Amy Irvine is NOT Coming to Rockville!

Amy Irvine to Read From her new book,  Desert Cabal

Friday, May 03, 2019, 7:00 pm
Rockville Town Hall (The Old Church), Rockville, UT

Darn it!!

Ever since Amy’s new book was published last November, I’ve been after her to come read in Rockville. The book has been so popular, she’s been on a non-stop reading tour all over the darn West. But, finally, it’s our turn! Don’t miss this! What’s the book about? WELL!

As Edward Abbey’s environmental classic Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness turned fifty last year, Amy felt its iconic author, who inspired generations of rebel-rousing advocacy on behalf of the American West, was due tribute as well as a talking to. In Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness, Amy Irvine admires the man who influenced her life and work but challenges all that is dated—offensive, even—between the covers of Abbey’s book. From Abbey’s quiet notion of solitude to Irvine’s roaring cabal, the desert just got hotter, and its defenders more nuanced and numerous.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR AMY IRVINE is a sixth-generation Utahn and long-time public lands activist. Her memoir, Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land, received the Orion Book Award, the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award, and the Colorado Book Award. Irvine teaches in the MFA program of Southern New Hampshire University. She lives and writes off the grid in southwest Colorado, just spitting distance from her Utah homeland.

 

Interviews with Amy and Excerpts

RadioWest: bit.ly/2Q5V8Im
Colorado Public Radio: bit.ly/2Q4kwT1
Lit Hub: bit.ly/2yc0tqH
High Country News: bit.ly/2ABS8gq
Rock & Ice Magazine: bit.ly/2wWvTQy

Amy’s website: https://www.amyirvine.com/

Order the book at: Torrey House Press is an independent nonprofit publisher promoting environmental conservation through literature. We believe that culture is changed through conversation and that lively, contemporary literature is the cutting edge of social change. We strive to identify exceptional writers, nurture their work, and engage the widest possible audience; to publish diverse voices with transformative stories that illuminate important facets of our ever-changing planet; to develop literary resources for the conservation movement, educating and entertaining readers, inspiring action.                 TORREY HOUSE PRESS             VOICES FOR THE LAND          www.torreyhouse.org

Questions? Contact me:

 

Amy Irvine is NOT Coming to Rockville!

Amy Irvine to Read From her new book,  Desert Cabal

Friday, May 03, 2019, 7:00 pm
Rockville Town Hall (The Old Church), Rockville, UT

Darn it!!

Ever since Amy’s new book was published last November, I’ve been after her to come read in Rockville. The book has been so popular, she’s been on a non-stop reading tour all over the darn West. But, finally, it’s our turn! Don’t miss this! What’s the book about? WELL!

As Edward Abbey’s environmental classic Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness turned fifty last year, Amy felt its iconic author, who inspired generations of rebel-rousing advocacy on behalf of the American West, was due tribute as well as a talking to. In Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness, Amy Irvine admires the man who influenced her life and work but challenges all that is dated—offensive, even—between the covers of Abbey’s book. From Abbey’s quiet notion of solitude to Irvine’s roaring cabal, the desert just got hotter, and its defenders more nuanced and numerous.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR AMY IRVINE is a sixth-generation Utahn and long-time public lands activist. Her memoir, Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land, received the Orion Book Award, the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award, and the Colorado Book Award. Irvine teaches in the MFA program of Southern New Hampshire University. She lives and writes off the grid in southwest Colorado, just spitting distance from her Utah homeland.

 

Interviews with Amy and Excerpts

RadioWest: bit.ly/2Q5V8Im
Colorado Public Radio: bit.ly/2Q4kwT1
Lit Hub: bit.ly/2yc0tqH
High Country News: bit.ly/2ABS8gq
Rock & Ice Magazine: bit.ly/2wWvTQy

Amy’s website: https://www.amyirvine.com/

Order the book at: Torrey House Press is an independent nonprofit publisher promoting environmental conservation through literature. We believe that culture is changed through conversation and that lively, contemporary literature is the cutting edge of social change. We strive to identify exceptional writers, nurture their work, and engage the widest possible audience; to publish diverse voices with transformative stories that illuminate important facets of our ever-changing planet; to develop literary resources for the conservation movement, educating and entertaining readers, inspiring action.                 TORREY HOUSE PRESS             VOICES FOR THE LAND          www.torreyhouse.org

Questions? Contact me:

 

Remembering Ellen Meloy

Ellen

It’s hard to believe I’m now five years older than my friend Ellen Meloy when she died, though she was ten years older than me when alive. And even harder to believe she’d be 73 now. That’s one thing about dying young: so you are forever. She was thin, and tall, and gangly, with haywire red hair and goofy front teeth which she exploited for her own humor. She was a caricature of herself, and always the butt of her own jokes–always the straight-faced wit.

Before I knew her well, I had to study her closely after she said something I found hilarious, as I, forever in awe, didn’t want to guffaw if she was serious. I usually found her staring off at clouds, eyebrows raised, innocent of any implication. After knowing her longer, I dispensed with checking, and just burst out laughing, knowing whether she showed it or not, she was too.

When she died at 58, I remember thinking it was her way of getting the last laugh; that she was out there, just ahead of us on the trail, unseen, around the next bend, just out of sight, laughing at how we hadn’t gotten the joke.

It’s our great fortune that the good folks at KUER’s RadioWest recently uncovered a collection of essays Ellen wrote and read for NPR between 1994 and 1998. They partnered with Torrey House Press to publish them; the book is called Seasons: Desert Sketches by Ellen Meloy and will be published in April 2019.  To buy it, click the Torrey House Press link above; to listen to Ellen read an essay, click here.

Here’s an article I wrote on Bluff, Utah and Ellen for the now defunct Wasatch Journal in 2009.

Copyright George H. H. Huey ~ Cloud Watcher Studio sign, Bluff, Utah

The Cosmic Nexus of Bluff, Utah

And the Woman Who Wrote It

Bluff, Utah. From a car hurling down Bluff’s main street, the two-lane SR191, a blink-of-an-eye tour reveals the San Juan River’s tamarisk-choked floodplain; Butler Wash’s wide, torrent-scoured arroyo; the pioneer-stopping Bluff Sandstone cliffs; and tumbleweed on course for Iowa. In town, dusty rutted sideroads struggle to maintain their Mormon-gird dignity while skirting mud wallows large enough to swallow a Hummer, and still provide access to an assembledge of dwellings perhaps best described as eclectic-historic chic. Bluff is funky and backwoods creative, or maybe desert-rat eccentric. In any words, Bluff is a sight to see.

Bluff is a pocket whirled into cliffs by dust devils, where unfurling winds dispense an indiscriminate accumulation. Empty wooden storefronts, the fading red of protracted sun exposure, and vintage trailer parks front the highway near a new timber-sided megahotel. Under ancient, breezy cottonwoods a beautiful, aged, handhewn-stone gas station stands abandoned and quite removed from the busiest place in town, the metalic quickmart that serves as grocery, gas station, and central communication network for Bluff and its multi-hundred square-mile, near roadless exburb.

Although Bluff is also home to a wonderful, if unconventional, restaurant or two; miscellaneous poets, sculptors, and painters; a bona fide coffee shop; some of the most beautiful sandstone-block Victorian homes in Utah, and the increasingly rare roadside stretch of junkyard sculpture, it’s the not the kind of place you’d expect to harbor a Pulitzer-prize finalist; a yearly arts festival drawing the likes of Terry Tempest Williams; or a fund encouraging desert literature, but there you have it.

