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by Writing Workshops Staff

5 months ago

Meet the Teaching Artist: Creating a Sense of Place in Fiction, Memoir, & Nonfiction with James Sturz

by Writing Workshops Staff

5 months ago

Meet the Teaching Artist: Creating a Sense of Place in Fiction, Memoir, & Nonfiction with James Sturz

by Writing Workshops Staff

5 months ago

Discover the transformative power of settings in storytelling with James Sturz, a celebrated novelist and magazine writer whose work has been published by The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, Outside, Men’s Journal, National Geographic Adventure, among others.

In his upcoming six-week Zoom workshop, James will help writers discover the art of Creating a Sense of Place in Fiction, Memoir, and Nonfiction. Through expert guidance, participants will learn to infuse their writing with vibrant settings that resonate with voice and mood, transcending mere descriptions to evoke immersive atmospheres.

Hi, James. Please introduce yourself to our audience.

Hi, I’m James. I’ve been writing magazine articles and fiction since my first pieces ran in 1992, back when I was young Vanity Fair staffer in New York City. Then I left to write freelance full-time and I haven’t looked back. Some hundred-plus articles, essays, and short stories later, for more than 90 different publications, including The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, Outside, Men’s Journal, National Geographic Adventure, Coastal Living, Yoga Journal, Glamour, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Saveur. I’ve just come out with a new novel, Underjungle, a tale of love, loss, family, and war—set entirely underwater. So War and Peace, but three-thousand feet deeper. And considerably shorter. And maybe a little funnier, too. I’m now based in Hawaii, where the water is warmer than in NYC. And also where there are wild pigs. Beyond writing, I’m a PADI divemaster, free diver, Explorer’s Club fellow, and avid trail runner.

What made you want to teach this specific class? Is it something you are focusing on in your own writing practice? Have you noticed a need to focus on this element of craft? Or is this just your jam and you love it?

I focused on travel writing for many years, especially between the publication of my first novel, Sasso, a literary thriller set in the cave homes of Basilicata, Italy, and Underjungle, which came out last year. Creating a sense of place has been the soul of so many travel pieces I’ve written. But what I learned from the process, was that I could also turn settings into characters, themselves. If you look at a series of landscape photographs, it doesn’t matter how beautiful they are. After a while, you’ll start to grow bored, even though you’ll know in your heart the photos are stunning. That’s because the locations likely lack narrative and depth. So this class is about how to make your locations as important as any other part of your story. And how that will make the whole of your stories more resonant, as well.

Give us a breakdown of how the course is going to go. What can the students expect? What is your favorite part about this class you've dreamed up?

Over the course of six weeks, we’ll explore how to make your settings come alive, combining both fiction- and travel-writing techniques. I’ll give you tools, but I don’t expect you to write like me. We all have our own styles and ideas, which is what keeps the written world fascinating. When I first started writing about the water, I studied how other writers did it—but then I had to figure out how I wanted to do it, myself. So this class will be tools plus discovery plus practice. Plus also figuring out what kinds of environments speak to you the most. Identifying your strengths.

What was your first literary crush?

I was both captivated and devastated reading The Chronicles of Narnia as a boy. Then, as an adult, studying creative writing in college, I discovered Leonard Michaels, and I was fascinated by the spareness, rhythm, and power of his prose style, particularly in his collection I Would Have Saved Them If I Could and his memoir/novel Sylvia.

What are you currently reading?

I’ve been deep into underwater and ocean books since I stated writing Underjungle. Then before it came out, I even wrote a piece for Lit Hub about eight books with intelligent sea creatures as characters. I’m still splashing around in that world, so I’m actually reading three books right now: Brad Fox’s The Bathysphere Book, Ray Nayler’s The Mountain in the Sea, and Neil Shusterman’s Challenger Deep, although the last one turns out not really to be about the ocean, at all.

How do you choose what you're working on? When do you know it is the next thing you want to write all the way to THE END?

I don’t have a specific formula. When editors propose magazine pieces to me, I generally say yes, because it seems like good business sense. But for books, it’s important to be vested, since you’ll be working on your project for a long time—and then even longer. My rule of thumb is that pieces of writing only have value once they’re finished. So it’s the same question you ask yourself about a significant other. Can I see myself with this person over time, even once the book comes out?

Where do you find inspiration?

I find inspiration in the environment around me. I love the ocean, but I also find inspiration on land, including in cities (after all, I was born and raised in New York—specifically, the Island of Manhattan). But settings are just the start. They are the seeds. We live in a world that tends to downplay the value of thinking, but you need to give yourself time for it. And then, like old-time explorers, to make discoveries. And to figure out what new connections you can make. How you can grow your seeds.

What is the best piece of writing wisdom you've received that you can pass along to our readers? How did it impact your work? Why has this advice stuck with you?

In Everything is Illuminated’s acknowledgments, Jonathan Safran Foer thanks his editor for this advice: Feel more. Two words can barely say more, so I’ll only add: Be brave. And Tell the truth. Write from your heart, without fear of judgment, including your own.

What is your favorite book to recommend on the craft of writing? Why this book?

John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist answers many of the questions a budding writer can have—I first read it college when I suspected I was headed in that direction. Years later, Michael Korda’s memoir Another Life about his time as a book editor dazzled me with the (then) publishing world’s multiple-martini life. But if I’m going to answer usefully here, the best books to study are the ones by the authors who move you the most and whose prose makes you jump. Devour their chapters, but also their sentences.

Bonus question: What’s your teaching vibe?

Writing and teaching are both about sharing and learning. I’ll tell you what I know, but I also look forward to learning what you know, too. There is no good writing without curiosity—and the desire to find out what comes next. That’s true both for the writer and reader.

Learn more about working with James:

You can learn more about James's upcoming 6-Week Zoom workshop, Creating a Sense of Place in Fiction, Memoir, and Nonfiction, and sign up if interested.


Instructor James Sturz is the author of the novels UNDERJUNGLE, set entirely underwater, and SASSO, set in the cave homes of Basilicata, Italy. His magazine and newspaper articles have run in more than 90 publications in the U.S. and abroad, including in The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Outside, Men’s Journal, National Geographic Adventure, New York Magazine, Travel + Leisure, Playboy, Afar, Saveur, Organic Spa, and Yoga Journal, among many others. Sturz's work has been published in 18 countries, translated into nine languages, and been anthologized in ITALY: THE BEST TRAVEL WRITING FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES and BEST FOOD WRITING 2007, among others.


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