliant, if now late morning sunshine, inspired by our time with the gorillas and holding memories that will last for many years to come.
This is my Chapter 2 assignment. I went back through and tried to cut down on some of the water talk after Noah made the suggestion, did I take enough out? Any other feedback is also greatly appreciated.
When I walked out the door at Fisherman’s Camp a light breeze scrambled the few falling snowflakes, sending them in every direction before they came to rest on the ground. The air was barely below freezing and the wet slush on the black asphalt hadn’t frozen. A stream of brown melt water ran down the pavement on the right side of the road. It was quiet except for occasional cars driving by. Their tires threw a misty slush into the air, accompanied by a sound similar to static on a television set. It was a perfect display of the Doppler Effect.
I waded through a slushy puddle that formed a barrier between the Fisherman’s Camp parking lot, and the road. Equipped with old made in the U.S.A. brown Xtra Tuf rubber boots and a heavy yellow rain jacket, I was equipped for whatever wet weather the coastal climate threw at me. A bald eagle glided in circles over the old tin sided buildings that made up the Copper River Seafoods cannery. The buildings were perched over the water on a mass of dripping, wooden pilings high above the ocean tides. The bald eagle screeched a couple times before flying over a small hill towards the ferry dock. At a low spot in the road, the snow melt ran off the shoulder of the road and disappeared under the snow. On the other side of the road a pile of half buried crab pots sat rusting in the constant weather of Cordova, Alaska. Twenty foot high piles of wooden pallets, property of the cannery, waited to be loaded with boxes of processed fish, and shipped. It wasn’t salmon season yet, so the cannery was quiet and lacked its usual fishy smell.
Just past the cannery the road curved slightly uphill as it cut through the hillside. Moss grew on the man made cliffs and little piles of saturated snow sat on the rocks that were flat enough to hold it. Water ran down the other dark rocks and dripped into the wet snow bank at the bottom of the cliffs. The slush on the side of the road had started to freeze and made a crunching sound as I walked. This was soon drowned out by the roar of the power plant on the other side of the hill. As soon as I came out of the road cut I had a view across Orca Inlet. The snowy mountains of Hawkins Island loomed over the blue green gray water. The orange windsock barely stayed aloft at the empty ferry dock.
The road dropped down past the ferry dock and power plant and between a treed hillside on the right and the dry dock on the left. My view was blocked by big steel shipping containers stacked on top of one another. One of them even had a pile of huge tires on top. The last stack of tan colored containers I recognized. They had been the bunk houses for Trident’s cannery last summer. The door and little windows had covers duct taped on to protect them in their dormant state.
The noise of the power plant dwindled as I walked past a container lift and rows of boats sitting on wooden blocks. A group of men were hard at work on a landing craft, the Alaskan Challenger. Their voices carried clearly through the cold air until they were muted by the sound of water cascading over sharp, black rocks.
Past the boatyard the road turned inland along the contours of Hippy Cove. The sounds of met at work gave way to the slight roar of little waves breaking on the black rocky beach. The beach was littered with driftwood, popweed, and old rusting steel. Three bald eagles soared over the ocean in the distance while sea otters swam lazily in the bay. One had a pup on its belly, a dark, round ball a little smaller than a soccer ball. Closer to shore a group of six or seven ducks took turns dipping their heads under the water. As soon as they popped up they shook, making the feathers on their heads and necks fluff up. They stayed fluffed for only a moment before it was their turn to dunk again.
From the middle of Hippy Cove I could see all the way to the top of the closest mountains that jut out of the ground just past the cove. They were white from the recent snowfall and the sky was a cold gray behind them. The road runs between the ocean and a pond in Hippy Cove. In August, pink salmon swim under the road and up the little creek, rotting as they struggle to get back to their spawning grounds. I watched them one year with a group of cannery workers. They picked up the dying fish and took pictures with them before dropping them back into the shallow creek. This time of year the pond is mostly snow and ice covered, with small patches of green black water showing through.
The bare willows allow for more visibility into the cove than in the summer. I could see the log sauna up against the hillside, normally masked by the leaves on the brush. I looked for the best place to build my camp when the snow melted for the summer and chose a place left of the green school bus. It is marked by a big wooden spool that I remembered using as a table when we had a camp fire there. I remembered walking through the trees to get there and seeing lots of open spots for tents. It would be the ideal spot, hidden from the eyes of the road, yet not so far away that it’s hard to get to. My nose ran from the cold, and before I got to the community burn pile I left the protection of the cove and was hit by a cold wind. I pulled the draw strings of my yellow rain coat hood tight around my face and hid in the warm cocoon. I brought my hands up into my warm sleeves and turned around to head back to my warm room at Fisherman’s Camp.
