Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Silent Voice

When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice                      by Terry Tempest Williams                                                                                       New York: Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pp.

Guest Review by Lanie Tankard

“Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech.”

— Susan Sontag, The Aesthetics of Silence (1967)

Williams seeks her mother’s voice, and hears so much more.

What do blank pages mean? Do they have a voice?

Terry Tempest Williams explores that conundrum in her latest book, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice.

Williams is author of the classic Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. That thoughtful memoir of grief detailed the effects of radioactive fallout from a nuclear weapons test site in Nevada on her large Mormon family in Utah. Her mother, and many in her clan, developed cancer after the fallout drifted their way. Williams wrote of her mother’s death in Refuge.

Now, in When Women Were Birds, her mother appears again.

“I’m leaving you all my journals,” she tells Williams from her deathbed, asking her daughter not to look at them until after she’s gone. On the next full moon, a month after her mother dies, Williams decides the time is right to read the journals.

“They were exactly where she said they would be: three shelves of beautiful clothbound books; some floral, some paisley, others in solid colors.”

As she begins to open the volumes though, Williams sees they are all blank—page after page of deafening silence. What was her mother trying to say?

Noise pollution has made it increasingly difficult to find even one square inch of silence  on our planet, although a spot in the Hoh Rain Forest of Olympic National Park is designed to do just that. Yet these empty journals are not quite the silence Williams expected to find in her mother’s absence.

“Silence” is defined as quietness: not speaking—either intentionally or through suppression. “Voice,” on the other hand, usually refers to a sound made using vocal organs, or to singing. It can also mean an expressed opinion, or the right to state that opinion. “Voice” is speaking.

Williams wonders whether a person needs to write in order to have a voice. Then, in fifty-four brief chapters, she mulls over the answer. Williams begins to consider the blank page almost as a glass filled halfway with water. Does one call it half full or half empty? She ponders whether her mother meant for her to fill in the blanks, so she starts to write in the journals herself.

“Empty pages become possibilities,” she realizes.

Williams has often combined thoughts on nature and writing. In another book, Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, Williams wrote of the significance of the desert as a landscape of minimalism.

“I want to write my way from the margins to the center,” she said there, and included an entire chapter on why she writes.

Whenever Williams contemplates the act of writing, she imparts a legacy to other writers—those who string together letters to form words and then place them alongside one another to give shape to thoughts that, when viewed en masse, cause something called a “book” to develop.

When Women Were Birds is not a book only for writers though, nor even one gender. In typical Williams fashion, the book is about so much more.

Author Margaret Atwood once said, “Powerlessness and silence go together.” As Williams contemplates voice, or the lack thereof, she offers a stellar reflection on politics, poetry, and power—as well as nature, art, music, love, creation, mother-daughter relationships, truth and imagination, birth and death . . . confrontation of mortality.

She works in Wallace Stevens, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Walser, and many other creative thinkers. She realizes “words fail us.”

Terry Tempest Williams uses her mother’s empty journals to hear her mother’s voice. What she listens to resounds far more eloquently than if each page had been filled to the margins.

“A mother speaks to her children through the generations,” she sees, and the stirring narrative Williams imagines will echo for a long time to come.

• • •

Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. 

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Filed under memoir, REVIEW

About writers’ conferences

When I was farming, at first it surprised me how much farmers love conferences—just like everybody else. Isolated most of the time, farmers liked to get together, have a learning vacation, stay in a motel with a pool for the kids. I already knew they’d adopted the digital world, its message boards and email lists. Just like writers, whose own conferences bear a striking similarity—though lacking booths devoted to kelp meal and artificial insemination.

The mother of all writing conferences, AWP, is a fearsome thing. Last time I went, a few years ago, there were 8,000 writers, students, teachers, editors, agents, and publishers milling about. The only way for a soul like me, timid as a sheep on a daily basis, to enjoy such a confab would be if I had a book coming out. Or was speaking on a panel. Or had more friends than I do.

AWP’s panels, often witnessed from a great distance, are great, however. Famous or mid-career or baby writers burst with helpful insights for their listeners. I still refer to the notes I took. I was ripe for it, which is the only way to saddle up for AWP. I also remember being jammed shoulder to shoulder in presentation rooms.

And being shut out of others. And the crowds at elevators. And the trashed basement feedlot.

The best writing conferences . . .

Joe Mackall, Robert Atwan, and Dan Lehman at the River Teeth Nonfiction Conferene, May 18-20

. . . are small writing conferences. At the end of May, I attended the River Teeth Nonfiction Conference, in Ashland, Ohio. The fine literary magazine River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative is published there, at Ashland University, which also is home to a new but strong and emerging low-residency program in poetry and creative nonfiction.

