Oct 28, 2011

Radio Boise

Over the last few weeks, I've been thinking and writing about the importance of individual voices and community.  Over on Radio Boise, they're talking about individual voices and community too.  Being married to one of the DJs, I know the amount of time he volunteers. Multiply that across the week, across all the shows, across all the behind-the-scenes work, and you're seeing passion in action.

This week over on Radio Boise, they're asking for contributions to keep the station running.  I'd love it if you could stop by and lend your support.  They've set a modest goal and every individual, every dollar matters.

Oct 25, 2011

Telling Your Own Story

"If we don't tell our stories, they will be told by people who do not understand them at all."

Teresa Jordan's words resonate with me, both as a writer and as a teacher.  I was very lucky to hear her speak at Women Writing and Living The West, a one-day seminar held in conjunction with the 15th Annual Trailing of The Sheep Festival.  During the first workshop segment, professional writers read from and talked about their work.  No doubt about it, they were good.  But the second set of speakers?  They were ranching women, speaking from the heart, many of them for the first time---and they overshadowed their professional counterparts.  The authors may have inspired us, but the ranching women made us cheer and cry.

I bring this up now for a reason.  We are entering the season of NaNoWriMo or, for the uninitiated, National Novel Writing Month.  The program is run by a nonprofit group and has proven itself through twelve full seasons of madness.  They started as a small group of crazy novelists and they've become. . . Well, they've become a very large group of crazy novelists. At the end of last year, NaNoers numbered 200,530. In the Young Writers Program, there were 1,740 participating classrooms and 41,000 novel writers under the age of seventeen.  Every year, the program grows.

The goal, as you may surmise, is to write the rough draft of a novel in November. Through the program, writers get encouragement, support, and structure---and, although donations are thankfully accepted, it costs nothing to participate.

I love this. I love this so much I could jot all the reasons on little pieces of paper and roll around in them.

My reasons have everything to do with who I am and my experience.

I'm a teacher. I'm a writer. I'm a woman with deep roots in a land often misunderstood and misrepresented. I've taught hundreds of college students who do not believe they have any right to use their own voices because they are not the voices they see represented in the mainstream of life.  They are gay. Or their skin is too dark or too light or too blotchy or too scarred.  They talk funny or they don't talk funny enough.  They live in the back woods. Or they haven't lived anywhere long enough to fit in. They've been taught it's not polite to talk about oneself.  They've been taught that creative endeavors are a waste of time. They've been taught to mirror opinions rather than risk failure by speaking their minds. They've been dismissed because they're not from a place others can readily find on a map.  They're afraid.

You know what?  To hell with that.  To hell with anyone who tells others they shouldn't have voices. Words are power.  When we allow someone to take away our voices, we are allowing them to take away our power.

There will be nay-sayers.  As NaNoWriMo grows, there is a growing anti-NaNo contingent who discourage participation.  They say we don't need any more poorly-written books.  They say not everyone should write.  They say real writing should be left to real writers. I'm reminded of Robert Frost's "Two Tramps in Mudtime."  In the poem, our protagonist is chopping his own wood when two tramps come by needing work:

Out of the woods two hulking tramps
(From sleeping God knows where last night,
But not long since in the lumber camps.)
They thought all chopping was theirs of right.
Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
They judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax,
They had no way of knowing a fool.

It's true.  If you have little experience owning your voice, you may be called a fool by those with more experience.  Those people have no other way to understand what you are doing other than the way you handle an ax (or in this case, grammar or sentence structure or imagery).  In this time of flux in the publishing industry, there are plenty who argue that the flood of self-published works by amateur writers has become a threat to the livelihood of "real writers."

In August, The Atlantic ran an article by Peter Osnos, entitled, "Are There Too Many Books?" Osnos responds to Bill Keller, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, and author of an article entitled, "Let's Ban Books, Or At Least Stop Writing Them."  Keller laments the number of his reporting staff asking for leaves of absence to write these things and Osnos agrees weakly, placing blame on publishers who need to use better judgement with their selections. He then goes on to say that the real problem lies with self-publishing.  His analysis:  "the quality of the few tends to be overwhelmed by the dross of many."

Wow.  Dross.

Here's where I differ:  I think audiences are smart. I don't personally know anyone who has stopped reading because "OMG I JUST CAN'T DECIDE! I'M SO OVERWHELMED!"

I would boldly suggest that the "dross of the many" contains voices of real people, including many who have been shouted down their whole lives.  I would even more-boldly suggest that the experience of writing and claiming voice is worth whatever discomfort someone writing for The Atlantic or The New York Times may feel. I lay claim to this territory not as a self-published author, but as a teacher and a writer and a woman with deep roots in a land often misunderstood and misrepresented.  We have stories to tell and it's time they're told.

National Novel Writing Month is a great place to start.

Oct 11, 2011

Anything but that.

