TW Interview by Lorraine Berry
Twelve years ago, in the wake of a divorce and the ensuing emotional chaos, I suffered from panic attacks. One November day, I sat sideways in an easy chair, my legs over one arm, a blanket wrapped around me against the cold. I was reading Terry Tempest Williams’s Leap (Random House, 2000).
At a local bookstore, I’d picked up her exploration of Hieronymous Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Delights, which she first saw in the Prado. I'd been studying Bosch for my dissertation—but here’s the passage that leapt out:
No one has any idea as I sit here quietly in the midst of the gathering, passing crowd in front of the triptych, that my calm is my cover. Once when someone asked if I knew anything about panic attacks, I said, ‘Yes.’ I told them I heard it was like having your blood replaced by ants. ‘Must be terrible,’ he said. ‘Must be,’ I replied, as the black-bodied, red-bodied army of ants marched through every vessel in my body.
She got it. At that moment, I felt understood. My relief was so strong that tears gathered in my eyes and trickled down my face.
I mention this now because I want to make clear what the opportunity to interview Terry Tempest Williams has meant to me this spring. Back on that cold November day, she did what we as writers can only hope to achieve. She reached through my darkness to let me know that what I experienced as a personal hell was, in fact, a shared experience.
Before Leap, I’d read Refuge (Random House, 1991), one of her first books, in huge gulps. In that “unnatural history of family and place,” Williams describes a harrowing year when the Great Salt Lake reached flood stage, threatening to destroy flocks of migratory birds that used the lake as their nesting areas. During that natural crisis, she also watched her beloved mother and grandmother die of breast cancer.
She’s published fourteen books to date, receiving Guggenheim and Lannan fellowships for her creative nonfiction. She's a naturalist, an environmentalist, a teacher. She's a columnist at the Progressive. Her focus has always been the relationship between the natural world and ourselves. Over the years, she’s written about the desert—to which she returns again and again—prairie dogs, and women's voices.
Her most recent book, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice (Macmillan/Sarah Crichton, 2012), is a collection of journal entries, based on finding her mother's journals—which were empty. Williams’s writing is lyrical, but tough. It seeks to restore the voices of women silenced by their culture or religion—the Mormon faith of her family, in particular.
Our interview was conducted via email in April. I sent Williams a long list of questions, which she then regrouped into a framework that we’ve maintained in the edited TW interview here.
It means so much to know that my words have been part of your own personal history. Indeed, we are in this together.
Once again, reading her words makes me feel understood.
TW: Your newest book feels like a bookend to Refuge. Did you intend it that way? Do you feel the books are to be read together? Why did you return to the subject of your mother’s death?
TTW: As I was writing When Women Were Birds, I did not see this story that way, but now that it’s a book in the world, I do. Of course, the books can be read separately, but if read together, certainly one informs the other.
From my point of view, I didn’t return to my mother’s death; I returned to her journals, and that’s a very different story. My mother left me her journals, which were all blank. When Women Were Birds is a story about voice and silence. I wrote this book when I was 54 years old, the age my mother was when she died. The questions I’m asking now as a woman in my fifties, I could not have imagined as a young woman in my twenties and thirties—the age I was when I wrote Refuge.
Refuge was written as a daughter. When Women Were Birds was written as a woman.
TW: Why is silence important to writers? Is silence something that we all, regardless of whether we’re writers or not, need access to? And how do we find that in our increasingly tuned-in, turned-on world?
TTW: Silence is where we locate our voice, both as writers and as human beings. In silence, the noises outside cease so the dialogue inside can begin. Silence takes us to an unknown place. It’s not necessarily a place of comfort. For me, the desert holds this space of quiet reflection; it’s erosional, like the landscape itself.
You also ask why is it important that writers write and not embrace a life of silence. In many ways, we do embrace a lifestyle of silence, inward silence, a howling silence that brings us to our knees and desk each day. All a writer really has is time. Time to think. Time to read. Time to write.