About 250 people claim to live in Bluff these days. And although founded in 1880 by the Latter Day Saints’ famous Hole in the Rock Expedition (whose mission was to protect this remote quarter from invading gentiles with their cows and immoralities), it is now better known as the put-in for San Juan River trips. Latter Day Saints and river runners invaded the place in the last century—it was water that drew everyone here in the first place—making for an adventurous mix of caffeine-shunning rancher-Mormons; mocha-sipping, self-proclaimed misfits; holdover cowboys; Athabaskan-speaking Diné; missionary Episcopalians; erstwhile artistes and moon-eyed tourists all regarding each other suspiciously while doing the wash down to the Cottonwood Laundromat. Bluff’s slogan, “Whatever the Great Southwest is to you, you’ll find it ALL in BLUFF,” is alarmingly accurate. Bluff could be the accrued answers to a cosmic-scale free-association quiz.

You might be wondering why anyone would set roots here if they weren’t born to it, or for that matter, do anything but hit the accelerator on a drive-through, but, you see, that’s Bluff’s mesmeric charm. Amidst the seemingly endless miles of tawny, cliff-edged desert, Bluff serves as portal—not only to the desert’s ancient imagination, but to our own. A walk in any direction earns the San Juan River’s soothing waters, the Bluff Sandstone’s wind-carved hoodoos, and glimpses of prehistoric dwellings where rock art still radiates enigmatic messages. A daily seat under a lone pinon atop a sandstone ridge has been known to inspire more than one prize-winning book. In the world’s abundance of perfect, magazine-spread landscaping and arbitrated adventure travel, Bluff’s surrounding desert, with its unnumbered canyons, golden mesas, hidden springs, rescue-less dangers, and even its accidental distinctiveness is beginning to match roadside sculpture in rarity.

Ann Walka, a poet who splits her time between Flagstaff, Arizona and Bluff, says “There is a sense of endless space here, and the quiet spills from the canyons right into town. What people notice is so much more connected to the earth. Meeting on the road, people talk about last night’s moon or the neighbor’s hollyhocks. Bluff is a place where you have a sense of belonging and of privacy.”

Spectacular and idiosyncratic, Bluff’s sense of place is difficult to capture in words; luckily it was home to someone who wanted to spend a lifetime trying. If you want to experience Bluff’s enigmatic nature without the long drive, read Ellen Meloy. Perhaps best known as a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her book, The Anthropology of Turquoise; Meditations on Landscape, Art, and Spirit, Ellen moved to Bluff with her river-ranger husband in 1995. It was Bluff’s paradoxes that drew her: access to the nearby faraway, the desert’s striped-clean calm and blistering passion, its endless adventure and small embraces, the close community of “exibitionist hermits.” And Ellen fit right in. Tall, slender, her mind-of-its-own red-blond hair awhirl on the slightest breeze, her sun-baked skin glowed the color of redrock. Following those long, brown legs up a steep canyon from the San Juan River was a trot for anyone altitudinally-challenged. But even at her strong pace Ellen noticed the faintest pink blush of Indian paintbrush in bloom; spied the perfectly cryptic, thumbnail-sized baby toad popping away from moving feet. She knew the exact shade of the sky that day, turquoise not azure; summer’s intense light burned “the color of a sparkler’s core.” Ellen’s observations were always specific—detailed, accurate vignettes of this particular desert—her books’ language matched her brain’s precision and called a distinct vision of Bluff and her home desert into being.

Ellen wrote, “The San Juan River flows by my home and is so familiar, it is more bloodstream than place. Everything about it is tangible—a slick ribbon of jade silk between sienna canyon walls hung solid against a cerulean sky, pale sandy beaches, banks thick with lacy green tamarisk fronds, in which perch tiny gold finches.”

Ellen’s precise language had the unexpected effect of sending the reader not only from armchair to a full-body river dunking, but from specific to universal. Ellen evoked a deeper understanding, an echoing memory of an unfathomable connection we share with all that is not human, the pull that calls us still to places like Bluff. It may not seem many people would be fascinated with the intricacies of this remote landscape’s esoteric workings, but Ellen’s enthrallment and love burned from the page. She was able to speak openly about her sensual intoxication with this place, and by so doing evoke in others similar reactions. In her book, Eating Stone; Imagination and Loss of the Wild, Ellen writes, “Behind a gravel bar, a dense grove of tamarisk has turned the color of ripe peaches. An ellipse of pale rose sand lines the inside of a river bend of such beauty, you could set yourself on fire with the rapture of that curve. In it lies a kind of music in stone that might cure all emptiness.”

Imagine a beauty that could cure all emptiness. An impossible vision? Many find such a place on a slow meander through this landscape’s austere profusion. Melding into Bluff’s lonely quarter on an inflatable raft’s summer-warmed pontoon, your only responsibility to watch clouds morph indigo sky. Flat water’s languid current swirls the raft in gentle arcs as you trail fingers in water the color of liquid rock. As you drift by, cliffs seem to unroll, echoing wavelet lappings and reflecting water’s glitter in shaded overhangs. Or mold your body to a slickrock curve, hide from shoulder-slumping heat in cold-rock relief, nap, sleep, and dream of the lion curled here last night. Feel his full-bellied paddings as, across the river, he watches you now.

But, remember too, Bluff and it’s encompassing landscape is not Eden; it is instead quite real. There can be hardship here. Ellen’s book, The Last Cheater’s Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest, details her realization that the stunning landscape of her own backyard is a deadly “geography of consequence.” Amid uranium tailings, missile ranges, and atomic test sites Ellen charts her “deep map of place,” contemplating a topography “where an act of creation can mean the complete absence of life.” This writer’s skill was complete, making us both desert esthete and activist.

Ellen’s sudden and unexpected death in 2004 caught her friends completely off guard. It was as if she slipped around some desert bend laughing, while our eyes were blinded by the sun. In the days following her death, many said, “o.k., Ellen, enough of the joke. You can come out now.” But Ellen, always a trickster coyote, didn’t respond. Ann Walka begins her lovely poem about Ellen with the line, “And for her next trick…” Somehow this death at home, centered on her personal map, suddenly and without fanfare, was very Ellen and very Bluff.

In Ellen’s remembrance and tribute to the place she and so many loved, friends and family created The Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Fund to encourage writing that combines an engaging individual voice, literary sensibility, imagination and intellectual rigor to create new perspectives and deeper meanings in desert literature. The Fund offers a yearly $2,000 award (now $5000) to an individual of similar passion and desire to go to their desert and write.

Although only in existence three years (since 2006), the Fund has provided much needed recognition for desert literacy, and sent two writers into the desert to scribe their own specifics of place. Rebecca Lawton of Sonoma County, California, the first Meloy Award winner, will continue our understanding of Utah’s many incarnations with her project Oil and Water. Lawton writes, “The Uintah Basin, home for millennia to people with wildly different views, still draws those of diverse descent and interests…Over time, everyone from ancient Puebloans to modern agriculturalists has lived on the Green River’s banks. Oil and Water will contrast attitudes toward this harsh but compelling place while bearing witness to demands each lifestyle places on the basin’s limited resources. The land will give testimony to those who inhabit it.”

