Terry Tempest Williams is the author of fourteen books, including Refuge, Leap, The Open Space of Democracy, and most recently, Finding Beauty in a Broken World. She is the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and a Lannan Literary Fellowship in creative nonfiction. Her latest book, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice, is now out in paperback from Picador. It’s a lovely, meditative book, one where the author tries to make sense of the journals her mother bequeathed to her, all blank. In fifty-four sections, Terry Tempest Williams not only tries to gain a greater understanding of her mother, she explores her faith, her marriage, her role as a woman in the world, and much more.
We spoke over email about her new book and, as with the writing in When Women Were Birds itself, I was struck by the grace of her wisdom.
The Rumpus: Throughout the book, I appreciated how your words reflected both an individual and collective understanding of womanhood, in how you related to yourself, and your mother and her mother, in the responsibility you feel toward other women, and the importance of voice for women. How were you able to cultivate such an understanding?
Terry Tempest Williams: I believe the personal is the collective. One of the ironies of writing memoir is in using the “I” it becomes an alchemical “we.” This is the sorcery of literature. We write out of our humanity by writing through our direct experience. That which is most personal is most general, which becomes both our insight and protection as a writers. This is our authority as women, as human beings. I was extremely close with my mother and my grandmothers, we shared our lives—fully, honestly—and it was heightened as each succumbed to cancer. Little was hidden between us. No time. And what was hidden, turned inward. I made a vow to speak. Speak or die.
Rumpus: You offer many ideas for what your mother’s blank journals represent and in the end you conclude that your mother’s gift is the mystery, this question of why, that will never be wholly answered. Are you satisfied with this conclusion?
Williams: I would not use the word “satisfied”—I would say I am at peace with the mystery of my mother’s journals. Of course, I will always wonder, but isn’t that the creative tension of living with uncertainty? By leaving me her empty journals, my mother has made herself very present.
Rumpus: We don’t hear a lot from people of faith, and particularly Mormons, in much of liberal discourse because, I think, too many people equate faith with rabid evangelism. How do you create a space to be heard as a woman of faith in a popular culture that often ignores or disdains faith and spirituality?
Williams: We are aching to come together and I think it has little to do with liberal or conservative discourse. I think it has to do with increasing disconnection with what is real and soul-serving. Watching the spontaneous acts of kindness, compassion, and generosity, courage, and bravery in the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombings was so deeply moving. It is in our nature to want to help, to serve, to be part of something larger than ourselves. We have a desire to connect with others. We want to make a difference in the world. I would call this a spiritual longing to be whole, interrelated, interconnected.
I am not so interested in religion or dogma of any kind. It is too restrictive for me, too organizational, too hierarchical, and too tied up in power and being right. You call it a “rabid evangelism.” I come from a culture that embodies the need to convert others to “the truth.” The Mormon Church has one of the largest missionary programs in the world. That does not interest me. But I am interested and deeply curious about our need for a spiritual life, a life of greater meaning, and how we come to a more ethical view of life within our communities that is more inclusive than exclusive, one that is extended even beyond our own species.
You ask how I create a space for a woman of faith to be heard. I think it could be argued that I am not heard, in the broadest sense. That is not my concern. My concern, a question really, is, do I have the courage to speak? If I speak I believe someone will respond. It then becomes my responsibility to listen to that person. And in listening, together we create a space where people can be heard. It’s the conversation that I care most deeply about; this is the space I want to honor, respect, and protect. This is my faith in the open space of democracy.
Rumpus: You write, “In a voiced community, we all flourish.” What can we do to encourage more of a voiced community, particularly for women and people who have been historically marginalized?
Williams: This is such an essential question. I think wherever we are, we can create an atmosphere of openness and trust, where women and those who feel marginalized feel safe to speak the truth of their lives. Violence comes in many forms, not just physical. On April 24, 2013, all classes were cancelled at Dartmouth College, the first time in its history (with the exception of weather), so students and faculty could sit down together and discuss issues of sexual assault, racism, and homophobic behavior, and the hate speech that has accompanied these problems on campus that have hurt individuals. This is unprecedented. I honor the students who protested the perfect Ivy League image that was being conveyed in the middle of a recruitment assembly, to prospective students who had been accepted to Dartmouth present for the introductory weekend. Those students who protested were ridiculed and taunted, even received death threats on various campus outlets and social media. They became afraid. They called for classes to be cancelled. They asked for a campus-wide conversation. And I honor the administration of Dartmouth—President Carol Folt, in particular—who, in the midst of some strong opposition, said to the students, “We hear you. We recognize we have a problem. Yes, let’s sit down together and listen to one another.” Classes were suspended. Small group discussions occurred all over campus. Conversations are continuing between faculty and students, with the hope that structural changes can be made that will ameliorate this behavior.