Time for a writer translates into solitude. In solitude, we create. In solitude, we are read. If we’re lucky, our books create community having been written out of solitude. It’s a lovely paradox. It’s the creative tension that I live with: I write to create community, but in order to do so, I am pulled out of community. Solitude is a writer’s communion.
TW: In When Women Were Birds, you write that the biblical Eve “exposed the truth of what every woman knows: to find our sovereign voice often requires a betrayal.” Do you think women writers are handicapped because we’re still taught to be polite and deferential to others’ feelings?
TTW: No. But as Gertrude Stein said, it’s the “vitality of the struggle” that creates the most vibrant authentic work. Honesty is part of the struggle to write. Breaking set with our conditioning is part of that struggle. Who we might betray in our attempt to tell the truth is another part of the struggle, especially when we’re writing about our families. This keeps me up at night. And how do we not betray ourselves in the process? By what authority do we write?
We write out of the authority of our own experience. My friend, another writer, and I talk about this often. I believe it’s not just a woman’s struggle to find her voice, but a human struggle to speak from a place of integrity and authenticity. It is never easy. What is unique to our voices as women is the power when we do choose to speak.
TW: Given the current state of the planet, do you think it’s possible to write about nature without inherently being political in your writing? Do you believe that nature writers have an obligation to be political? What are the connections between art and politics?
TTW: I don’t think it’s possible to write about the state of the planet without touching the heart of politics. Again, we love to compartmentalize our thinking, our various disciplines of study, our world, and thus, at great cost, we fragment it.
Wangari Maathai was a friend of mine and not only a great leader but a great teacher. With her Green Belt Movement in Kenya, she showed me, through the simple power of planting trees, how environmental issues are economic issues, are women’s issues, are issues of social justice. No separation. If we isolate writing from our concerns, does it become isolated and disembodied prose?
On the other hand, polemics are not persuasive. Any writing that moves us must be alive in its discovery on the page. If I know where I’m going in an essay, I’m not interested in writing it. Even in an opinion piece that appears in the New York Times, the words that carry the most power and influence are the words that move us beyond rhetoric to a place of feeling. This is done most effectively through story.
As I have said before, story bypasses rhetoric and pierces our hearts. When someone tells a story, our attention becomes focused. We are present. We are listening. I want to write sentences that become an open door to listening. I want to write stories that remind us we are not alone in the world.
The writers I love most are the ones who beg me to write “yes” in the margins. Or the ones who dare me to think about an idea that was formerly a taboo. Great writers allow me to travel. They make me believe in magic because of what appears on the page.
Perhaps this is a link between art and politics: Art can transform patterned thinking. It shows us what’s possible. It brings us home to ourselves, quietly, forcefully. Art disturbs. We stop talking and begin feeling. A debate is transformed into a conversation. We begin to see the world differently, call it a side view. What appears peripheral, living on the margins, can be seen through time, as actually moving to the center.
Art is a vehicle for social change. Art—be it a painting, a poem, a dance, or an opera—invites us to settle into an experience, an embodied experience, one that both honors and encourages individual interpretations and meanings. This creates a very different emotional and intellectual space when compared to the politics of opinion.
Art creates a symbolic consciousness. How we make sense of the world through art, language, and acts of the imagination is what makes us human.
TW: In Finding Beauty in a Broken World (Pantheon, 2008), you spent a long time observing the behavior of prairie dogs. How did you find the patience? That book astounded me, because you were forced into long periods of quietude that many of us couldn’t imagine doing. How do you prepare for that?
TTW: One could call watching prairie dogs an act of patience, but for me it was an ongoing act of pure joy. Like watching birds. Like bending down to see a particular wildflower. Like walking the wrack line on the shore at low tide.
True, with prairie dogs, it took some time to quiet my mind so I could appreciate the world they live in. A commitment to slow down and pay attention, call it the naturalist’s gaze, was required, but it was never a burden, always a privilege. Whenever I’m outside, observing, breathing, participating in nature, I’m in heaven right here on Earth. One of my daily requirements is to establish eye contact with another species outside my own—be it a house wren, a raven, or our dogs. It’s my definition of humility.