I have an affinity for cemeteries.  As a kid, I biked and played in a nearby cemetery much more than I did any park.  I knew the names and the scant stories revealed in chiseled lines.

When my husband and I became friends so many years ago, it charmed me that he loved his family cemeteries.  He took me out to meet the family--generations of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins---filling nearly half a pioneer cemetery---and my heart was his.  Yeah.  I'm like that.

Now we take the kids and they recite their family history from the stones. They are 8th generation Idahoans on their dad's side.  On my side, only 5th.  His family came out in covered wagons.  They were miners, explorers, ranchers, trappers, farmers, guides, and they even had one mad hatter in the bunch.  My family came later, in jalopies with chairs strapped in the back for seats.  Pushed out of Kansas in the dust bowl, they started new farms from sagebrush-covered land.  On my dad's side, half are illegal immigrants---from Canada.  They were ranchers who strayed a little south from Alberta, only to find themselves Idahoans by circumstance and, only later, marriage.

My husband and I made the trip back to my family cemetery in Kansas---and I cried to see the generations of names mirroring my own, proof somehow that the family stories were real. These people once were solid enough that they needed buried once they died---and so their stories became more solid too.
Last week I visited The Ketchum Cemetery in Ketchum, Idaho.  I don't know anyone buried there.  Not really.  I just know the stories.  And no, I don't mean the stories Ernest Hemingway wrote, although I know them too.  I mean the stories I grew up hearing---about the great man living in and killing himself in my home state.  I remember seeing the images of Hemingway with the Pioneer Mountains in the background. I remember the adults in my life talking in hushed voices about the mixture of celebrity and brilliance, guns and alcohol abuse---imagination and delusion.  When I said I wanted to be a writer, they thought of Hemingway and they wanted something better for me.

In Hemingway, my family saw proof that writers suffered from unstable minds. Perhaps I bought into the mystique myself.  I did seem to have a penchant for broody scribblers.

I was nearly out of high school by the time it came to light that maybe Hemingway wasn't so delusional.  He thought the FBI followed him, bugged his car, pored over his bank records in the dead of night.  Largely discounted by those around him, what must he have been thinking?  Depression did run in his family. Ernest's father, brother, one sister for sure (maybe two), and later his granddaughter---all committed suicide.  His father's actions worried him enough that he once asked his son, Jack, to exchange a promise that neither would ever kill himself.

When Hemingway kept seeing feds, when his friends and family turned to him with sympathetic eyes and said, time and time again, that they didn't see anyone---what must Hemingway have thought?  He thought shock therapy would be a cure.  Instead, the therapy took away his ability to write and, with it, his will to live.  And the damn thing was, he still saw those feds everywhere.

It wasn't until 1984 that a Freedom of Information request resulted in the release of Hemingway's FBI file:  120 pages, 15 of them still blacked out.  Some of the notes were from surveillance while Hemingway was at the Mayo Clinic for shock treatment.

Yeah.  No wonder the treatment didn't make Hemingway's delusions go away.

Many have gone to great lengths to suggest that the FBI killed Hemingway, first making him delusional and then somehow arranging for the shock treatment that took his will to live.  They suggest this, in part, because Hemingway often described suicide as an act of cowardice.

I hear those words and I hear the words of my own dad, spoken with the same intense anger.  Although my father did not kill himself, he did battle the darkness that prematurely ended the lives of family members--some of whom are now buried in that cemetery of my childhood---the place where together we'd ride bikes and run carefree through deep grasses.  I hear Hemingway's words and I hear the fear that so often lies beneath anger.  I believe he went for the shock treatment to save himself from hallucinations he wasn't having.  Fear of the dark can sometimes lead to greater darkness.

Perhaps it was my own family's fear for me that made them look to Hemingway and tell me I should not be a writer.  Not that.  Anything but that.

And yet, even as I look at the solid stone that marks that solid stories of Hemingway's life, I know I can't live my life in fear. Fear of darkness does not just end dreams. It can also keep them from beginning.


Oct 6, 2011

Trailing of The Sheep

This week I'm in Ketchum, Idaho for The Trailing of The Sheep Festival.  I write. I raise sheep. I spin and knit. It's the perfect place for me to be.  I'm especially looking forward to attending, "Women Writing and Living The West," a day of storytelling and writing.

I've posted a few pictures on Twitter and thought I'd bring them together here for you.


I feel happy driving into this Idaho town.  How could you not?


Husband and kids walking on The Oregon Trail.  I think he lost one of them in the tall grass.  (This is near the Hagerman Fossil Beds in Hagerman, Idaho.)


Here I am at Galena Pass.  This is between Ketchum and Stanley, Idaho in the Sawtooth Mountains.


This is the road to Pettit Lake, also in The Sawtooth Mountains.



And here's The Salmon River, south of Stanley, Idaho.