Saturday, February 16: I drove to Bluff, Utah to attend Terry Tempest William’s writers’ workshop at the Desert Rose Motel.Â This eventÂ was part of the Bluff Arts Festival held back in November, when TerryÂ cancelled because of illness.Â Â 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, whichÂ had beenÂ quite serious, and had come to fulfill herÂ obligation toÂ the Arts Festival.Â Her readingÂ toÂ 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.Â An U. S. PostalÂ Service employeeÂ and aspiring nature writer.Â Who knew?Â A couple dozenÂ othersÂ sat at the round tables.Â Most of the audience was older, graying,Â someÂ folks hadÂ silvered over completely,Â with a few colorfulÂ heads of youthfulÂ hair dotted about.Â Terry busied herself arranging the room more to her liking.Â She perched on a tableÂ toÂ provide herself aÂ betterÂ view of the audience and to provide her audienceÂ aÂ betterÂ view of her.
She began by asking each of us to introduce ourselves and tell what question we had brought to the workshop.Â “Take two minutes and self-edit,” she said.Â I was second in order.Â With such a full room, two minutes seemed a bit generous, so I kept it under two.Â I said my name and where I lived.Â Told how I had only movedÂ to San Juan CountyÂ recently with my husband and three children.Â Â SaidÂ I had come to the workshop with two questions.Â Â Explained that in ecological discourse, we hear all the time about sustainable this and sustainable that.Â I wanted to explore questions about sustainable language, language that offers peopleÂ raw material they can use inÂ the making of the stories of their own lives.Â The secondÂ question I had was howÂ could IÂ promote the reading and writing ofÂ natureÂ literatureÂ in my Mormon community and among my Mormon neighbors.
DuringÂ the last nine years, I’ve attended several writers’ workshops and never self-identified as a Mormon.Â To me, it feels rather like telling your astrological sign: “Hello, I’m a Pisces.”Â 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.Â Â Not necessarily through any fault of his own, Mitt Romney’s campaign hadÂ hung bull’s eyes on Mormon backs.Â Arrows of bad language hadÂ flown thickly from those inclined to shoot atÂ movingÂ targets.Â Â One sees similar behavior amongÂ the folkÂ who drive into the desert with gunsÂ desiring toÂ shoot something — anything.Â From my back porch, I see their headlights and spotlights outÂ on the sage flatsÂ at night and canÂ hear their gunshots.Â But even before Romney’s campaign, some of my Mormon friends told me they won’tÂ go to the Bluff Arts Festival because they’ve suffered ridicule there.Â I self-identified asÂ a Mormon up front to express my confidence in and to the group at hand.Â
Terry’s reply to myÂ Mormons and nature writingÂ question was quick: “Stories,” she said.Â “Give them stories.”Â
Stories.Â Yes.Â I know.Â Â But what kind and how?Â
I keptÂ my thoughts to myself.Â Â Two minutes.Â Besides, it’s my responsibility to figureÂ that out, not hers.Â Â Â Â Â Â
Introductions and questions continued.Â Even atÂ two minutes, going around the room like that would have takenÂ nearly an hour.Â Â What happened reminded me of a Mormon testimony meeting gone wrong (you might’ve seen them).Â The preambles became longer and longer; peopleÂ builtÂ their questionsÂ out ofÂ more and more words.Â Â Obviously, some were just then forming their questions, sorting through the building blocks of their vocabulary and rhetorical intent, groping for theÂ right language, or failingÂ to find it,Â grabbingÂ forÂ something that came close and not feeling satisfied.Â Many were recent retirees who had poured tremendous energy into their jobs and were now looking for new directions to channel theirÂ urgent and maturedÂ senseÂ of responsibility.Â Several expressed feelings of being lost.Â OneÂ workshop-goer said that she felt she was in transition.Â Terry asked, “Who in here feels like they’re in transition?”Â Everyone’s hand went up, mine included.Â
And so the introductions went, some people taking upwards of five minutes.Â Even when they ended,Â their words hung in the air like smoke,Â thoughts unfinished,Â intentions frustrated and clenchedÂ up like fists.Â Â I thought I understoodÂ one of Terry’s goals in devoting so much ofÂ the workshop’s time to this business.Â She was tuning her ear to the communityÂ in the room and hoping we were doing the same.Â That is one of her themes in her writing: community,Â how to form it, how toÂ exist within it, how to write to it.Â After each person introduced him- or herself and stated his/her question, Terry responded, trying to give everybody something.Â 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.Â “Writing,” she said, “Is a spiritual practice.Â What is your intent?”Â Intention, she said, interweaves with craft.Â Education is important.Â Fact matter — they’re the “delicious details.”
She told how writers she responds to the most are writing about community.Â 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.Â The only one she found was that all of them had had peak experiences in nature at an early age.