The Award’s second winner hopes to capture an unwritten desert, replete with its own beauty and peril. Lily Mabura, currently of Columbia, Missouri, plans to travel to the Chalbi Desert and Lake Turkana in the North Eastern Province of Kenya, a region known locally as World’s End to write about the region’s nomadic ethnic groups and arid landscapes. Lily says, “It is difficult to travel to this region of Kenya due to extreme terrain and banditry or militia incursions from Ethiopia and Sudan. One must wait for armed convoys for escort…Like most Kenyans, I am petrified by the region, but there is the writer in me who really wants to see it and, gradually, my curiosity has eclipsed my fears, even though I suspect my real test is yet to come. I am hoping that my experience and the stories that emerge from it will enlighten others about this region, which deserves more attention in terms of humanitarian aid, education, security, environmental conservation and infrastructure.”

What these writers seek and what the Desert Writers Fund hopes to provide is what Ellen sought and found in Bluff’s abundance. Ellen wanted redrock and solitude, home and community. On her daily rounds she traversed river and canyon, garden and loving relationships, weaving everything into her own narrative of life and land, home and family. Ellen’s address and kin included slickrock and wandering bighorn, boiled lizards and the “brazen harlotry” of the desert in startling bloom. Ellen knew narrow slickrock canyons to be the halls of her own home, mule deer as neighbors, and the muddy San Juan as provider. She felt—and desperately wanted to communicate—the human use and abuse of nature was as dangerous as sawing off the limb on which we sit. If we soil the ground with atomic fallout, she said, decimate the bighorn’s last stronghold, dam the last rivers—we damn ourselves.

Perhaps Bluff’s significance, its message, is that regardless of our back-of-the-hand-on-forehead human tribulations and dreadfully significant problems, unexpected, funky, irresponsible, glorious possibility exists by the bucketload, and beauty—healing, transformative beauty—still lives in the world. Go, create some junkyard sculpture; go, lie in the desert and dream yourself awake.

In Ellen’s Words

One morning in a rough-hewn, single-room screenhouse, in a cottonwood grove but a few wingbeats beyond the San Juan River, I poured scalding water through a paper coffee filter into a mug that, unbeknownst to me, contained a lizard still dormant from the cool night. I boiled the lizard alive. As I removed the filter and leaned over the cup to take a sip, its body floated to the surface, ghostly and inflated in mahogany water, its belly the pale blue of heartbreak.

I sat on the front step of the screenhouse with sunrise burning crimson on the sandstone cliffs above the river and a boiled reptile in my cup. I knew then that matters of the mind had plunged to grave depths.

With these words Ellen began her second book, The Last Cheater’s Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest, a book about the “geography of consequence.” At the end of this opening prologue, Ellen describes most clearly what she was questing for in life and writing. After fishing the lizard from her coffee and unfolding a Colorado Plateau map, she carries lizard, map and notebook to a sandy bench, and writes:

Beside a thick stand of rabbitbrush I spread out the big map and anchored its corners with stones…” “First I marked my present location with a small, shapely O. Next I reduced the Colorado Plateau to a manageable two hundred square miles or so around the home O. Then I outlined this perimeter on the map with a ring of fine red sand trickled from my fingers. A circle has no corners. So, to make my Map of the Known Universe portable, I transcribed all that fell inside the circle into sections and roughed them out on pages in the notebook, like an atlas.

As the sun rose higher, the cliffs shed their crimson light and turned flat and brassy. Tenderly, blue belly down so it would not sunburn, I placed the lizard on the map. The small corpse rested on our land—literally on the very dirt where my husband and I were soon to build our house—on the O, at the center of the circle.

It was time to get to know the neighborhood.

This, without doubt, is my favorite passage from Ellen’s writing; it is unexpected, funny and at the same time poignant and a clear manifesto of Ellen’s life and purpose. Ellen wrote four books about getting to know Bluff and her Four Courners neighborhood.

While the multi-award winning Anthropology of Turquoise is a tour de force, another of my favorites, Eating Stone is, to me, the most Ellen-like. The book reminds me of sitting atop a sandstone outcropping low over the San Juan River with Ellen, hearing what she’s been up to and laughing in the sun’s warmth. About camping in the desert with friends while tracking bighorn, Ellen writes,

Sunrise in the redrock desert has the calm of water. Strange that it be thus in a parched expanse of rock and sand. Yet this is how it comes: a spill of liquid silence, sunlight the color of embers, every surface bathed in it. The heart aches to live to see the start of a day, every day, luminous in the unmoored distance.

How can there be such quiet among a most garrulous species grouped together in space and task—no voices yet? I believe that the quiet prevails because all of us are desert people. We are known gazers into the horizon at early hours. That pause between social discourse and the solitude of the senses feels acute today…Perhaps the quiet is accidental prayer, an attentive stillness that conflates perception with desire. Maybe it is sleepiness at the early hour or the fact that some among our group are quite bashful. The low sun torches the buttes and mesas around us. Each saltbush stands distinctly silver-green on the cayenne red pediment, casting its own violet shadow. The light is what we watch, what steals our voices.

 

 



Good Advice or A Summary of Where My Head Has Been for the Last Three Years

So you want to be a writer? Essential tips   for aspiring novelists

How to write a killer opening line. Why Google is not research. When to rip it up and start again. Whatever you do, just write!

Lessons from acclaimed novelist and creative writing professor Colum McCann

find the original article in The Guardian

Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody, said Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet more than a century ago. There is only one way. Go into yourself.

Rilke, of course, was right – nobody but yourself can help. In the end it all comes down to the strike of the word on the page, not to mention the strike thereafter, and the strike after that. But Rilke was taken by the request from a young writer, and he corresponded with Franz Xaver Kappus in ten letters over the course of six years. Rilke’s was advice on matters of religion, love, feminism, sex, art, solitude and patience, but it was also keyed into the life of the poet and how these things might shape the words upon the page.

This most of all, he says. Ask yourself in the most silent hour of night: must I write?

Everybody who has ever felt the need to write knows the silent hour. I have come across many such people – and indeed many such hours – during my writing and teaching life. I’ve been teaching now for the best part of 20 years. That’s a lot of chalk and a lot of red pencil. I haven’t loved every minute of it, but I’ve loved most. There’s been a National Book award for one student. A Booker prize for another. Guggenheims. Pushcarts. Mentorships. Friendships. But let’s be honest, there has been burnout too. There’s been weeping and gnashing of teeth. There have been walkouts. Collapses. Regret.

All of these students, bar none, are looking, in Rilke’s words, “to say ecstasies that are unsayable.” The unsayable indeed. The job is theirs. The ability to trust in the difficult. The tenacity to understand that it takes time and patience to succeed.

There are no rules

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.                                                                                                         W Somerset Maugham

[The above, inserts the Blog Author, is my favorite quote of all time]. There are no rules. Or if there are any rules, they are only there to be broken. Embrace these contradictions. You must be prepared to hold two or more opposing ideas in the palms of your hands at the same time. To hell with grammar, but only if you know the grammar first. To hell with formality, but only if you have learned what it means to be formal. To hell with plot, but you had better at some stage make something happen. To hell with structure, but only if you have thought it through so thoroughly that you can safely walk through your work with your eyes closed.

The great ones break the rules on purpose. They do it in order to remake the language. They say it like nobody has ever said it before. And then they unsay it, and they keep unsaying it, breaking their own rules over and over again. So be adventurous in breaking – or maybe even making – the rules.

Your first line

The first sentence of every novel should be: ‘Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.’                              Michael Ondaatje

A first line should open up your rib cage. It should reach in and twist your heart backward. It should suggest that the world will never be the same again. The opening salvo should be active. It should plunge your reader into something urgent, interesting, informative. It should move your story, your poem, your play, forward. It should whisper in your reader’s ear that everything is about to change.