Here is a recent example of both calling for “real talk” and creating an atmosphere of support and safety where those who have been marginalized can speak. Wherever we are, we can call for and create these kinds of settings for authentic dialogue. This is the seedbed of social change. In a voiced community, we all flourish. But it’s not easy. Revolutionary patience and persistence is required. It can be messy, it is unpredictable, and change, especially structural change takes time—time and leadership and the will of an engaged community. What is needed? In a word, courage.
Rumpus: I agree that, as you write, “conversation is the vehicle for change.” What can we turn to, however, when the people who are in the best position to help create change, are unwilling to engage in conversation? Are there other vehicles for change?
Williams: Social change can be seen as a mosaic, taking that which is broken and creating something new. Each of us contributes our own piece to the whole, each in our own way, each in our own time with the gifts and talents that are ours. You ask about possible vehicles for change: question, stand, speak, act. Engage in unruly behavior. Disturb the status quo. Take direct action. Commit civil disobedience. Make art. Build community. Dance. Sing. Farm. Cook. Create something beautiful and then give it away. Find your own monkey wrench and use it with the force of love. Sharpen your pencil. Vote.
Rumpus: Memoir can be a very vulnerable genre. How do you set boundaries for yourself in what you are willing to reveal to the reader?
Williams: I don’t set boundaries for myself when I am writing; if I did, I would be paralyzed from the start, unable to write a word on the page. Instead, with each book, I begin with a question or an image: my mother left me her journals and all her journals were blank. Why? What is voice? How did I find mine and where? When did I lose it, retrieve it? What was my mother saying to me?
I write from this place of inquiry. The first draft is a discovery period to see what I know and what I don’t know. My task is simply to follow the words. There are surprises along the way. I just have to get it down. Call it the sculptor’s clay. Revision digs deeper, asks more of me to clarify, enhance, illuminate what I have written and dares me to walk more fully into the shadows to face, confront, and explore what scares me. Through revision, I enter the realm of the unspeakable and find the words that have eluded me.
The discipline of writing a memoir comes in the editing. This is where I cut, slash, and burn—where my creative mind is transformed into a ruthless one. No word escapes my scrutiny. It is here where I see what boundaries need to be set. It is here where what is private disappears and what is personal emerges. There is a difference. What is private belongs to me alone. What is personal belongs to all of us through the shared experience of being human. And it is in the discipline of editing that I can skillfully follow the strands that I am trying to weave together through story. Whatever artistry may occur within the manuscript, the magic happens for me in the last draft. Whatever I have been resistant to say must finally be said. In the end, I see where my pencil has been leading me. It’s not that my questions have been answered, but they have been respected, explored, and saturated with my attention.
Rumpus: The natural landscape has clearly had a profound influence on how you see the world and this is a big, beautiful country. Where do you find the natural landscape most beautiful?
Williams: I cannot answer that. I can only tell you where I feel most at home, which is in the erosional landscape of the red rock desert of southern Utah, where the Colorado River cuts through sandstone and the geologic history of the Earth is exposed: our home in Castle Valley.
I can tell you that the Greater Yellowstone from the Tetons, to the Lamar Valley where wolves howl and grizzlies roam, acts as my spine, my range of memory that ties me to landscape of Other. And that the ocean from the rocky coast of Maine, to the Florida everglades, to the looming cliffs at Big Sur, sustain me, remind me we are nothing without salt water, wind, and waves. Each horizon, each place holds its own evolutionary power be it the prairie or the plateaus, the mountains or the marshes at Great Salt Lake. For me, this is the nature of peace. Our task is to learn how to see it, feel it, hear it, and care for these places as our own home ground.
Our intimacy with the land becomes our intimacy with each other. Hands on the Earth, we remember and reconnect with a power beyond ourselves. We are humbled. We look up and suddenly, a cardinal is perched on a forsythia in spring: red, yellow, against a blue sky. I saw this yesterday in New Hampshire. All things primary.
Rumpus: What do you like most about your writing?
Williams: I appreciate all of the unexpected places, internal and external, that my writing has taken me.
Rumpus: I was moved by the lyricism of this memoir, so much so I did not want the book to end. If you were to write a fifty-fifth variation on voice, what might it say?
Williams: I think it might already be there in the blank pages that follow the last page of text. I thought I was writing a book about voice, but I may have written a book about silence.