TerryÂ posed, “What is authentic on the page and how do we recognize it?” She urged attendees to write from their bodies.Â “My body doesn’t lie,” she said.Â “What is the language we’d speak if there was nobody there to correct us?”Â 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).Â
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.Â TheÂ last time, I hadn’tÂ gotten back to sleep.Â Tired, I began losingÂ my stamina to listen as closely as I knew Terry hoped we would.Â TheÂ themes beganÂ to soundÂ remarkably similar: I’m changing direction; I’m disoriented; I don’t know where to go in my language.Â Terry extended her mind to each one,Â offeringÂ possibilities.Â
On top of my weariness, the onlyÂ ill person in the room had chosen to sitÂ beside me and was coughing and wheezing.Â Illness poses a harsh threat to my household.Â I looked around the roomÂ forÂ escape butÂ all seats were filled.Â
Terry watches her audience closely.Â Â Between visible signs of audience fatigue and her own urgency to press forward, she made an example of one attendee who rambled, cuttingÂ her off.Â Â People picked up their feet after that, but still by the end,Â only 45 minutes remained in our three-hour workshop.
She called a break and gave us an assignment.Â “Go outside and walk around and pick up the first object that strikes you.Â It could be an external object or an object in here” (she indicated her chest).Â “Bring it back and take twenty minutesÂ to write about it.”Â
Being a veteran of workshops focused on writing about nature,Â I found this activity familiar andÂ easy.Â Relieved toÂ 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 whenÂ movement caught my eye.Â A lizard, the first of spring, darted acrossÂ one of the porch’s planks and turned to look at me.Â Â Â 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 enoughÂ cause for concern.Â Couldn’t take it inside anyway.Â But asÂ I wandered around the motel a few minutes more then went inside, my thinking circled back again and again to the lizard.Â The lizard was it, but what chord had it struck?Â IÂ returned to the conference room, picked a spot against the wall away from my contagious neighbor,Â andÂ leaned backÂ to write.
The words danced around aÂ feeling I’ve had every spring for the lastÂ few years.Â Â The first signs of spring — theÂ arrival of migratory birds, the emergence of lizards, the early eruptionsÂ of leaves like greenÂ sparksÂ from the tips of cottonwood branches — have begun taking me by surprise, like this lizard did.Â Â I beganÂ drafting a map of this feeling, centeredÂ on the lizard.
Terry called time.Â SheÂ told us she wantedÂ each of us to read a single line from what we’d written.Â The goal was to construct a “community narrative.” Â Â As someone read a line, anybody who thought he or she had a line that wouldÂ 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 toÂ oneÂ line.Â They felt driven to say something and one line wasn’t enough.Â Their desire to mean something, to give feeling and thought body and brain, to get across to others,Â was palpable.Â Themes ofÂ wanting to connect,Â of longing toÂ defendÂ beloved ground,Â of not know which way toÂ turn repeated frequently.Â
My line wasÂ a bit different and I wasn’t sure how to fit it in.Â Â I decided that the next time someone read a lineÂ speakingÂ to their desireÂ toÂ get a sense of direction, I’d read mine.
AÂ minute later,Â that veryÂ themeÂ came swimming past.Â 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 delightÂ eruptedÂ around the room, surprising me almost as much as the lizard did.Â
Wow!Â Â These people are easy to please!
We finished up quickly,Â then Terry gave new instructions.Â She wanted us to go outside and engage in a group bow to “honor the work done here today.”Â A group bow.Â This was new to me.Â Â And the concept of honoring is one I’ve run into over and over again down here in the desert.Â
Recently, IÂ wrote a script for the local storytelling festival.Â When I e-mailed it to the Navajo woman heading the committee, she called to askÂ me toÂ make a few changes.Â Â Could IÂ change theÂ reference to aÂ northern EuropeanÂ fairytale about aÂ mother goat rescuing herÂ kids from the belly of a wolf who had eaten them alive?Â “Navajos can’t hear stories about things threatening their livestock.”Â I did.Â Â Â Could I addÂ words about how the storytellers telling the talesÂ are honoring those from whom they learned the tales?Â Â Â She drawled the word “honor” out, “aaw-norrr,” as if she were trying to teach me how to say it properly.Â I thought, I’m hearing something unfamiliar,Â so IÂ followed her instructions closely to get the words right.
Now there Terry was asking us to “honor the work done here today.”Â We went outÂ to aÂ packed dirt clearning on the motel’s south side and formed a circle.Â We joined hands, then stood silently while Terry looked around the circle.Â Smiling, she led us in a deep bow.Â 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.Â She was very complimentary of my lizard line.Â “You heard how they responded!” she exclaimed.
Yes, and I’ve been thinking about it since.Â While IÂ appreciated the exposure toÂ several ideas, to poetic expressions, to puzzles (like what “honor” means)Â and to vibrant factsÂ during Terry’s reading and workshop that fine-tuned my thinkingÂ about different problems and beliefs, the group’s reaction to the lizard line is perhaps the one thingÂ from which I learned the most.Â That little moment ofÂ relation between myself and other members of Terry’s workshop pointed me in the direction TerryÂ had signaled theÂ evening before when she said that ifÂ the Rwandans, who had sufferedÂ and lost so much during the 1994 genocide, could still have hope, then how much easier shouldÂ having hopeÂ be for those of us who have so much.Â So in my developing ideas about sustainable language, what it is, what it might do, what it doesn’t do, I’m drafting inÂ another point:Â Sustainable languageÂ ought to haveÂ and give hope.Â
That wasÂ one important thing I learned, maybe the most important thing.Â That, and that Mormons can do this — write literary natureÂ and science literature, I mean.Â Â Â Â Â