But take it easy too. Don’t stuff the world into your first page. Achieve a balance. Let the story unfold. Think of it as a doorway. Once you get your readers over the threshold, you can show them around the rest of the house. At the same time, don’t panic if you don’t get it right first time around. Often the opening line won’t be found until you’re halfway through your first draft. You hit page 157 and you suddenly realise, Ah, that’s where I should have begun.

So you go back and begin again.

Open elegantly. Open fiercely. Open delicately. Open with surprise. Open with everything at stake. This, of course, is a bit like being told to walk a tightrope. Go ahead, then, walk the tightrope! Relax yourself into the tension of the wire. The first line, like the first step, is only the first of many, yet it sets the shape of what is to come. Try walking a foot off the ground, then two feet, then three. Eventually you might go a quarter mile in the sky.

Then again, you might stumble and fall. No matter. It is, after all, a work of the imagination. You won’t die trying.

At least not yet.

Don’t write what you know

The inexecutable is all I’m interested in.                                                   Nathan Englander

Don’t write what you know, write towards what you want to know.
A writer is an explorer. She knows she wants to get somewhere, but she doesn’t know if the somewhere even exists yet. It is still to be created. Don’t sit around looking inward. That’s boring. In the end your navel contains only lint. You have to propel yourself outward, young writer.

The only true way to expand your world is to inhabit an otherness beyond ourselves. There is one simple word for this: empathy. Don’t let them fool you. Empathy is violent. Empathy is tough. Empathy can rip you open. Once you go there, you can be changed. Get ready: they will label you sentimental. But the truth is that the cynics are the sentimental ones. They live in a cloud of their own limited nostalgia. They have no muscularity at all. Remember, the world is so much more than one story. We find in others the ongoing of ourselves.

In the end your first-grade teacher was correct: we can, indeed, only write what we know. It is logically and philosophically impossible to do otherwise. But if we write towards what we don’t supposedly know, we will find out what we knew but weren’t yet entirely aware of. We will have made a shotgun leap in our consciousness. We will not be stuck in the permanent backspin of me, me, me.

As Vonnegut says, we should be continually jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.

The terror of the white page

The pleasure of abiding. The pleasure of insistence, of persistence. The pleasure of obligation, the pleasure of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion.                                                                                         Maggie Nelson

Don’t let the terror of the white page shrink-wrap your mind. The excuse that you have writer’s block is far too easy. You have to show up for work. You have to sit in the chair and fight the blankness. Don’t leave your desk. Don’t abandon the room. Don’t check the sports pages. Don’t open the mail. Don’t distract yourself in any way until you feel you have fought and tried. You have to put in the time. If you are not there, the words will not appear. Simple as that.

A writer is not someone who thinks obsessively about writing, or talks about it, or plans it, or dissects it, or even reveres it: a writer is the one who puts his arse in the chair when the last thing he wants to do is have his arse in the chair.

Good writing will knock the living daylights out of you. Very few people talk about it, but writers have to have the stamina of world-class athletes. The exhaustion of sitting in the one place. The errors. The retrieval. The mental taxation. The dropping of the bucket down into the near-empty well over and over again. Moving a word around a page. Moving it back again. Questioning it. Doubting it. Increasing the font size. Shifting it around again and again. Sounding it out. Figuring the best way to leave it alone. Hanging in there as the clock ticks on. Not conceding victory to the negative. Getting up off the ground when you’ve punched yourself to the floor. Dusting yourself off. Readjusting your mouth guard. Sustaining what you have inherited from previous days of work.

Don’t worry so much about your word count. Your word cut is more important. You have to sit there sharpening that red pencil or hitting the delete button or flinging the pages into the fire. Often, the more words you cut, the better. A good day might actually be a hundred words fewer than you had yesterday. Even no words on the page is better than no time at the page at all.

Just keep your arse in the chair. Arse in the chair. Arse in the chair.

Stare the blank page down.

Creating characters

Then the writing became so fluid that I sometimes felt as if I were writing for the sheer pleasure of telling a story, which may be the human condition that most resembles levitation.                             Gabriel García Márquez

Writing a character into being is like meeting someone you want to fall in love with. You don’t care (yet) about the facts of his/her life. Don’t overload us with too much information. Allow that to seep out later. We are attracted by a moment in time – a singular moment of flux or change or collapse – not by grand curricula vitae. So don’t generalise. Be specific. Go granular. The reader must fall in love with your characters quickly (or indeed, learn to hate them quickly).

We have to have something happen to them: something that jolts our tired hearts awake. Make it traumatic, make it mournful, make it jubilant, it doesn’t matter – just allow your reader to care for the physical body that your words evoke, the person behind the language. Later on in the story we can settle down with them and get to know them in a wider sense.

Sometimes we take a character from our own immediate lives and we build a new person upon that scarecrow. Or sometimes we take well-known characters in history and shape them in new ways. Either way we have a responsibility to write them into life.

In the end you should probably know your characters as well as you know yourself. You should be able to close your eyes and dwell inside that character’s body. The sound of her voice. The texture of her footsteps. Walk around with her for a while. Let her dwell in the rattlebag of your head. Make a mental list of who/what she is, where she comes from. Appearance. Body language. Unique mannerisms. Childhood. Conflicts. Desires. Voice. Allow your characters to surprise you. When it seems they should go right, send them left. When they appear too joyful, break them. When they want to leave the page, force them to stay a sentence longer. Complicate them. Conflict them. Give them forked tongues. This is what real life is all about. Don’t be too logical. Logic can paralyse us.

Nabokov says that his characters are just his galley slaves – but he’s Nabokov, and he’s allowed to say things like that. Let me respectfully disagree. Your characters deserve your respect. Some reverence. Some life of their own. You must thank them for surprising you, and for ringing the doorbell of your imagination.

Writing dialogue

The declared meaning of a spoken sentence is only its overcoat, and the real meaning lies underneath its scarves and buttons.                         Peter Carey

There are so many rules, or suggestions, when it comes to dialogue. Forget the ummm and forget the errrs: they don’t translate on the page. Try not to use dialogue to convey information, or at least a slab of obvious information. Interruptions are great. Try writing a conversation between three, four, five people. Let the dialogue work for itself. Use he said and she said, but avoid clumsy descriptions. Forget about the overblown gasping, exclaiming, insisting, bellowing.

Make your dialogue distinct from the surrounding description, not just in rhythm but in length too. It will break up the prose. Have it be a respite on the page, or have it tee up the words that are about to come. Make each character distinct. Give them verbal tics. And never forget that people talk away from what they really mean. Lies are very interesting when they emerge in speech. Make action occur within the conversation. Seldom begin in the beginning: catch the dialogue halfway through. No need for hellos or howareyous. No need for goodbyes either. Jump out from the conversation long before it truly finishes.

Even if using dialect, or patois, or Dublinese, you must realise that there is a reader at the end of the sentence. Don’t confuse them. Don’t knock them out of the story. A wee bit is enough to get a Northern Irish accent. Don’t go Oirish on yourself. Don’t fall into stereotype. No arragh bejaysus and begob. No overdone southern twang. It’ll make y’all wanna holler. No Jamaican overdose, mahn. No Bhrrooklyn nasal noise.

Study the masters. Roddy Doyle. Louise Erdrich. Elmore Leonard. Marlon James. And always remember that what we don’t say is as important as, if not more so than, what we do. So study the silences too, and have them working on the page. You soon find out how loud the silence really is.

