In May 2007, The Monthly published a story by the novelist Richard Flanagan about an “epidemic of madness”. It’s a gripping story in which a greedy logging company sets out to strip every inch of profit from the ancient forests of Tasmania. There’s an arrogant company boss who sends two bottles of spring water to a family whose well was poisoned by the company’s careless logging practices. There are Government officials willing to turn a blind eye, accept bribes, and pass legislation against the interests of the state. There are journalists and citizens cowed into silence by a state policy that stifles free speech and punishes dissent. Everything you might expect from a bestselling thriller or a Hollywood blockbuster.
It’s just that “Out of Control” is not a work of fiction. It’s a piece of journalism about the very real Tasmanian forests and the terrible human greed at the heart of their destruction.
When I read the article originally, my palms perspired and I found myself sputtering in indignation. How could this be happening? I wondered. Should big business and Government be allowed to get this cosy? Why are the interests of a single, family-owned business being put before the interests of the citizens of Tasmania, who are overwhelmingly opposed to old-growth logging? Flanagan’s essay is impassioned and compelling; it’s one I’ve never forgotten.
Why is that? Why does this article succeed? What is it about Flanagan’s style, tone and language that makes “Out of Control” so potent and so memorable?
Dr. Inga Simpson, a writer passionate about the environment, has given a lot of thought to the different ways of using language to promote a cause. “I worked in Government for 17 years. It’s all about word-choice, structure, and tone. Getting it wrong means you risk losing your reader. And if that reader is a Departmental Secretary or a Minister, you’ve wasted your time, lost your influence.”
She explains, “Flanagan is writing to inform and to persuade. He writes for a general audience who may or may not be sympathetic to conservation issues. So he gets in there right away and positions the reader with strong, emotional language. He sets up the two sides and makes it very difficult for you to be with the loggers. Once he has you onside, Flanagan’s writing becomes almost machine-like, spitting out fact after fact, incident after incident, like…” She breaks off, searching for the right words, then continues wryly, “For want of a better image—like some kind of wood chipper.”
At Olvar Wood, Simpson runs a retreat for writers called “Wild Writing”. Set in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, surrounded by native bushland and scenic views, the retreat combines her passion for the environment with her love for words.
It was initially set up as a celebration of wilderness writing.
“There’s so much wonderful writing about nature right now,” Simpson enthuses. “One bookstore owner I know says that attaching ‘wild’ to a book title sees it walking out the door.”
But she began to see that it was possible to go a step further.
“It’s one thing to use nature as inspiration for poetry, fiction or creative non-fiction; but I got to thinking, why not also use this ‘wild’ writing to advocate for the very thing that inspired it?”
The retreat is the culmination of a five-week course designed to appeal to individuals that work—and write—across a broad range of ‘wilderness’ issues. The course explores nature writing, protest literature, popular science writing, and wild fiction, drawing upon the best examples of these works to improve writing style and enhance the possibility for engagement.
Participants are invited to submit a piece of work up to 25,000 words, which will receive extensive evaluation and feedback. Simpson also gives instruction in a variety of areas: offering advice on effective research methods and possible structures for the work; giving tips on how to compose beautiful sentences and engage an audience; and, of course, suggesting ways to effectively lobby Government and industry.
“I’ve done a lot of thinking about the best ways to get a point across,” says Simpson. “If I chain myself to a tree, I might save that one tree (and probably get myself arrested). But if I reach the right people with my words, I might change a decision or a policy that saves a forest.”
And the future as well.