You said: “I really want to write a good piece on this subject. I don’t think I’ve ‘hit the spot’ but haven’t quite figured out why.”
This is a common concern for the travel writer. You’ve had this amazing experience–a life changing experience–and then when you sit down to write it later the magic doesn’t transfer to words. What happened?!
I think you approached this story as a tourist, still ‘inspired’ by these ‘magnificent’ creatures, rather than a writer. One of the hardest jobs a writer has is picking the story they want to write. Having said that, I don’t know what this story is about. Trekking? Gorillas? You? What do you want the reader to take away after reading it? The mere act of going on a trek does not a story make.
Exercise: In one sentence, sum up your story, writing it as if it was going to be on a book cover.
(Think of the physical, and mental journey that the reader will go on.)
Bonus exercise: Please read David Foster Wallace’s “A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again.” He goes on a cruise, a very expensive cruise, and yet the story isn’t about the cruise, per se, though he writes extensively about it, it’s his perception of the cruise, the artificial nature of the experience (false happiness of the crew, etc) and how it affects him, the mental skeletons it rips out of his closet.
To take your story to the next level, I need to know how the gorillas affected you. You wrote: “ I had to momentarily fight the temptation to turn and run.” This is a natural, primal reaction. I need to know what your sophisticated brain thought of these creatures, this tour, whatever. Go on your first instinct, write that down, and then ask yourself, “What makes me say that?” Write that answer down, and ask yourself that question again. Repeat, delving deeper. The thing that surprises you the most is probably what the story should be about.
Okay, that’s the hard part. Now, some topical things on wording…
Here: “My group were a typically eclectic bunch “ What is typical? Compared to what? This doesn’t work because it’s too vague. Describe the group with details (a/s/l) and things that hint toward their personality. Maybe, for example, a woman went trekking in a pair of Prada boots. The reader’s mind fills in the rest: Oh, she’s a rich, privileged, adventurous, etc. traveler.
Here: “Local farmers looked on at us curiously, no doubt wondering why all these mzungu (Swahili for ‘white person’) had travelled so far and paid so much to climb a mountain – literally – to get a glimpse of their gorilla neighbours.”
There’s a problem with you ‘speaking for’ the local farmers here. How can you know what another person is thinking? Did you interview these farmers? This is a lofty perspective, and while I know you didn’t mean for it to sound this way, it come across as elitist. Here’s an article by Matador senior editor http://matadornetwork.com/notebook/1-terribly-overrated-travel-article-and-8-ways-it-couldve-been-less-lame/
Here: “Fortunately, gorillas are remarkably gentle unless threatened, and are well used to human company.” Why is it fortunate that gorillas are used to human company? What makes you say that? This sounds like a tragic (though true) statement of the times we live in.
Wayne, you do a very good job of crafting scene and scenery. My suggestion is for you to write in honest-to-God scenes, like you do here: “ we came to a clearing in the forest. The gorillas had now settled and the family were together,…” Start from the beginning, taking us scene-by-scene, like a movie, telling your story from ground level. Nice work.
Okay, so there’s still quite a bit of ‘water talk’ but I don’t think that’s going to be a problem at all. You can take the lines of this project and inject them into a real story. Does that make sense? The point of this thing is to concentrate on scenery, which you have done well. Scenery in writing is a lot like the music score in a movie–a necessary enhancement, but people will be more interested in the story.
Here: “…hid in the warm cocoon. I brought my hands up into my warm sleeves and turned around to head back to my warm room at Fisherman’s Camp.” Make sure not to double up adjectives (warm) unless you have a good reason (such as wordplay, or as an allusion to a previously mentioned part). Otherwise it comes across as lazy.
I don’t want you to worry too much about things like ‘overdoing’ the water thing if that’s what you’re seeing. This is an assignment. Write it every which way, and then put that in your tool belt, so to speak. Then when you start writing stories, you will have a smorgasbord of descriptions to interweave and really nail the setting. Nice work.
Can anyone tell me when the next writing lab opens? Do they take place every week, or if not is there a schedule posted somewhere?
Apologies if I’m repeating a question or have missed the info somewhere – I haven’t been making as much use of this great forum as I’d have liked- so am not quite up to speed on how it works!