Everything unsaid leads eventually to what is said.

Seeking structure

A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.                                                                               Jorge Luis Borges

Every work of fiction is organised somehow – and the best of them are more profoundly organised than they ever let on. Our stories rely on the human instinct for architecture. Structure is, essentially, a container for content. The shape into which your story gets is a house slowly built from the foundation up. Or maybe it’s a tunnel, or a skyscraper, or a palace, or even a moving caravan, driven forward by your characters. In fact, structure can be any number of things: you just have to make sure that it doesn’t become an elaborate hole in the ground into which we bury ourselves, unable to claw out.

Some writers try to envision the structure beforehand, and they shape the story to fit it, but this is so often a trap. You should not try to stuff your story into a preconceived structure. A proper structure mirrors the content of the story it wants to tell. It will contain its characters and propel them forward at the same time. And it will generally achieve this most fully when it does not draw too much attention to itself. Structure should grow out of character and plot, which essentially means that it grows out of language. In other words, the structure is forever in the process of being shaped. You find it as you go along. Chapter by chapter. Voice by voice. Ask yourself if it feels right to tell the story in one fell swoop, or if it should be divided into sections, or if it should have multiple voices, or even multiple styles. You stumble on through the dark, trying new things all the time. Sometimes, in fact, you don’t find the structure until halfway through, or even when you’re close to being finished. That’s OK. You have to trust that it will eventually appear and that it will make sense.

Language and plot

Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.                                                                                                          Stephen King

We teachers, we editors, we agents, we readers, often make a mistake by concentrating too much on plot: it is not the be-all and end-all in a piece of literature. Plot matters, of course it matters, but it is always subservient to language. Plot takes the backseat in a good story because what happens is never as interesting as how it happens. And how it happens occurs in the way language captures it and the way our imaginations transfer that language into action.

So give me music then, young maestro, please. Make it occur the way nobody ever made it occur before. Stop time. Celebrate it. Demolish it. Slow the clock down so that the tick of each and every second lasts an hour or more. Take leaps into the past. Put backspin on your memory. Be in two or three places at one time. Destroy speed and position. Make just about anything happen. Maybe in this day and age we are diseased by plot. Let’s face it, plots are good for movies, but when over-considered they tend to make books creak. So, unbloat your plot. Listen for the quiet line. Anyone can tell a big story, yes, but not everyone can whisper something beautiful in your ear. In the world of film we need motivation leading to action, but in literature we need contradiction leading to action, yes, but also leading to inaction. Nothing better than a spectacular piece of inaction. Nothing more effective than your character momentarily paralysed by life.

The greatest novel ever written has very little apparent plot. A cuckold walks around Dublin for 24 hours. No shootouts, no cheap shots, no car crashes (though there is a biscuit tin launched through the air). Instead it is a vast compendium of human experience. Still, this doesn’t take away from the fact that every story ever told has some sort of plot (especially Ulysses, which perhaps has more plot than any).

Punctuation

It’s not just a throwaway thing (Comma) When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.                                                          Raymond Chandler (in a letter to his editor)

It’s not a throwaway thing to tell you the truth. It’s not a throwaway thing, to tell you the truth.

Punctuation matters. In fact, sometimes it’s the life or death of a sentence. Hyphens. Full stops. Colons. Semicolons. Ellipses. Parentheses. They’re the containers of a sentence. They scaffold your words. Should a writer know her grammar? Yes, she should. Don’t overuse the semicolon; it is a muscular comma when used correctly. Parentheses in fiction draw far too much attention to themselves. Learn how to use the possessive correctly as in most good writer’s work. (Oops.) Never finish a sentence with an at. (Sorry.) Avoid too many ellipses, especially at the end of a passage, they’re just a little too dramatic … (See?)

Grammar changes down through the years: just ask Shakespeare or Beckett or the good folks at the New Yorker. The language of the street eventually becomes the language of the schoolhouse. It’s the difference between the prescriptive and the descriptive. So much depends, as William Carlos Williams might have said, upon the red wheelbarrow – especially if the barrow itself stands solitary at the end of the line.

But then again, a sentence can be over-examined. Good grammar can slow a sentence – or indeed a wheelbarrow – down. The perfect run-along of words can sound so stiff. Every now and then we have to disregard the serial comma, or leave our participles dangling, even in the rudest way.

Sometimes we make a mistake on purpose. Perhaps knowing the difference between a main clause and a dependent clause doesn’t matter so much so long as you can intuit the difference. On occasion we write a sentence that isn’t, in fact, correct, but it sings. And the question is: would you rather be the ornithologist or the bird?

Writers feel the grammar rather than knowing it. This comes from good reading. If you read enough, the grammar will come. Word.

Research

There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.                                                     Aldous Huxley

Research is the bedrock of nearly all good writing, even poetry. We have to know the world beyond our own known world. We have to be able to make a leap into a life or a time or a geography that is not immediately ours. Often we will want to write out of gender, race, time. This requires deep research.

Yes, Google helps, but the world is so much deeper than Google. A search engine can’t hold a candle to all the libraries in the world where the books actually exist, live, breathe, and argue with one another. So go down to the library. Check out the catalogues. Go to the map division. Unlock the boxes of photographs. If you want to know a life different from your own, you better try to meet it at least halfway. Get out in the street.

Talk to people. Show interest. Learn how to listen. You must find the divine detail: and the more specific the detail, the better. William Gass – the American author who says quite beautifully that a writer finds himself alone with all that might happen – once suggested, while invoking Maupassant, that we should never mention an ashtray unless we are swiftly able to make it the only one in the world.

Please remember that mishandling your research is also your potential downfall. At times we can pollute our texts with too much of the obvious. It is often a good thing to have space instead so that we can fill it out with imaginative muscle. Always ask yourself: how much research is enough? Don’t corrupt your texts with facts facts facts. Texture is much more important than fact.

Fail, Fail, Fail

No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.                                                    Samuel Beckett

Failure is good. Failure admits ambition. It requires courage to fail and even more courage to know that you’re going to fail. Reach beyond yourself. The true daring is the ability to go to the postbox knowing that it will contain yet another rejection letter. Don’t rip it up. Don’t burn it. Use it as wallpaper instead. Preserve it and reread it every now and then. Know that in the years to come this rejection letter will be a piece of nostalgia. It will yellow and curl and you will remember what it once felt like to throw your words against what everyone presumed would be your silence. Failure is vivifying. You know you’re better than it. Failure gets you up in the morning. Failure gets your blood circling. Failure dilates your nostrils. Failure tells you to write a bigger story and a better one.

And in the end there’s only one real failure – and that’s the failure to be able to fail. Having tried is the true bravery.

Throw it all away

One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.                                                                  André Gide

Sometimes, young writer, you just have to have the cojones to wipe the whole slate clean. Occasionally you know – deep in your gut – that it’s not good enough. Or you’ve been chasing the wrong story. Or you’ve been waiting for another moment of inspiration.

Often the true voice is not heard until long into the story. It might be a year of work, hundreds of pages, or even more. (One of the most liberating days of my writing life was when I threw 18 months of work away.) But something in you knows – it just knows – that everything you have written so far has just been preparation for what you are now about to write. You have finally found your north, your east, your west. No south, no going back.

So you have to throw it away. (OK, let’s be honest here: you don’t actually throw the pages away. Box them up or back them up, just in case you might be making a mistake.)

It is terrifying of course. You close the file, you bury the pages. Now you’re pageless and your back is truly up against the wall. So you open up another file, sharpen the pencil, and settle down once again.

