If you want to be an artist and a craftsperson, you have to be able to understand a piece of artwork as a result of specific choices made by the writer. The other side of that coin is I do want to maintain some of the magic and mystery and the sort of intangibility of the art-making process.
We are who we are because of where we are.
This writer's adage is the foundation of the writing of Assistant Professor of English Claire Vaye Watkins. While many authors start with character or plot, Watkins starts with the setting.
"I can't begin to understand who a person is if I don't understand what they see when they wake up in the morning, or what the air feels like or are there leaves on the trees or not, or are there trees at all?" she says. Much of Watkins' work is set in the desert country of her home state of Nevada.
Her upcoming collection of short stories, called Battleborn, is due to be published in Winter 2012. The title comes from a nickname for Nevada, given because Nevada became a state during the Civil War. Watkins is now writing her first novel, set in the Mojave Desert, California and southern Nevada.
Despite her own pattern of writing about places she knows deeply, Watkins tries to free her students from being limited by their own experience. She finds the notion that one must personally experience something before writing about it troubling, especially for young writers. "It ignores imagination and research and discipline and empathy," she says. "I will encourage my students to see that the world is a possibility."
Watkins also sees part of her role as a teacher to demystify art making for students. "We tend to sort of exalt it, and that's great, I'm all about exalting art, but if you want to be an artist and a craftsperson, you have to be able to understand a piece of artwork as a result of specific choices made by the writer," she says. "The other side of that coin is I do want to maintain some of the magic and mystery and the sort of intangibility of the art-making process."
While Watkins will always be grounded in the American West, she is already exploring her new environment in Lewisburg and the central Pennsylvania region surrounding Bucknell's campus. "Lewisburg is really so bizarre to me, compared to Nevada. It's green, there are weird bugs, and there are these little tiny frogs when I take a walk in the evening or go running," she says. "It is exciting to get to learn a whole new ecosystem, a whole new geology, a whole new history."
Posted Sept. 27, 2011; updated June 2013
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