Field Notes #5: Writers’ Workshop with Terry Tempest Williams

Saturday, February 16: I drove to Bluff, Utah to attend Terry Tempest William’s writers’ workshop at the Desert Rose Motel.  This event was part of the Bluff Arts Festival held back in November, when Terry cancelled because of illness.  In his introduction to her reading the night before, Father Ian of St. Christopher’s Episcopalian Mission in Bluff said that she had only just recently recovered from that illness, which had been quite serious, and had come to fulfill her obligation to the Arts Festival.  Her reading to a packed house the night before had sparked in me high hopes that I might learn something important, which is usually the case for me at these workshops.

In the conference room of the Desert Rose, I sat next to Carrie Ann, who I recognized from the front desk of the post office in the town where I live.  An U. S. Postal Service employee and aspiring nature writer.  Who knew?  A couple dozen others sat at the round tables.  Most of the audience was older, graying, some folks had silvered over completely, with a few colorful heads of youthful hair dotted about.  Terry busied herself arranging the room more to her liking.  She perched on a table to provide herself a better view of the audience and to provide her audience a better view of her.

She began by asking each of us to introduce ourselves and tell what question we had brought to the workshop.  “Take two minutes and self-edit,” she said.  I was second in order.  With such a full room, two minutes seemed a bit generous, so I kept it under two.  I said my name and where I lived.  Told how I had only moved to San Juan County recently with my husband and three children.  Said I had come to the workshop with two questions.  Explained that in ecological discourse, we hear all the time about sustainable this and sustainable that.  I wanted to explore questions about sustainable language, language that offers people raw material they can use in the making of the stories of their own lives.  The second question I had was how could I promote the reading and writing of nature literature in my Mormon community and among my Mormon neighbors.

During the last nine years, I’ve attended several writers’ workshops and never self-identified as a Mormon.  To me, it feels rather like telling your astrological sign: “Hello, I’m a Pisces.”  The only purpose I could imagine it having would be to allow other astrological signs around the room to orient themselves in relation to you, especially bad-tempered Tauruses: “Yum, a Pisces.”

This time was different.  Not necessarily through any fault of his own, Mitt Romney’s campaign had hung bull’s eyes on Mormon backs.  Arrows of bad language had flown thickly from those inclined to shoot at moving targets.  One sees similar behavior among the folk who drive into the desert with guns desiring to shoot something — anything.  From my back porch, I see their headlights and spotlights out on the sage flats at night and can hear their gunshots.  But even before Romney’s campaign, some of my Mormon friends told me they won’t go to the Bluff Arts Festival because they’ve suffered ridicule there.  I self-identified as a Mormon up front to express my confidence in and to the group at hand. 

Terry’s reply to my Mormons and nature writing question was quick: “Stories,” she said.  “Give them stories.” 

Stories.  Yes.  I know.  But what kind and how? 

I kept my thoughts to myself.   Two minutes.  Besides, it’s my responsibility to figure that out, not hers.      

Introductions and questions continued.  Even at two minutes, going around the room like that would have taken nearly an hour.  What happened reminded me of a Mormon testimony meeting gone wrong (you might’ve seen them).  The preambles became longer and longer; people built their questions out of more and more words.  Obviously, some were just then forming their questions, sorting through the building blocks of their vocabulary and rhetorical intent, groping for the right language, or failing to find it, grabbing for something that came close and not feeling satisfied.  Many were recent retirees who had poured tremendous energy into their jobs and were now looking for new directions to channel their urgent and matured sense of responsibility.  Several expressed feelings of being lost.  One workshop-goer said that she felt she was in transition.  Terry asked, “Who in here feels like they’re in transition?”  Everyone’s hand went up, mine included. 

And so the introductions went, some people taking upwards of five minutes.  Even when they ended, their words hung in the air like smoke, thoughts unfinished, intentions frustrated and clenched up like fists.  I thought I understood one of Terry’s goals in devoting so much of the workshop’s time to this business.  She was tuning her ear to the community in the room and hoping we were doing the same.  That is one of her themes in her writing: community, how to form it, how to exist within it, how to write to it.  After each person introduced him- or herself and stated his/her question, Terry responded, trying to give everybody something.  Here are some of the things she said.

“We create out of community, which is dynamic and erosional, like the landscape around us.”

“Ask: What is the story that is in me that is alive?”

She cited an author whose name escapes me, a person who had proposed “a template for apprenticeship”: The Book of the Dead — “The only story worth telling is the one that threatens to kill us”; The Book of Dreams — turn control of the story over to your subconscious; The School of Roots — we’re grounded in real place, in real time, and in real examples.”