River Teeth’s was a hugely helpful conference. It fostered involvement and intimacy and collegiality. The speakers gave fresh presentations, packed with ideas. The headliners included Robert Atwan, Bob Cowser Jr., Jill Christman, Hope Edelman, Walt Harrington, Michelle Herman, Kate Hopper, Sonya Huber, Dan Lehman, Joe Mackall, Dinty W. Moore, Ana Maria Spagna, and Sarah M. Wells.

They engaged with attendees during their sessions and also at social hours. Everyone sat together at meals. Friends and presenters tended to sit together, sure, but there was room for you. It felt like all of us were buddies, really. People who shared the same passion. The energy was infectious.

Attendance came with an hour-long writing consultation, and I was humbled by the insight and generosity of my mentor, Ana Maria Spagna. Others whose work was critiqued told me the same thing. My fellow attendees were an impressive group from across the nation who generated more excitement. I left with new tools, new buddies, and inspiration.

Watch for River Teeth’s next conference—planned to be an annual event.

Midwest Writers Workshop, July 26-28, Muncie, Indiana

Indiana is known for peonies, thunderstorms, and fat sycamore trees. And for its cuisine: fried baloney, corn on the cob, pie made with Crisco. Like Missouri, it’s a state of small towns, everybody more or less equal, united by religion: basketball. Indiana is really a cool state, like Maine. Well, not cool, but nice, and that’s uber cool, actually. And it’s a state known for spawning some great writers and musicians. As a once and maybe future Hoosier—I lived in the cultural oasis of Bloomington for thirteen blessed years—I know these things.

I read about MWW on the Hoosier writer Cathy Day’s blog. Let’s face it, it’ll be broiling out there in those cornfields around Muncie. But that has the virtue of concentrating your mind. And thankfully, there are no misty mountains, rocky seacoast, or lobster to distract you.

There are one-day intensive sessions on genre and about thirty on aspects of craft. There’s also a big emphasis on getting published and pitching agents; Jane Friedman will discuss digital publishing. Sorry for the late notice here—manuscript consultations are closed—but this conference is one to consider, now or next year.

Paulette Bates Alden’s workshop

Boutique gatherings take writers’ meetings to their highest level. This October, my friend Paulette, author of a critically acclaimed memoir and a book of short stories, will teach an intimate workshop on book-length fiction and memoir at the Madeline Island School of the Arts in Northern Wisconsin. The dates are October 8–12th.

“We’ll be tackling the usual suspects,” says Paulette: voice; structure; what to put in and what to leave out; how to find what the book is really about; where to start; how to work through drafts; and how to complete the work.

October seems a long way off, but Paulette says lodging on the island fills up fast. For writers’ groups, there is a group discount if four or more sign up.

Why conferences matter

Like any artists, writers need to gather to teach and nurture each other. Each writer and each generation must learn the very same things, lay the same base from which to work. The instructors along the way are many. They’re eager to help, even if that means instructing you indirectly through rejection. To enter the guild, a writer is taught and vetted by so many teachers, mentors, friends, editors, agents, and publishers. They beat the craft into your body. All this effort and hobnobbing is about reaching readers, mere civilians, lovers who may be comparatively ignorant about craft and certainly of its details that writers must absorb.

Going to conferences is part of a writer’s literary apprenticeship and maybe citizenship. Of course the ideal is that eventually most of one’s teachers reside in books themselves—you study work that does what you’re trying to do. By then the craft has been internalized, freeing your art. Maybe you’ll go to teach others who are coming up. To chat with peers and commiserate, to discuss subtle aspects of craft and art’s almost incommunicable ones.

Get thee to a conference and meet your tribe.

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Filed under MFA, teaching, education, workshopping

We like the Oxford comma II

Thanks to Leslie Miller, friend and fellow blogger, who corrected some wit’s work and sent it to me. Quick as you please. She moved the series into proper order, per the drawing, and capitalized proper nouns. Hope the (surely visual) artist who did this doesn’t get mad. But then, s/he probably stole the idea from a book, maybe from Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Here’s one I use in class to try to show the importance of commas, which most undergraduates will not use—unless they are using one to splice two independent clauses, of course:

“It’s time to eat, Grandma.”

“It’s time to eat Grandma.”

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Filed under humor, punctuation

Why we like the Oxford comma

Also known as the serial comma, and I’m a fan, too—legions of journalists and Cormac McCarthy notwithstanding . . .

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Filed under humor, punctuation, Uncategorized

Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Why Be Happy?’

There are people who could never commit murder. I am not one of those people. —Jeanette Winterson

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson Grove Press, 230 pp.