Your last line

If we are not sometimes baffled and amazed and undone by the world around us, rendered speechless and stunned, perhaps we are not paying close enough attention.                                                                        Ben Marcus

Gogol said that the last line of every story was: “And nothing would ever be the same again.” Nothing in life ever really begins in one single place, and nothing ever truly ends. But stories have at least to pretend to finish. Don’t tie it up too neatly. Don’t try too much. Often the story can end several paragraphs before, so find the place to use your red pencil. Print out several versions of the last sentence and sit with them. Read each version over and over. Go with the one that you feel to be true and a little bit mysterious. Don’t tack on the story’s meaning. Don’t moralise at the end. Don’t preach that final hallelujah. Have faith that your reader has already gone with you on a long journey. They know where they have been. They know what they have learned. They know already that life is dark. You don’t have to flood it with last-minute light.

You want the reader to remember. You want her to be changed. Or better still, to want to change.

Try, if possible, to finish in the concrete, with an action, a movement, to carry the reader forward. Never forget that a story begins long before you start it and ends long after you end it. Allow your reader to walk out from your last line and into her own imagination. Find some last-line grace. This is the true gift of writing. It is not yours any more. It belongs in the elsewhere. It is the place you have created. Your last line is the first line for everybody else.

 

Colum McCann is the author of six novels and three collections of stories. Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, he has been the recipient of many international honours, including the National Book Award, the International Dublin Impac Prize, a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres from the French government, election to the Irish arts academy, several European awards, the 2010 Best Foreign Novel Award in China, and an Oscar nomination. His work has been published in over 35 languages. He is the co-founder of the non-profit global story exchange organisation, Narrative 4, and he teaches at the MFA program in Hunter College. He lives in New York with his wife, Allison, and their three children.

Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice by Colum McCann is published by Random House. Order it from your favorite independent bookshop.

Thinking and Feeling

Years ago I took a creativity class with other writers, photogs, artists, etc. The instructor said something I’ve never forgotten:

Creativity is in the doing. If we could produce art by just thinking it through, no one would have to do it; we could just sit back, imagine it, and be done! But in the doing of it–it changes. It becomes something else, something we couldn’t have known until we did it.

Richard Gilbert nails this truth in his blog Draft No. 4. I’ve reposted it below for your reading pleasure. Click here to go to Richard’s blog and his live links.

Messy Essays & Eternal Truths: The Work Under Writing’s Surface

VT-Class-Whiteboard-1
Richard Gilbert’s class whiteboard outlines Joyce Carol Oates’ essay A Widow’s Story.

Reposted from Richard Gilbert’s wonderful Blog, Draft No. 4

March 23, 2016 |
Trust yourself, you know more than you think you do.    Benjamin Spock

1. Writing is Thinking

“Writing is thinking! Writing is feeling!” enthused one of my students near the end of Spring term. This was at Virginia Tech, where I have been teaching in the Lifelong Learning Institute this academic year.

I’ll call her Helen. At the start of class, Helen had seemed confident of her thinking ability—she’d spent a distinguished career reasoning and writing. But she’d seemed not so sure she could emote for readers. Or ask them for an emotional response, let alone provoke it. Helen’s comment took me back to 2005, when I started writing my memoir. I enjoyed building that narrative, but it was work. Writing is concentrated thought, I marveled. That’s why it’s hard. Most of us seldom think about one thing for hours on end. But there’s a huge compensation, I came to see.

“I think what makes writing addictive is that it doesn’t just capture thought, it creates thought,” I told my class one afternoon. “You write a sentence, make a claim. And then you write another. And then you look at those two sentences and write down what you didn’t know you knew. Because you didn’t. Writing doesn’t only capture thought, it creates it.”

Now I didn’t pause to credit the sources who helped me describe this quality. So here I will. Surely writing theorist Peter Elbow influenced my thinking (See my post “Writing’s ‘dangerous method.’ ”) But Donald M. Murray, who nails writing’s rewards in The Craft of Revision (Fifth Edition), lent me the words:

Writing is not reported thought. Writing is more important than that. It is thinking itself. . . . And it is fun because I keep finding I know more than I expected, feel more than I expected, remember more, and have a stronger opinion than I expected. [See “Revise, then polish.”]

This is what I found, and I think what Helen experienced.

2. Writing is Feeling

Oates-Raymond-Smith-in-72
Oates & Raymond Smith in ’72 [1972@BernardGotfryd]
Maybe Helen was thinking of my statement: “Art is made from emotion, is about emotion, and asks for an emotional response.”

What does that mean? Was I going to ask her to emote all over the page? That wasn’t her style!

Well, on that score, everyone’s mileage varies. As a writing teacher once told me, “No one tells everything.” Indeed they don’t. As in life, we must prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet. And our mask is influenced by temperament and mood and the nature of the piece.

Helen wrote about her early years, a young Yankee professional woman who found herself starting out in the Appalachian south. She encountered a gracious but sexist, patronizing, and clannish culture. What she discovered in writing a memoir essay in my class was what she hadn’t before consciously articulated: after decades of becoming localized, as a success, she sensed yet another layer of exclusion. A deeper boundary. She hadn’t glimpsed this wall before, and now was just starting to try to articulate its nature.

What “writing is feeling” meant to Helen, I think—and what maybe it does mean, after all—embodies such discovery. Not writing emotionally, as such. But seeing clearly how you felt and conveying it. How did you feel then? How do you feel now?

Don Murray again:

The writer who writes for revision does not wait for a final draft but works through a series of discovery, development, and clarification drafts until a significant meaning is found and made clear to the reader.

3. Writing is Craft

The shortest essay I ever wrote, maybe the shortest essay anyone has ever written, was Little Essay on Form. It went like this: ‘We build the corral as we reinvent the horse.’ Later, I added: ‘Craft is what nails the gate, helps formalize the space, and keeps the horse shit out of the picture.’ It leaves us with the necessary.
—Stephen Dunn in his Georgia Review essay, “Forms and Structures.”

After I showed my memoir class how James Baldwin punctuated his great essay “Notes of a Native Son,” Helen raised her hand.

“Do you think he did that on purpose?” she asked.

“Oh, yes,” I said. “I’m certain of it. For one thing, he was a genius. For another, varying sentence rhythm is what professionals do.” I followed up by showing them how Ernest Hemingway did the same thing. (See my recent post “Sentence, substance & comma joy.”)

“Art announces itself in form,” I added. “That includes sentence and paragraph length; punctuation; the rhythm of sentences, paragraphs, passages, and the entire piece. All aspects of form must be considered and intentional.”

For all the attention we give it, of course, craft isn’t the most important part of writing—far from it. That would be who you are and your intent. (See “Between self and story.”) But craft is what we can talk about and work with. Craft not only signifies art, it’s what releases art.

Early in the term, I told my memoir class one afternoon how writers emphasize at the end: the last word in a sentence, the last sentence in a paragraph, the last paragraph in a passage, the last passage in an essay or chapter. I tried to show how creative writers use space breaks, not just as transitions from one time frame or location to another but also to spike emphasis—like hitting a gong. And to provide a resting places for readers. As I wrote in “That sweet white space,” “White space is a dramatic transition and a resonant pause filled with meaning and its own kind of content, a space pregnant with time’s passage and unstated events. This is what visual artists call negative space, the resonant blankness around the main image.”

Helen wasn’t so sure about space breaks. “They seem like cheating,” she said.