She spoke of the “spiritual quality” of writing nature literature.  “Writing,” she said, “Is a spiritual practice.  What is your intent?”  Intention, she said, interweaves with craft.  Education is important.  Fact matter — they’re the “delicious details.”

She told how writers she responds to the most are writing about community.  But in order to write about community, she said, you are pulled out of community, which is a dangerous place to be.

“Walking,” she said, “is an important process for writing.”

She cited Edith Cobb, who had interviewed and researched geniuses looking for characteristics common to them all.  The only one she found was that all of them had had peak experiences in nature at an early age.

Terry posed, “What is authentic on the page and how do we recognize it?” She urged attendees to write from their bodies.  “My body doesn’t lie,” she said.  “What is the language we’d speak if there was nobody there to correct us?”  Citing a French writer whose name escapes me, she said that men should write from “here” (their heads), while women should write from here (lower abdomen, where their reproductive organs are). 

I thought it a noble business, what she was doing and how she was doing it, but I’d been up several times during the night changing my disabled daughter’s diapers.  The last time, I hadn’t gotten back to sleep.  Tired, I began losing my stamina to listen as closely as I knew Terry hoped we would.  The themes began to sound remarkably similar: I’m changing direction; I’m disoriented; I don’t know where to go in my language.  Terry extended her mind to each one, offering possibilities. 

On top of my weariness, the only ill person in the room had chosen to sit beside me and was coughing and wheezing.  Illness poses a harsh threat to my household.  I looked around the room for escape but all seats were filled. 

Terry watches her audience closely.  Between visible signs of audience fatigue and her own urgency to press forward, she made an example of one attendee who rambled, cutting her off.   People picked up their feet after that, but still by the end, only 45 minutes remained in our three-hour workshop.

She called a break and gave us an assignment.  “Go outside and walk around and pick up the first object that strikes you.  It could be an external object or an object in here” (she indicated her chest).  “Bring it back and take twenty minutes to write about it.” 

Being a veteran of workshops focused on writing about nature, I found this activity familiar and easy.  Relieved to stretch my legs and escape my coughing neighbor, I headed out the motel’s back door.

I hadn’t taken two steps off the porch when movement caught my eye.  A lizard, the first of spring, darted across one of the porch’s planks and turned to look at me.   Something in me woke up at the sight of it, though I looked barely five seconds, not wishing to pose a threat to the lizard who, living on the back porch of a motel, had enough cause for concern.  Couldn’t take it inside anyway.  But as I wandered around the motel a few minutes more then went inside, my thinking circled back again and again to the lizard.  The lizard was it, but what chord had it struck?  I returned to the conference room, picked a spot against the wall away from my contagious neighbor, and leaned back to write.

The words danced around a feeling I’ve had every spring for the last few years.  The first signs of spring — the arrival of migratory birds, the emergence of lizards, the early eruptions of leaves like green sparks from the tips of cottonwood branches — have begun taking me by surprise, like this lizard did.   I began drafting a map of this feeling, centered on the lizard.

Terry called time.  She told us she wanted each of us to read a single line from what we’d written.  The goal was to construct a “community narrative.”   As someone read a line, anybody who thought he or she had a line that would fit with the previous person’s should jump in and read it.

The reading began, taking a course similar to the introductions, including that several people couldn’t hold themselves to one line.  They felt driven to say something and one line wasn’t enough.  Their desire to mean something, to give feeling and thought body and brain, to get across to others, was palpable.  Themes of wanting to connect, of longing to defend beloved ground, of not know which way to turn repeated frequently. 

My line was a bit different and I wasn’t sure how to fit it in.  I decided that the next time someone read a line speaking to their desire to get a sense of direction, I’d read mine.

A minute later, that very theme came swimming past.  I read my words:

A compass needle, a lizard, spins a half turn to keep me in sight, tweaking my sense of direction: Spring is coming — that way.

Cries of delight erupted around the room, surprising me almost as much as the lizard did. 

Wow!  These people are easy to please!

We finished up quickly, then Terry gave new instructions.  She wanted us to go outside and engage in a group bow to “honor the work done here today.”  A group bow.  This was new to me.  And the concept of honoring is one I’ve run into over and over again down here in the desert. 