For me, preparation for quietude or solitude is a matter of scheduling. I know that sounds ironic or silly, even contradictory, but if you saw my calendar, you would see that there are long skeins of time marked and set aside for “nothing.” The daily square on a calendar is circled as a free space. This kind of open space in my life is not optional, but essential for my sanity and safety as a writer.
It also serves as a balance to my public life as a teacher and writer, which I am equally committed to maintaining in the service of community. I feel responsible for both needs: my need to be alone and my need to engage. Both needs support a creative life.
TW: Do you believe that there still is such a thing as an American “Western” identity? When my students work on essays about place, many of them have never considered place as a legitimate thing to write about—and yet, for you it seems essential. Why is place so important to writing?
TTW: Place is the ground beneath my feet. Utah. I grew up in Salt Lake City. Great Salt Lake was the line of light that illuminated our horizon. Without place, we are floating. Without place, we are adrift. Where do we live, where do we belong? Who do we become without a sense of place? Each of us answers these questions differently.
Fragmentation is part of modernity. I think of Robert Pinsky’s great line “Motion can be a place, too.” And in so many ways, America is a country of motion and displacement. I understand this. Airports are a place. Homelessness is a place within our cities that we want to ignore. Place is not an abstraction. It is dirt, soil, pavement. I think of desert pavement, stones welded together through drought.
My identity is rooted in the American West, in the red rock deserts of the Colorado Plateau, in the sagebrush ocean of the Great Basin. I feel the geologic spine of the Northern Rockies as my own. I want a sense of bedrock in my writing. I need to know my place. Natural histories are personal histories of the wider community, a community that includes coyotes, jack rabbits, and meadowlarks; globe mallow and rice grass; whose signature is written in sand by the wind. Where I am and who I live among is a reflection of who I am.
The Colorado River, red with sediment, is akin to the blood within my veins. The full moon in the desert casting its blue light on Adobe Mesa is more than just a moment in the lunar cycle; it is a presence that speaks to me and the nightly crickets who respond. Place is what gives my work and my words standing, and it is animated through story.
One night, I sat and listened to the desert with a black widow silent on the wall. I am a writer shaped by my geography.
TW: Are there types of nature writing you don’t like? Do you think some nature writing overly romanticizes the natural world?
TTW: I’m not sure what “nature writing” is and what is included inside and outside the so-called genre. Is The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway nature writing? Is The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck? What about Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather? All three of these novels are place-based works of literature with the ocean, the dustbowl of the Depression, and the American Southwest as primary characters.
Add Moby Dick by Melville, Leaves of Grass by Whitman. Was Emily Dickinson a nature poet? One could call Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom nature writing as it turns on the character of a cerulean warbler.
We love to categorize writing and writers. I have seen my books on every imaginable shelf in bookstores and libraries, including “occult.” I have been called a nature writer. I think it is limiting. As a culture, when we discount nature, privileging economics over ecology, we discount nature writers as part of that peripheral system.
The more important or interesting question is what position or role does nature play in American literature, fiction, and nonfiction. Certainly, Thoreau’s Walden is a classic text in philosophy, political theory, and “nature writing.” But why limit the view when the view from Walden Pond is endless?
Right now, I’m reading David Carroll’s beautiful book Swampwalker’s Journal (Mariner, 1999). It could be considered classic nature writing. I see it as a book about what it means to be human, awake, alive, and engaged with the world that surrounds us. I’m also having my Dartmouth students read Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun (McSweeney’s, 2009). That book, too, is about nature—human nature in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
What is our definition of justice, and must it only revolve around our own species? What is power, authentic power? A government or the adaptive strategies of a turtle? We have confused capitalism with democracy. I am interested in the open space of democracy, and creating walls around a particular genre diminishes both the writer and the work.
For more information, see Terry Tempest Williams's website.
In the arid foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, the Milky Way arched over us. It was the nightly path our eyes crossed before we went to sleep. This was my personal universe, with its own inherent truths. Truth, for me, was based on what I could see and hear, touch and taste, more trustworthy than any religious doctrine. Indoor religion bored me; outdoor religion did not.
— from When Women Were Birds