“I can remember feeling that way,” I said. “When I was a journalist, I was proud of my worded transitions. And editors wouldn’t let us use space breaks anyway—they took up too much room.”

But look at the breaks that demarcate Baldwin’s classical three-act structure in “Notes of a Native Son.” Consider how heavily Scott Sanders segmented his flowing, celebrated essay about his father’s alcoholism, “Under the Influence.”

And you know what? I got Helen to try space breaks! A teacher’s joy. Along with hearing her excited statement. Writing is thinking! Writing is feeling! What a great class. Helen’s doubt made me work harder. Helen’s doubt launched not a thousand ships but influenced several lesson plans. My students’ work in this class taught me, again, how words shaped by craft reveal someone’s soul. We may all walk around stuck in our own heads, but we go to literature to share another’s subjective experience and meaning.

Yet in art, every start is a beginning for the maker. As Jo Ann Beard told Michael Gardner in an interview for Mary:

Frankly, I thought I knew how to write, but it turned out I didn’t, and I don’t. I don’t. I get to learn it over and over and over. It isn’t supposed to be easy. It is supposed to be hard and the process of making art and the product is worth all the energy that you put into it. It is what matters. It is a noble goal. Even if you never attain it, which is true for most of us, it’s life-enhancing to try.


Ellen Meloy once told me our word essay came from the Old French essai “to try,” which is, of course, totally appropriate. Perhaps all art is actually a verb: to essay.

And I just LOVE driving by, on my way upta and overta Bryce, Asay Creek. It’s onea them thar Utar words, ya know?

 

Becoming Writer and Written About

images2QTBWIIZFrom The Writer’s Almanac (Garrison Kellior) August 21, 2014: “It’s the birthday of novelist Robert Stone born in Brooklyn (1937). He was raised by his mother, who was schizophrenic, and when she was institutionalized, he spent several years in a Catholic orphanage. Sometimes he and his mother would drive across the country and end up in a Salvation Army somewhere, or a random hotel. He said: ‘My early life was very strange. I was a solitary; radio fashioned my imagination. Radio narrative always has to embody a full account of both action and scene. I began to do that myself. When I was seven or eight, I’d walk through Central Park like Sam Spade, describing aloud what I was doing, becoming both the actor and the writer setting him into the scene. That was where I developed an inner ear.”

Stone dropped out of high school to join the Navy, then moved back to New York City. He worked as a copy boy at the Daily News, and during his brief stint at NYU, he met Janice Burr, the woman he eventually married. They moved to New Orleans, and Stone found work as a census-taker. He walked every neighborhood of New Orleans, asking questions. He wrote: “The closer to street level you live, the more you have lessons thrust upon you.”

His time in New Orleans inspired his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors (1967). It begins: “The day before, Rheinhardt had bought a pint of whiskey in Opelika and saved it all afternoon while the bus coursed down through red clay and pine hills to the Gulf. Then, after sundown, he had opened the bottle and shared it with the boy who sold bibles, the blond gangling country boy in the next seat. Most of the night, as the black cypress shot by outside, Rheinhardt had listened to the boy talk about money — commissions and good territories and profits — the boy had gone on for hours with an awed and innocent greed. Rheinhardt had sat silently, passing the bottle and listening.”

Stone served as a correspondent in Vietnam for a British magazine, which quickly folded, but he got enough material to return home and write the novel Dog Soldiers (1974). Dog Soldiers is the story of a burnt-out playwright named John Converse who leaves the fading counterculture of California to work as a correspondent in Vietnam and ends up smuggling heroin out of the country. Dog Soldiers won the National Book Award.

Stone’s other books include Children of Light (1986); Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties (2007), a memoir; and Fun With Problems (2010), a book of short stories.

He said: ‘Writing is lonely. […] But most of the time you are in a room by yourself, you know. Writers spend more time in rooms, staying awake in quiet rooms, than they do hunting lions in Africa. So, it’s a bad life for a person because it’s so lonely and because it consists of such highs and lows, and there’s not always anywhere to take these emotional states. […] It’s a life that’s tough to sustain without falling prey to some kind of beguiling diversion that’s not good for you.’”

Don’t I know that? Don’t we all know that?

Though I don’t know Robert Stone’s work, I do know his life, and his mother: I am also a solitary; but instead of schizophrenia it was manic depression, and instead of radio it was books. When I was five my parents took me to visit my paternal grandfather and his wife in Florida. I recall so clearly, in my boredom, walking around the yard, the house, standing in the exotic palm-lined winter driveway. Squatting beside the 1950s car and seeing my reflection in the shiny hubcap, I remember telling myself a story, complete with, “and then he said…and then she said…” “describing aloud what I was doing, becoming both the…writer” and the written about “…setting myself in the scene.” I also remember doing this until I was 10 or so, walking around talking aloud, telling myself my story, until a neighborhood boy passed me on his bike and, turning circles around me, derided me, chiding, “WHO are you talking to?!” I was silenced.

Been writing, but not much here. Mostly because I hate struggling with blog technology and adhering to appointed rounds. And wherefore the time? But I intend to change that, again.

Want to finish my Rockfall Series, but getting to that is stopping me from posting anything else, so things will get posted, but in a random, sort of, rockfall pattern! Much to tell.

Utah Book Festival

Craig  Childs, Greer Chesher, Jim Aton


Date:         Tuesday, October 29, 2013
Time:         4:00 PM
Location:  Charles Hunter Room, Hunter Conference Center,
                  Southern Utah University

Authors Greer Chesher, Craig Childs, and Jim Aton participate in a panel on western landscape as part of SUU’s symposium “The Art of Literature: A Celebration of Authors, Books, and Place.”

And it appears we all need new author’s photos.

Winning Entry

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)

I was thinking again this morning how odd a beast is art. An idea springs into one’s mind, rolls about in there like a sandstone block in a flash flood until sufficiently rounded, then has to be arm wrestled onto the page, honed and sanded and polished until the thing somewhat resembles a lumpy, almost distinguishable, marble. And for what?

I think, for the artist, there is a certain relief in that the nagging thing has been ectomized, and a definite let down in that it appears not quite in the way envisioned or hoped. Art is a concrete approximation of an ephemera, and not always a close one at that. And then there is the this-matters-to-me-I-hope-it-matters-to-you thing. I’ve blogged about this before. One sends something into the Universe, and the damn thing doesn’t bother to write home. Has this thing that struggled to be born made the slightest difference? Does it matter to anyone? Does it need to? Well, of course, it doesn’t, but one hopes…

Which brings me to the two latest Postcards from the Universe, one in the form of a winning contest entry (and a nice little check), and the second in the form of a real, live person who wants to use what I’ve written to talk to other people. I love it when that happens. Art lives.

Here is my winning entry in the Z-Arts! Writing Contest, Adult Non-fiction Category, and a nice note from a Zion National Park guide: “I’ve read through the winning entries and am so impressed with the quality of the writing. Thank you to Z-Arts for organizing this annually. I found one of the writings really poignant and would like to contact the author, Greer Chesher, to see if I can get permission to use his writing in one of my interpretive programs. Thank you so much!”

The contest theme was Canyon Voices. You can read all the winners at the Z-Arts! website.

