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Northern Minnesota writers feed creativity through nature
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Fiction writer Will Weaver is a creative writing teacher at Bemidji State University. He says his writing is heavily influenced by the landscape in which he lives. Weaver recently moved into his new home on the Mississippi River north of Bemidji. He says the natural beauty can sometimes be distracting. (MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
There's a significant community of writers living amidst the lakes and pines of northern Minnesota. Poets, novelists, nature and non-fiction writers are attracted to the serenity of the northern landscape. Many northwoods writers sustain their creativity by the natural beauty that surrounds them.

Bemidji, Minn. — Novelist Will Weaver just moved into his new home on the Mississippi River north of Bemidji. The view from his dock is breathtaking.

Weaver points across the water. "Oh, look at the eagle going by here," he says. "A mature bald eagle flying down the river, there."

Weaver grew up in northern Minnesota. His literary works, from his debut novel, "Red Earth, White Earth," to his series of books for young adults, reflect the wide open spaces of the northern prairies and the forests of the northwoods. Weaver says his writing is affected by the landscape of the region. He says the beauty can sometimes be distracting.

"Nature can be seductive," he says. "There's so many things to see if you keep your eyes open. From the smallest hatches of insects, to the eagles that just flew over our heads here. Truly, if you sit on a dock on the upper Mississippi, somewhere every five minutes something interesting will happen."

Weaver says American literature has become less to do with the outdoors, more urban. He says it's less likely an urban based writer will include descriptions of weather, birds or animals.

"It's the northern Minnesota writers who are really plugged into nature and place, and you're seeing that come through beautifully in their work," says Weaver. "I think the writers here often put more of a focus on nature and the cycles of nature in their writing."

There's a stereotype that northwoods writers are hunkered down in cabins deep in the woods. It's a romantic notion of solitude bordering on isolation. It's not true for most. But fiction writer Kevin McColley might come close. McColley lives in the woods 22 miles northwest of Bemidji. He lives in a 100 year old farmhouse he says is haunted by a fiddle-playing ghost. He has a neighbor named Ole. McColley is into sled dogs.

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Image Kevin McColley

"These dogs have a lot of value to me," says McColley. "Their mother was my first lead dog. She taught me how to run dogs, and she saved my life twice. I went through the ice."

McColley's harshly adventurous lifestyle has found its way into his writing. He just finished a novel about a man who moves to rural northern Minnesota and raises sled dogs.

McColley's work includes six novels, most notably, "Praying to a Laughing God," and his Civil War novel, "The Other Side." He's originally from southern Minnesota. McColley tried living the urban lifestyle, but he says it suffocated his writing. Despite his rural surroundings, McColley says he feels less isolated in the northwoods than anywhere else he's lived. He's nurtured by the sounds of nature.

"I hear the wind through the trees and I hear the songbirds," McColley says. "I hear the wolves singing and my dogs singing in response to them, you know. And those sounds have been here long before there were ever people here. And those are the sounds we rose out of. And those are the rhythm of who we are."

McColley says the tones of nature affect the way he writes.

"Good writing, to me, I mean writing like Faulkner or like Cormick McCarthy or like Toni Morrison, reflects those rhythms," he says. "And those rhythms arise out of the sounds that are all around us. And now why would I want to cut myself off from that? So that's why I came up here, that's why I stay here. This is my inspiration."

At Bemidji State University recently, people gathered for a northwoods writers conference. There's a strong, supportive community of writers in northern Minnesota. There are at least four active writers groups just in the Bemidji region.

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Image Susan Hauser

Poet and author Susan Hauser helped put the conference together. She says there is a literary richness in northern Minnesota. But there's nothing magical about the northwoods.

"I think the mistake comes when people think that art is created in the external setting," Hauser says. "And people frequently say to me, 'Oh, you live out in the country, you must go sit out under a tree and write.' No. Writing does not take place in the landscape you see outside your eyes. It takes place in the landscape inside your head."

Hauser says like many northwoods writers, nature feeds her creativity and her soul. That's why she chooses to live here. But Hauser says her poetry and prose would be the same if she lived in a city. She says art is created out of times of great happiness or great tragedy. It captures a moment for us and gives us some breathing room.

"Does that happen more in the northwoods? I doubt it," says Hauser. "But I personally think nature is the best metaphor for us as human beings. Because even when we have learned to live separated from nature, as we seem to be in the cities, we really can't, because we are ourselves nature."

Kent Nerburn sits in a pontoon bobbing near the shore of Lake Movil near Bemidji. Nerburn writes mostly non-fiction. His work often focuses on the spiritual nature of people and places. Nerburn says there's a strong emotional presence in the northern Minnesota landscape. It's a land that flows from pines to prairies. It's dotted with lakes. It's bisected by the north/south continental divide. Nerburn says it's an active place. He calls it the verb of human experience.

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Image Kent Nerburn

"There's a constant feeling of motion and intentionality in the land here," says Nerburn. "And also you have big forces. The big forces of the weather. I feel the Canadian prairies. I'm constantly aware of the forces of the Dakotas. I can feel the pull of the northwoods. These are big timbres, big forces, big emotional valences that move in and out here."

Nerburn says northern Minnesota's wind, water and wildlife are a sensory feast for the wordsmith.

"I think that there is great nourishment for the writer here, because your imagination is projected long distances," he says. "It isn't stopped by walls, it isn't stopped by issues of the domestic, it isn't stopped by sounds that are close, it isn't bouncing off an urban environment. There are large echoes out there, and I think that's a good space in which a writer can work."

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