ALL THINGS LITERARY. ALL THINGS NATURAL.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

BK LOREN ON ANIMALS, MINERALS, and RADICALS.

At the Tattered Cover signing in Denver last Tuesday night, BK Loren told us that creative nonfiction was a form she only recently discovered.  “I mean, how many people here just rush right out to get the newest nonfiction book?”  Well, apparently dozens of us did that night—at least those of us who loved her recent novel THEFT and hungered for more of her wily take on life.

We had come to listen to BK tell labor stories about the birth of ANIMAL MINERAL RADICAL.  Like midwives, we wanted to be present at the birth for that first lungful.  We wanted to see the swaddling cloth wrapped, and unwrapped, and re-wrapped.

“Books are about community,” BK said.  “We gather together for books.”  We knew that, of course, but we still nodded our heads and smiled, happy to be there—gathered—eager—expectant.  Friends, fans, family, even perfect strangers—all gathered together.  For a closer look at perfect strangers, read about Ragman in “The Evolution of Hunger” (found in this collection).

A writer like BK looks at the splintered glass that is this fractured thing we call the human experience, and creates a mirror for us that reflects our higher selves, a bridge across which we can walk when our lives seem lost.  Not quite memoir and more than most nonfiction, ANIMAL MINERAL RADICAL is driven by STORY.

“I think nonfiction suffers from a lack of imagination,” BK told us, “which is NOT the same as fabrication.” 

Someone in the audience asked, “Can you tell us about the seeding and evolution of the book?”

“It wasn’t a collection originally…I wasn’t able to write for ten years and when I came back to it, I understood language in a different way.  I loved writing something that felt like it had no home.” (Infer: Unlike a novel, which is housed as mystery, romance, literary, sci-fi, etc.?)  “But the book didn’t begin as a seed.  It was more of a braiding.” 

This comment made me think of the master weavers I met in Peru at the school in Chinchero during last April's "Weaving Words & Women" retreat, how they spin the wool carded from their sheep and alpacas and llamas until all the fibers, once distinctly separate, form single strands of yarn spooled into whole skeins.  I think our life stories are like that—organically designed to cling together.  It’s just that most of us are pretty slow to recognize the fabric of our lives, which BK is right, is not the same as fabrication.

When asked to talk about the difference between fiction and nonfiction, BK said, “In fiction you get to move the pieces around.  When you’re doing creative nonfiction, the challenge is to take your daily lives and turn them into art.  Both types of writing make me a more compassionate being.” 

Yesterday, during a cross-country flight to Florida, I hunkered down in my seat and finished reading BK's new book.  Despite her assertion that the genres are different, ANIMAL MINERAL RADICAL reads like fiction—each essay honed with the same fine wordsmithing tools as her novels.  I even found my own sensitivity to language shift as I read, the syntax of my thoughts reordering in more original ways.    

I suspect BK often writes standing on her head—I never knew, while reading, just what sensate gem might come tumbling out of her pocket.  She looks at the world through her pores, soaks in the smell of it with her eyes, hears every textured nuance with the tip of each probing finger, and tastes with her heart each of life’s dark bitter corners and sweet bright nuggets.  Perhaps this is from the aphasia she writes/quips about in the last chapter “Word Hoard,” but I think it’s more than that. 

“I am an emotionally driven writer…,” she told us, “I don’t believe in chronology or time.  It helps me to get it down raw.”

Raw.  But not bloody.  BK doesn’t ask us to wallow in the mud with her.  She does the grueling work of turning pain into art, crafting stories from her life that are filled more with hope than anguish.  But make no mistake, there is plenty of anguish here—BK’s, Laura’s, Ragman’s, her redneck brother Roy’s, their father’s, and especially--their gutsy mother.

Pablo Picasso is credited with saying, “There are painters who transform the sun to a yellow spot, but there are others who with the help of their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into sun.” 

This is the bright and shining gift BK offers us with the intimate stories in ANIMAL MINERAL RADICAL—the shimmering hope that by discovering the narrative beneath our own small lives, we will transform them into hard (yes, hard--hard to write, hard to read) faceted brilliant gems—like diamonds, only not mined with someone else's blood, sweat and tears—but with our own.   

