A blog for those who desire a more creative relationship with the natural world.


"Your recent blog about the tender return of your loved ones to the earth was moving, graceful in words and inspiration. Your words always come from the heart and intellect. A rare and insightful combination." Rolland Smith, former news anchor for WCBS-TV in New York, recipient of 11 Emmy Awards

Over 175,000 pageviews. Thank you!


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

8000 Writers Descend on Denver - AWP, Second Installment

Please scroll down to April 15 to read the first "8000 Writers Descend on Denver" installment about the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Denver last weekend.

"What is to give light, must endure burning."  This is the motto that has, for 36 years, fed the brave editorial direction of The Sun magazine.  I wasn't able to attend the INTO THE FIRE reading by Sun authors Sy Safransky, Ellen Bass, and 5 other notibles, but I heard it was fabulous. 

Instead, I attended WHEN FORM INVENTS FUNCTION: THE CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN INDIAN PROSE POEM, in part because Sherman Alexie was supposed to be on the panel (a stand-up comedian who brilliantly disguises himself as an author, so brilliantly in fact that War Dances just won the 2010 Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction), but in greater part because my frend, Choctaw author LeAnne Howe was on the panel.  If you want to know who invented baseball, read LeAnne's novel Miko Kings, and check out her Miko King blog.

Part of the panel discussion revolved around genre, a hotly debated topic for more than 10 years in LeAnne's academic circle at the University of Illinois, where she is a professor of English and American Indian Studies.  "Hey, we're Indian," LeAnne told the audience (in her charming, radically intelligent way), "we don't need no stinking genre."  She went on to say, "Let the work teach you about the process...let the work find its own genre."

Her advice makes sense.  Find the fire, let it burn (fuel the writing with passion), then let the writing inform the genre.  Most of the time, we do just the opposite.  We sit down and say, "I'm going to write a poem."  Then, even though the writing might unfold as something different, we try over and over again to fit it into the genre in which we thought we were going to write.  "Sometimes," said LeAnne, "we discover what a piece of writing is by discovering what it's not."

Several panels explored the western landscape as both character and genre: Western Myth Busters, Women Writing the West, To West or Not to West, The First Next Place: Montana Writers Take on Regionalism, and The Transplanted Writer (mentioned in my first AWP installment). The idea of remythologizing the West has been a favorite (and tiring) topic at conferences in the West for decades.  I found myself writing in my notebook I LOVE THE WEST out of shear self-defense because many of panels did a good job of exhausting the topic. 

Do women write the West differently?  This question was posed several times.  Are women more apt to allow myths, our own and others, to live side by side without feeling the need to prove either one true or false?  What are your thoughts?  Perhaps the "woman's" West is a more diverse landscape.

During the conference, a moving tribute was paid to Standing Rock Sioux author VINE DELORIA, JR,  Controversial author of twenty books about the Native American experience, he wrote in an op-ed article in The New York Times in 1976, "We have brought the white man a long way in 500 years. From a childish search for mythical cities of gold and fountains of youth to the simple recognition that lands are essential for human existence."  Mitakuye Oyasin.  The Universe is alive, and we are all related.  Much of the career of this esteemed scholar was devoted to diversifying our beliefs about the West.

On the final night of the conference, Terry Tempest Williams (photo credit Ted C. Brummond), author of 15 books including the beloved memoir Refuge, joined Rick Bass, author of 20 books including the memoir Why I Came West, for a final keynote presentation.  When I said hello to Terry earlier that day, she shared with me that she had had mysterious health concerns and that the doctors had discovered a small vasculer mass in the language part of her brain.  She opted not to have surgery, so the mass was still there.  Each day seemed suddenly a rare gift, not to be squandered.

A few hours later, during the final event with Rick Bass, Terry told the audience of hundreds that she was going to read something very raw, something that required courage.  "I shared a draft with Rick last night," she said, "and he cared enough to be critical.  To preserve my dignity, I won't repeat what he said." The audience laughed, then quieted as she began to speak of the vascular mass, of the visions that came, of the birds that appeared, and reappeared, bringing both beauty and a sense of otherworldliness.