Canyon Voices

Long ago, I lived in what were then the wilds of New Mexico. Only an hour from Santa Fe, the Pajarito (Little Bird) Plateau’s thick ponderosa forests concealed from the unsuspecting world not only the Los Alamos National Lab, but native tribes, their ancestral tufa-built homes, and living traditions. My best friend, a young native runner from nearby Jemez Pueblo, was the second-youngest son of a man old even then. One afternoon, sharing a bowl of posole and deer meat scalded with more red chili than my Michigan-bred mouth had ever encountered, my friend’s father told me how, if a hunter does things right, the deer will offer itself to the hunter. Puzzled, I took a much needed break from my tongue-blistering to look his way. He, looking at the floor, continued, “when the animal gives its life for the hunter, he should be there, breathe in the deer’s last breath, give thanks.” I looked from him to my friend, unsure if this message was meant for me or his son. “If you don’t honor this gift, it will be taken. The deer won’t come.” He rose then, headed out, but before leaving reached into a pottery bowl next to the door, pinched a bit of its powdery contents between weathered fingers, and nonchalantly tossed it into the corner fireplace. The pollen offering streaked golden through filtered light. I sat motionless, silent, eyes wide.

This memory returns unbidden as I sit beside southern Utah’s Virgin River watching pollen, the color of sunlight, puffed brightly by the wind. It is as if the trees, knowing we’ve forgotten how to honor the land, do our work for us, without asking. A perpetual offering. Overhead, Canada geese honk their way downriver, sounding like ungreased wheels or a swinging door’s rusted hinges. Yellow warblers call from riverside willow winding down like a spun dime. Unexploded cottonwood pods swell and cliffrose flowers unfurl beyond our hearing. Fish swim, owls glide, rodents burrow, microbes reproduce—so much of this canyon’s daily life goes on beyond our keenest perception. Yet where would we be without it? Our physical and other-than-physical lives depend on so much we cannot see, smell, or taste, on the canyon’s unheard voices.

But perhaps, in ways still beyond our understanding, we can feel them. Richard Nelson, in his book, The Island, wrote, “As time went by, I also realized that the particular place I’d chosen was less important than the fact that I’d chosen a place and focused my life around it. Although the island has taken on great significance for me, it’s not more inherently beautiful or meaningful than any other place on earth. What makes a place special is the way it buries itself inside the heart, not whether it’s flat or rugged, rich or austere, wet or arid, gentile or harsh, warm or cold, wild or tame. Every place, like every person, is elevated by the love and respect shown toward it, and by the way in which is bounty is received.”

Gibbs Smith said in his book, Blessed by Light, “the Colorado Plateau chooses its people.” Although not from here, these writers remind us of our place, of what we forget to hear; they toss the pollen.

U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass wrote, “Thoreau read Wordsworth, Muir read Thoreau, Teddy Roosevelt read Muir, and you got national parks. It took a century for this to happen, for artistic values to percolate down to where honoring the relations of people’s imagination to the land, or beauty, or to wild things, was issued in legislation.”

Four influential people speaking, writing, changed the world. But it took a century. We don’t have a century to protect what’s left. But we do have thousands, millions of people who can be influential, if we speak of what the land tells us. Barry Lopez wrote, our job “…is to undermine the complacency of how most people relate to the landscape.”

The canyon speaks for itself, but quietly and of paintbrush in bloom, the drip of springs, the shockwave of rockfall. It’s ours to speak in a language the canyon can’t, to beings who may not hear. The canyon cannot protect itself. Only we can do that. We are the canyon voices. Are you one of the chosen? Do deer offer themselves? If you are lucky and this place proffers itself to you, the question becomes, what will you do with this gift? Speak.

Many thanks to Niles Ritter, Luci Brantley, Charlotte Vaillancourt, Gigi Krause, and Chip Chapman for making the awards ceremony so lovely.

Aprons

I am a firm believer in aprons. Not necessarily the kind meant to keep one clean, but the type with numerous and sundry pockets meant to carry, on one’s person, great quantities of Important Stuff. I have one of the he-man variety firmly stitched of heavy tan canvas complete with thick leather loops meant for hammers and hoof-trimmers, in which I tote paper, pencil, connector bolts for the John Deere, miscellaneous bits of horse tack, my phone, and the indispensable Leatherman® Multi-tool Juice XE6 (pink in my case).

I also have a variety of home—but not kitchen—aprons meant, in actuality, to keep one clean, and cart about the aforementioned valuables. These aprons I make from thrift-store linen shirts and shifts, on which I sew trimmed cuffs and hemmed lengths for the all-important notepad-carrying pockets. This is who I am as a writer: I am never without my notepad and pen. I can easily forget these small, unassuming items, but it’s harder to overlook the bulging apron. It has become my prosthetic brain—easily detachable but increasingly necessary.

When I was a little girl, my mother sewed my first apron, and although I’ve forgotten the color and pattern, I remember the pockets. So practical. She had meticulously machined individual vertical slots for each crayon which, because I’ve always been quite forgetful, I re-filled less meticulously when done coloring. The apron also sported a couple larger pockets for Important Stuff, and a ribbon attached on one end to the apron and on the other to a pair of blunt scissors. I was ready for whatever the day brought. As I am now: I am a writer of little brain who forgets the brainstorm almost before it’s stopped thundering.

Other wardrobe items to which I’m partial are wide-brimmed straw hats (I live in the southern Utah desert of glowing redrock and burning sun); seersucker and linen shirts (heat again); the long skirts of summer (heat yet again—and bugs); tire-tread sandals; industrial-strength hand lotion; and riding boots with spurs. For I also have horses, which explains the need for the aforementioned barn aprons—horses love to wipe their considerable noses on one’s unprotected and welcoming bosom. I also love smocks, and wish I was a painter just so I could wear one.

My British-import of a mother called these practical uniforms, “pinafores,” and just so you don’t assume fluffy aprons mean sweetness and light, know that my mother was a neurotic, abusive mess—as I have been—well, I have been a cowering mess—most of my adult life. All of these things—the redrock desert and all its natural components; horses; my problematic youngsterhood; my war-scarred, disturbed mother; and her very proper Britishness inform my writing in its many manifestations from journal entries to published essays and books.

Because my aprons prevent me from dropping the phone (again) in the stock tank while cleaning it, or the irrigation ditch while watering (also again), my next foray is to create a riding apron. This will keep me from submerging the phone (in a pocket strapped to my leg) in the river while leading the recalcitrant horse, or less expensively but more importantly the notepad along the roadside (so many times I’ve lost count).

In the 1990s, while writing a book on a newly created national monument in Utah and wandering over one million remote acres, I repeatedly asked the photographer, while batting various pockets, my bra and hair (where I clipped pencils) if she had a pen. “Hey,” she’d reply, “you’re a writer, fergodsake; I don’t ask you for film.” From this you may gain two insights: I learned to carry my own pencil and paper, and I’m of a certain age.

apronI was born in the 1950s when real women wore aprons, and I learned to write. There is still something for me about pen and paper—the hand moving and the eyes following that urges me continue down the page. I can also write anywhere and anytime—battery and cord-less (so ecological). While acknowledging computers’ great benefit (my first editing job came before computers!), I find sitting at my desk locked in one position for days on end editing massive planning documents for the National Park Service (it pays the bills) agonizing. I realize I could join the modern age and use my phone to take notes, but I find, after speaking into a recorder, a great yawning silence (where I expect applause or at least rejoiner) that leaves me speechless.

So today, while waiting for the stock tank to fill, great and trifling ideas come unbidden, and the writer I am pulls paper and pen from my he-man apron wiped with immense muddy noses, and captures fleeting thoughts under southern Utah’s embracing redrock cliffs beside the river’s spring-smooth flow. Because that’s what writers do.