Thank you, BK, for the literary storm that engulfed me during my flight to Florida as the Boeing 757 powered its way through the atmosphere at the speed of, well…a  jet.  Thank you for standing on your head and letting it all come tumbling out.  And thank you to that generous Anonymous Writer, whoever you are, for hosting the after party and bringing us all together again to celebrate with BK.

Monday, February 4, 2013

A Tribute to Gaydell Collier


If you ever spent a few minutes talking with Gaydell Collier, or heard her read her poignant poetry, or one of her funny essays, or experienced her deep way of listening, or soaked in any of the humble, wise opinions solicited from her, then most likely you loved her too. 

Gaydell’s presence is in every nook of my writing office, in every cranny of my heart, in nearly every word I have written in the last 20 years.  Like the thousand winds she wrote about—those which decades ago blew her serendipitously from New York to Wyoming , and those that blew her across the western landscape to Just Beyond Harmony, where she reared her children, planted her roots, sang her songs, wrote her stories, raised her horses, and loved her dogs—she inspired a thousand writers, and more.

I first met Gaydell in 1987 when I walked into the little library in Sundance, Wyoming, and she greeted me, handing me the monthly calendar of library events.  “What’s Bearlodge Writers?” I asked her.  “Our local writing group,” she answered. “We meet the second Tuesday of every month and the third Wednesday of every month.”  And thus began the rekindling of my own writing dreams, dormant since my college years in the 70s. 

“The important thing is to touch the earth and stand in the wind,” Gaydell wrote in Leaning into the Wind, the first of three "Wind Anthologies" she co-edited with Linda Hasselstrom and Nancy Curtis (published by Houghton Mifflin), “to know you are a part of the whole—not superimposed like asphalt.  On the plains, in the mountains, you learn that you are as important as the beaver, the hawk, the dragonfly—but not more so.  You are a part of the Circle.”

Gaydell’s gifts to the literary community were many, from the thousands of suggestions she offered to those who entered the Crook County Library in search of an inspiring book, to her endless support of statewide and national organizations such as Bearlodge Writers, Wyoming Writers, Inc., Western Writers of America, to the legacy of books she wrote and co-edited.  In 2004, she received the prestigious Governor's Arts Award from the state of Wyoming.

Her gifts to the equine community were equally impressive.  In 1974, she sat at her kitchen table with her friend Eleanor Prince, and put together Basic Horsemanship: English and Western, A Complete Guide for Riders and InstructorsThis book, and two subsequent horse books, would turn out to be some of Doubleday's best-sellers in their Equestrian Library. 

After I moved from Wyoming to Colorado, Gaydell and I stayed in touch with phone calls, emails, at writer's conferences, and even at the airport.  In the photo below, Gaydell is getting ready to fly to France to see her longtime pen pal Monique. Their friendship began in 1947 and lasted 66 years.  Last October at the Women Writing the West Conference in Albuquerque, John and I shared breakfast with Gaydell and Wyoming Poet Laureate Pat Frolander. 

The last visit we shared with Gaydell was in November at her small ranch house near Beulah, Wyoming.  John and I stopped to see her on our way to my small family ranch.  I was girding myself to do battle with the Wyoming Highway Department, who wants to  reroute a major highway through the heart of my portion of the ranch.  Gaydell poured us tea and set a few cookies on a saucer.  

We sat at her kitchen table, our dogs laying beside us, and I told her about hiking my land with the archeologist, hoping to find some significant artifacts that might halt the rerouting.  Gaydell offered a  few calm, consoling words, and I thought of all the triumphs and tragedies she had experienced in her life.  The death of a son, a daughter, a husband, beloved dogs and horses.  The birth of stories, poems and books, countless friendships, loving grandchildren.  "Know you are a part of the whole," her words echo now, "not superimposed like asphalt...you are a part of the Circle.”   And so, as I listen to these thousand winds, I will think of Gaydell, at the center now, of that Great Circle.

Note: You may read Gaydell's official obituary on the Wyoming Arts Council blog.\
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