 Novelist Jeanette Winterson’s searing memoir about life with her depressive mother in working-class England breaks the rules that American memoirists live by. By the rules I mean our emphasis on scene. I won’t bash scene—it’s vital for really conveying one’s experience—and usually scene is deepened and balanced with exposition: summary and reflection. Instead, Winterson’s story is heavily expository—she tells this tale, and she reflects upon it, all from some distance. Scenes come in brief flashes or are heavily interlarded with exposition. She gives the perspective of the writer at her desk rather than that of the child who was “shut in a coal hole” or locked out all night on the family’s doorstep.

Reading Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? took some recalibration, but this Yank got into it, impressed by the distilled rigor of Winterson’s thought, by the cadence of her sentences, by the coldness of her eye, by the still-raw pain that emerges, by the writer’s honesty about her own ornery self.

Forbidden books saved her, sent her to Oxford, to life, to a distinguished literary career with seventeen books on the shelf. Here she is on literature, first on Thomas Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur: 

     In fact, there are more than two chances—many more. I know now, after fifty years, that the finding/losing, forgetting/remembering, leaving/ returning, never stops. The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are alive, till the very end, there is always another chance.

And of course I loved the Lancelot story because it is all about longing and unrequited love.

Yes, the stories are dangerous, she was right. A book is a magic carpet that flies you off elsewhere. A book is a door. You open it. You step through. Do you come back?

. . .

     So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language—and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is.

It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.

. . .

     I had been damaged and a very important part of me had been destroyed—that was my reality, the facts of my life; but on the other side of the facts was who I could be, how I could feel, and as long as I had words for that, stories for that, then I wasn’t lost. . . .

It took me a long time to realize that there are two kinds of writing: the one you write and the one that writes you. The one that writes you is dangerous. You go where you don’t want to go. You look where you don’t want to look.

The Times (UK) is quoted on the memoir’s cover: “Arguably the finest and most hopeful memoir to emerge in many years.”

I supposed this an overstatement—but Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? does feel like some kind of masterpiece. For some reason, perhaps her originality, Winterson reminds me of Gertrude Stein.

Winterson is the author of the autobiographical novel about a young lesbian, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Like Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, it’s about an adopted girl growing up in the north of England with a huge, depressive, religious fanatic Pentecostal mother and a kindly but passive father. It may be that her novel is scenic—I haven’t yet read it—and that like many fiction writers, Winterson tends to tell rather than show in her nonfiction.

This aspect didn’t merit a mention in a review by Kathryn Harrison in The New York Times Book Review, so maybe I’m overstating what struck me. Harrison writes:

     It’s a testament to Winterson’s innate generosity, as well as her talent, that she can showcase the outsize humor her mother’s equally capacious craziness provides even as she reveals the cruelties Mrs. Winterson [what Winterson calls her mother] imposed on her in the name of rearing a God-fearing Christian. “The one good thing about being shut in a coal hole is that it prompts reflection,” Winterson observes, inspiring the question always asked of writers like her, who appear to have transcended misfortunes that might have crippled or silenced another. How did Jeanette Winterson recover from the fantastically bad luck of landing in the embrace of a woman who understood motherhood as a daily struggle with the Devil over the ownership of her child’s soul?

Winterson also writes about her own dominant temperament, her over-reactive rages and black moods. She traces her bereft nature, her soul filled with inconsolable loss, to the fact that her birth mother, only seventeen, gave her up after breastfeeding her for six weeks. She is convinced that she felt the rejection—as was I by the end of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? The title is what her adoptive mother said upon learning that Winterson was gay and intended live with her lovers blissfully and openly. In other words, normal people are unhappy, so get over yourself and join them in their misery. (“Mrs. Winterson was gloriously wounded, like a medieval martyr, gouged and dripping for Jesus, and she dragged her cross for all to see.”)

When Winterson escapes her Dickensian childhood for Oxford she reflects:

     The night I left home I felt that I had been tricked or trapped into going—and not even by Mrs. Winterson, but by the dark narrative of our life together.

Her fatalism was so powerful. She was her own black hole that pulled in all the light. She was made of dark matter and her force was invisible, unseen except in its effects.

Strangely, perhaps, Winterson does not condemn her mother’s fundamentalist church, or even her warped, apocalyptic, Old Testament mother. Her mother was unbelievably strange: she hung watercolors, inherited from her mother, with their faces against the wall because of the Bible’s admonition against graven images. But people lived a “deeper, more thoughtful life” because of that woman’s church, her adopted daughter says, and studying the Bible “worked their brains”; they belonged to “something big, something important” that lent their lives unity and meaning. Winterson elaborates:

     A meaningless life for a human being has none of the dignity of animal unselfconsciousness; we cannot simply eat, sleep, hunt, and reproduce—we are meaning-seeking creatures. The Western world has done away with religion but not with our religious impulses; we seem to need some higher purpose, some point to our lives—money and leisure, social progress, are just not enough.