Recently, I wrote a script for the local storytelling festival.  When I e-mailed it to the Navajo woman heading the committee, she called to ask me to make a few changes.  Could I change the reference to a northern European fairytale about a mother goat rescuing her kids from the belly of a wolf who had eaten them alive?  “Navajos can’t hear stories about things threatening their livestock.”  I did.   Could I add words about how the storytellers telling the tales are honoring those from whom they learned the tales?   She drawled the word “honor” out, “aaw-norrr,” as if she were trying to teach me how to say it properly.  I thought, I’m hearing something unfamiliar, so I followed her instructions closely to get the words right.

Now there Terry was asking us to “honor the work done here today.”  We went out to a packed dirt clearning on the motel’s south side and formed a circle.  We joined hands, then stood silently while Terry looked around the circle.  Smiling, she led us in a deep bow.  I wasn’t sure what to make of this ritual but it seemed harmless enough.

Afterward, I walked up to her and thanked her for coming.  She was very complimentary of my lizard line.  “You heard how they responded!” she exclaimed.

Yes, and I’ve been thinking about it since.  While I appreciated the exposure to several ideas, to poetic expressions, to puzzles (like what “honor” means) and to vibrant facts during Terry’s reading and workshop that fine-tuned my thinking about different problems and beliefs, the group’s reaction to the lizard line is perhaps the one thing from which I learned the most.  That little moment of relation between myself and other members of Terry’s workshop pointed me in the direction Terry had signaled the evening before when she said that if the Rwandans, who had suffered and lost so much during the 1994 genocide, could still have hope, then how much easier should having hope be for those of us who have so much.  So in my developing ideas about sustainable language, what it is, what it might do, what it doesn’t do, I’m drafting in another point: Sustainable language ought to have and give hope. 

That was one important thing I learned, maybe the most important thing.  That, and that Mormons can do this — write literary nature and science literature, I mean.     

8 thoughts on “Field Notes #5: Writers’ Workshop with Terry Tempest Williams”

  1. Patricia, thank you so much for posting this! I look forward to all of your posts, but this one was especially rewarding to me as reader and writer. It definitely gives me new places to start thinking and working from. I’ve been really struggling to define the effect gardening has on my spirituality–I think I may have some ideas now.

  2. Laura, what happens between gardens and gardeners makes excellent subject matter. In my (so far) limited experience writing nature-oriented material, I’ve found that many Mormon readers who on one hand object to narratives where the writer immerses him/herself into wild environments will on the other hand respond strongly and positively to garden stories. Gardens can be intensely spiritual, revelatory spaces. Good writing about gardens provokes as much wonder and has as great a restorative effect for some as the Why-I-Went-to-the-Woods type of narrative has for others.

  3. Thank you for this, Patricia.

    A question about “sustainable language.” In reading this, I’ve re-confused myself about what that phrase is intended to mean.

    Is “sustainable language,” a language or a rhetorical stance that can be re-used by others to craft something different than the original, rather like a tree’s trunk being converted into chairs, and the chairs being converted into firewood? Or is “sustainable language” language or expression that is accomodating enough to allow for a sizeable community, but definitive enough that the outside contours of the community are still perceptible?

    (I’m still mulling how to convey my thoughts about Leap in response to your other-thread invitation.)

  4. gf: “Re-confused”? Is this re-confusion a reflection back on a previous conversation?

    When I mentioned “sustainable language” to the writers’ group, I threw out only one, oversimplified aspect of a concept in progress. In a (not fully-formed and blog-appropriate) nutshell:

    To prove efficacious, any stewardship effort, including writing about nature and stewardship, ought to develop sustainable language if it truly desires to promote change and not merely defend or assert positions. Sustainable language is creative, productive, proactive language that makes it possible for others to care about what you care about. Also, it enables those who read or hear it to create choices for themselves. Through uses of rhetorical figures and tropes like metaphor and especially irony — irony in its highest forms, not sarcasm or cyicism or sardonic language — sustainable language creates a range of meaning so as to provide the raw materials for a creative audience to make something of their experiences of it. It opens possibilities, it doesn’t fashion meaning to bait others and it doesn’t use peoples’ fears, depression, anger, sense of loss, etc. to channel them in particular directions.

  5. Patricia K,

    I am so glad you posted your experience. You shared it so beautifully. I felt as if I were there with you. Thank you.

    Patricia W, who is one of those “bad-tempered Tauruses” 🙂

  6. Patricia W, thank you for asking for the write-up and then reading it all the way through.

    BTW, didn’t mean to imply all Tauruses are bad tempered. Some of my best friends are Tauruses! 🙂

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