When Rick took the stage after Terry, he quickly shared with the audience that the sponsors of the event (University of North Carolina Wilmington) had wined and dined him to excess, plying him him with coffee to sober him up before he spoke.  I'm glad the coffee didn't work - he was charming in this slightly inebriated state. 

Perhaps Denver's Mile Hi thin air was partly to blame.  The air here is intoxicating, even when you're born and reared along the Front Range and grow up in the shadows of Colorado's rocky, white-capped peaks.  The conference, too, was intoxicating - almost too much of a good thing.  But taken one panel at a time, one speaker at a time, one idea at a time, well worth the satiated feeling that followed.

Apply to present at the 2011 AWP Conference in Washington, D.C.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


The program booklet for AWP’s annual conference and bookfair was 322 pages thick – no kidding. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) has been “fostering literary talent and achievement” since 1967, but this is the first year they’ve done so in the West.
What happens at AWP? Keynotes. Dozens of featured readings. Dozens of panels. And at least half a dozen off-site parties every night. It’s a virtual who's who of the literary world, with special emphasis on MFA students, programs, and instructors. If you’re a serious writer, this is the place to be. I say that a bit tongue-in-cheek, because I know there are a lot of serious writers in the West who have perhaps never heard of AWP.

Here’s what I loved about the conference (besides the famous Blue Bear sculpture outside Denver's Convention Center peering in at all of us)….

Lots of friends from the West’s writing community were there. Teresa Jordan. Laura Pritchett. LeAnne Howe. Kent Myers. Laurie Wagner Buyer. Julene Bair. Lisa Jones. David Romtvedt. Chris Ransick. Maria Martinez. Deirdre McNamer, Lee Ann Roripaugh. So many more! And Denver’s own Lighthouse Writers was a prominent sponsor.

Presenting on a panel with William Kittredge for the forthcoming anthology In the Manner of Country: Living and Writing the American West (title taken from a quote by Mary Austin in Land of Little Rain) was an honor. As was meeting the anthology’s editors Lynn Stegner and Russell Rowland after months of email communications. Kittredge's comments on Western mythology reminded me that I need to re-read his classic memoir, Hole in the Sky, and read for the first time The Best Short Stories of William Kittredge (Greywolf Press). 

Robert Wilder and Pam Houston (with Summer Wood and Uma Krishnaswami) had the audience laughing out loud during the panel, “Writing the West: The Transplanted Writer as Literary Outsider.” Pam and I have presented together a couple of times and it was good to be again in the presence of her wit.  Rob (author of Daddy Needs a Drink) is a writer with that rare gift of both humor and wisdom.  Here are a few of their more serious comments (not verbatim):

“Any work of art needs an insider, and an outsider,” said Rob. “What the insider knows intuitively is a difficult way to create art. I feel lucky because I don’t take the West for granted.”

“I love the West exactly the way someone from New Jersey loves the West,” said Pam. “What happened to me in the western landscape? The Colorado Plateau was big enough that it made me feel like IT knew more than I did. My first job was JUST TO TRY TO GET IT DOWN.”

She didn't mean Get down the feelings.  She meant GET DOWN THE PLACE and let the details of the landscape lead you organically to the story.  "If I can get down those physical chunks of stuff, the story happens."

Ron Carlson (who spoke at the "Tribute to William Kittredge" event along with Terry Tempest Williams and Rick Bass) gives similar advice in his book Ron Carlson Writes a Story"Solve your problems through the physical world," he advises writers.  Terry gave me similar advice over fifteen years ago at a workshop in Wyoming.  She challenged all of us to know the names of at least 10 plants, 10 trees, and 10 creatures that share our landscape. 

During the "Writing the West" panel, Summer Wood (winner of the $50,000 AROHO Gift of Freedom Award) gave this advice:  "Understand how STORY SITS IN LANDSCAPE." 

In my essay, "A Shape-Shifting Land" (included in the forthcoming anthology In the Manner of the Country), I write: "Writing personal stories about the landscapes we love is a radical act. A protective act.  A celebratory act.  Even an act of desperation.  It is also an intimate and sensual act.  Sometimes I crave the western earth like food, or breath, or sex, or water."

What do you crave in your writing?  How do your stories sit in landscape?

More AWP inspiration to follow, so stay-tuned.