We shall have to find new ways of finding meaning—it is not yet clear how this will happen.

Suddenly and rather surprisingly, three-quarters of the way through, this literature-saturated reminiscence becomes a tale of Winterson’s search for her birth mother. There are surprises galore in that story, which fuels the memoir’s growing power. I won’t give it away. But the book soars at the end with a meditation on wounds, and another, even more astringent, on love. Winterson riffs on the wounded in classical literature, and writes:

     The wound is symbolic and cannot be reduced to any single interpretation. But wounding seems to be a clue or a key to being human. There is value here as well as agony.

What we notice in the stories is the nearness of the wound to the gift: the one who is wounded is marked out—literally and symbolically—by the wound. The wound is a sign of difference. Even Harry Potter has a scar.

I’ll say this about this not-very-scenic memoir. I want to read it again. That’s because, I think, it isn’t merely a recitation or recreation of a dysfunctional childhood. It’s no Angela’s Ashes. Rather it is about someone who made something of what was made of her—and that’s always interesting, always news. Winterson doesn’t convey experience as much as she conveys the residue of that experience. Herself. Her mind. Her happiness, or at least her feeling of being lucky, that she has the life she does because she became herself, forged by books, by Oxford, and yes, by Mrs. Winterson.

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Filed under essay-classical, evolutionary psychology, fiction, memoir, narrative, religion & spirituality, REVIEW, scene

Ray Bradbury on Shakespeare

How long he stood he did not know, but there was a foolish and yet delicious sense of knowing himself as an animal come from the forest, drawn by the fire. He was a thing of brush and liquid eye, of fur and muzzle and hoof, he was a thing of horn and blood that would smell like autumn if you bled it out on the ground. He stood a long long time, listening to the warm crackle of the flames.

—Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury’s work transcended genre, as shown in the above lyrical passage from his classic tale of a dystopian future in which books are banned and burned. He was a great poet in all senses of the word because he was a genius, because he was original. And he was original because what underlay his science fiction—its origin—was the best literature. As a boy he was transfixed by The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. But he especially credited Shakespeare and the Bible for providing the metaphorical underpinnings of his visionary prose.

At least that’s what he told Terry Gross in a 1988 interview. Gross asked him how he got to write the screenplay for John Huston’s version of Moby-Dick, which he hadn’t read at the time:

Ray Bradbury’s photo by Steve Castillo/AP

By staying true to my own sense of the poetic. Again, here’s the influence of Shakespeare on my life, the influence of the Bible, which I was raised on. And by staying true to my own sense of poetry and my love of metaphor, which you learn from the Old Testament and the New Testament and you learn from Shakespeare. To speak in tongues, which are so vivid that people will remember the metaphor. And also by staying in love with dinosaurs. I fell in love with dinosaurs when I was five. I was walking along the shore with my wife one night down in Venice, California, this was 1949, and we found the ruins of the old Venice pier, all the bones and the skeleton, the tracks and the ties of the roller coaster, lying there in the sea. And I turned to my wife and I said, “I wonder what that dinosaur is doing lying here on the shore.” She was very careful not to answer. And three nights later I heard something in the middle of the night, I sat up in bed, looked at all the fog out beyond the window, and way out in Santa Monica Bay I heard the braying, the calling, the oconing of the foghorn. Over and over and over again. I said, “Yes that’s it.” The dinosaur heard the foghorn blowing, thought it was another dinosaur calling from a billion years of slumber and swam for an encounter, discovered it was only a damned lighthouse and a damned foghorn, tore the whole thing down and died of a broken heart on the beach. I got out of bed the next day and wrote “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” sent it to the Saturday Evening Post. It was published.

John Huston read that one story, and that changed my life forever, because he thought he smelled the ghost of Melville in that story. What he smelled in it was the ghost of Shakespeare and the ghost of the Bible, huh? And so he called me on the phone and offered me the job and a year later when I was working on the screenplay one night I said, “John, how did I get this job? You know, everyone thought you were crazy.” He said, “Well, I read that story about the dinosaur.” And I said, “Well, I was very honest with you. I told you when I met you, I had never read Melville.” But once I got into Melville, I discovered he had been inspired by the same people who inspired me. So we were twins. He had been called upon by Shakespeare to cough up the white whale.

Bradbury, who never learned to drive a car, wrote about 1,000 words a day on an electric typewriter. He hated negative people, negativity—for all his warnings and dark imaginings, he believed in our species, in its potential and in its latent greatness.

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Filed under Author Interview, fiction, metaphor, NOTED, symbolism, working method