Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.

C.M. Mayo < For Writers < Resources < Craft <


A handout with examples and exercises from
C.M. Mayo's writing workshop
as artist-in-residence at
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
May 2017
For more resources for writers click here.
We can think of the best writing about nature and travel, whether fiction or nonfiction, as instructions for the reader to form in his or her mind a "vivid dream," an experience of the world. How do we, whether as readers, or as any human being (say, folding laundry or maybe digging for worms with a stick), experience anything? Of course, we experience the world through our bodies, that is to say, through our senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing-and I would add a "gut" or intuitive sense as well.
From John Gardner's The Art of Fiction:
"In the artist's recreation of the world we are enabled to see the world."
See "Techniques of Fiction: The Number One Technique in the Supersonic Overview"
See more recommended books on craft.
From Kenneth White's Across the Territories: Travels from Orkney to Rangiroa:
"[Y]ou have to go out. You have to open space, and deepen place. Fill your eyes with the changing light."
From a letter by Anton Chekov:
"In descriptions of nature one should seize upon minutiae, grouping them so that when, having read a passage, you close your eyes, a picture if formed. For example, you will evoke a moonlit night by writing that on the mill dam the glass fragments of a broken bottle flashed like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled along like a ball..."
See "Emulation Exercises"
From Bruce Berger's The Telling Distance: Conversations with the American Desert:
"Silence and slow time out of ancient seabeds, the sandstone heaved into red walls blackened with lichen and rain, stained with the guano of hawks and eagles."
From Gary Paul Nabhan's Desert Terroir: Exploring the Unique Flavors and Sundry Places of the Borderlands:
"I rub a few leaves between my thumb and forefinger, and their fragrance suddenly pervades the dry air, as if I had just broken a bottle of perfume against one of the sharp basalt rocks at my feet."
From Mariano Azuela's The Underdogs (Los de abajo):
"Below, at the bottom of the canyon, through the veil of rain, could be seen straight, swaying palms, their angled tops rocking back and forth until a strong gust of wind blew their foliage open into green fans."
From Ellen Meloy's Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild:


"...day's end pulls the buttery sunlight out of the canyon but does not lessen the furnace effect. High walls of stone hold a radiating heat that will last nearly until morning. I place my sleeping pad close to the river's edge to make use of the swamp cooler effect. It is not usual to wake up, walk a few yards, and slip into the cool garment of night water."

From Terry Tempest Williams' The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks (from the chapter on Big Bend National Park):
"The desert is most alive at night... A flurry of moths becomes a white-winged blizzard; stalks of sotol glow like lit tapers on either side of the road. For eighty miles, we never pass a car."
From Susan Shelby Magoffin's diary of 1846-47, Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico:
"Passed a great many buffalo, (some thousands) they crossed our road frequently within two or three hundred yards. They are very ugly, ill-shapen things with their long shaggy hair over their heads, and the great hump on their backs, and they look so droll running."
See my blog post about this extraordinary diary.

Here I provide my own answers from when I was walking a few days ago on Pine Springs Trail late in the afternoon. About half way down the trail, I stopped, sat down on a handy bench, and did these three exercises in my notebook. You can do this right now—or, perhaps at some moment while you are on a hike today.

Note: This is not necessarily about writing some splendid polished bit, but rather, simply noticing detail and capturing it on paper. In other words, you're generating raw material you might use later.


Pick an area that most people would decribe with one color,
say, a yellow wall, or a green hillside.
How many colors do you actually see?

kelly green
mint green
straw green
silvery green


What two things do you notice in the distance?
What two things do you notice very close to you?
What two things do you notice behind you?

In the distance:
The hillside with bands of shadow

Nearby: Birdsong; shadow of the sumac tree

Behind: Sounds of cars and trucks on the highway; a cloud that looks like a squished frog


.Where is the light coming light?
What effects does it cause?

The sun is low, almost 2/3 of the way from the top of the sky to the edge of the mountains; it is on my left, which is west.

Shadows: falling to my right. Sumac tree casts a shadow that alsmot seems to have polkadots, like lace. It is shivering. The ovals of light shine like coins. One side of the sumac is sunny, bright, the other looks gray and cold.

The sotol plant across the pathit's shivering. It's tips are silvered as if wet.

For oodles more writing exercises, visit my workshop page which includes "Giant Golden Buddha" and 364 More Free Five Minute Writing Exercises.

See also my frequently updated list of
recommended literary travel memoirs.