Terry Tempest Williams is the author of fourteen books. A naturalist and fierce advocate for freedom of speech, her works include the environmental literature classic Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, and most recently, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice. Williams is the recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Fellowship in Creative Nonfiction. In 2011, Williams was presented the Community of Christ International Peace Award in recognition of significant peacemaking vision, advocacy, and action. She makes her home in Utah and Wyoming.
When Women Were Birds is a powerful meditation on inheritance where Williams explores what it means to accept her mother’s journals. Bequeathed these journals while she sat with her dying mother, Williams honored her mother’s request not to open them until she was gone. When Williams did look, she found not one or two journals, but three shelves of carefully arranged books, all their pages blank. More than two decades later, the author tells the story of how her mother spoke to her through the empty pages.
When Women Were Birds is a search, call it a deep listening, to help us feel the “full register of human experience within ourselves.” Here the author experiments with a new form of memoir writing — using hybrid text, prose, and poetry intermixed while playing with the white space on the page. With this book, Williams creates the opportunity for readers to consider their own inheritance.
Thank you for sharing some of your experiences with writing with us. In your latest book, When Women Were Birds, writing and social activism meet in your practice of listening. Can you tell us about this practice?
The power of listening is the power of transformation. My mother was a great listener. When you spoke to her, you not only felt heard but seen, understood. And I always left with a sense of calm or encouragement. Great leaders are great listeners because they are open to alternative ways of being. For me, one of the most important qualities a writer can have is the capacity to listen, to find the truth beyond the truth.
Do you think of writers as translators of the truth beyond truth?
We writers translate the experiences we have been given. Our task is to translate with as much empathy and integrity as we can to be true to each experience. We translate life into the narrative that we create.
Talk to us about looking for truth in your mother’s journals.
With my mother’s empty journals, I kept turning them like a kaleidoscope, infusing them with different light, with different colors and configurations. She was very conscious about leaving me her journals. My mother was trying to tell me something, and I will never know for certain what she was trying to convey to me. She left me with a great mystery, a Buddhist koan, if you will.
You were listening to your mother through the empty pages. Can you define this type of listening?
Recently in The New York Times there was an article discussing the differences between “hearing” and “listening.” Listening engages the entire body and enlivens the brain. We are more creative and energized when we truly listen with our whole being. To simply hear something is to have it register as a noise without delineation. To hear something asks very little of us. To listen places our entire being on notice. We are aroused with a desire and capacity to learn something new and as a result, we have the capacity to change, evolve.
Tell us about another time when you learned powerful lessons about “placing your entire being on notice?”
While focusing on Utah prairie dogs in my book Finding Beauty in a Broken World, I learned that in every prairie dog community there are sentinel dogs whose job is to listen, to look, to watch. Their job is to create alert calls. They are on notice themselves, and they alert their community as to what is happening. Once I watched a prairie dog community from 20 feet for an hour, and the sentinel prairie dogs sent out their calls. The entire community went underground. I thought, “There is nothing here.” Suddenly, two minutes later, the shadow of a red-tail hawk crossed over. That’s paying attention. Sometimes I think that’s what writers are: sentinels. Our books, our poems, our novels are nothing more than alert calls to the community.
For you, to listen is to survive.
Yes, but it’s no longer about survival of the fittest, but survival of compassion. I think about the desert tortoise and all it is up against in the Mojave desert of St. George, Utah, where development is rampant. If the desert tortoise survives, it will not be because of its capacity to survive, but our capacity to care. Do we have enough empathy to allow the tortoise to live alongside us with enough land protected for its own use, not ours? Do we have enough insight to restrain our own appetite for more instead of less, which means more for other species? And can we extend our notion of power to include other species, not just our own, and embrace qualities such as reverence, awe, and pity toward a larger community?
Can you say more about the power of these questions in your work?
My questions are my paths to the unknown. There is this great quote from W.S. Merwin: “I have with me all that I do not know. I have lost none of it.” For me that’s where creativity dwells, that’s where the discovery is, that is where curiosity leads us — to that place of both not knowing and unknowing.
Not knowing and unknowing — sounds like a paradox.
Yes, I’m very comfortable with paradox, the beauty of it, the dance. In Refuge, I write about the Great Salt Lake, a body of water in the desert that no one can drink. This is not a personal or even a private revelation, it is a fact, a geophysical phenomenon, an inland sea with heightened salinity and no outlets save evaporation. It is an old, old basin of water, the remnant of a prehistoric pluvial lake that dates back 32,000 years. Great Salt Lake cares nothing for me. It is impersonal, that is its power. Whatever I glean from Great Salt Lake is rooted in my imagination, the depth of my experience, and the immersion of my studies from birds to brine to beauty.
Your studies create paths to greater awareness?
Yes, the degree of our awareness is the degree of our aliveness. What is invisible to me is what I have not yet learned how to see. The invisible becomes visible through our attention, through stillness, through silence. And patience.
The paradox of writing When Women Were Birds was this: I thought I was writing a book about voice, when in truth, I may have written a book about silences. In that same way, in writing Refuge I thought I was writing a book about change, when in fact, I may have written a book about all that endures.
Yet in this book, When Women Were Birds, the paradox was personal.
It’s true. For me, the personal means there is something at stake. There is an imperative that I must try to uncover: the question that will not allow me to sleep. We have been told in the postmodern world that intelligence lies in cynicism and irony. Yet, what we know is that a world filled with cynicism is a pretty cold world. Distance and skepticism trump engagement. Cynicism doesn’t change the world, compassion does.
So it needs to be personal.
Of course, generalizations are dangerous and too easy, but perhaps when something becomes personal, our consciousness becomes intertwined with that. Our curiosity is peaked. We want to embrace it. The minute we engage in the personal, we become vulnerable, and when we are vulnerable, we are open. Openness creates empathy and through empathy, the world can shift.
I am obsessed by the idea of silence. I went through an entire library studying art, artists and their critics, philosophers, too, on the meaning and significance of the color white. I dreamed of white birds and white bears. I thought about the white pages of my mother’s journals. I became enthralled with John Cage and his work, 4’33”, his masterpiece of ambient sound. Rauschenberg, too. And then at some point I let go. What sticks to the soul is what gets placed on the page. Maybe that’s the unknown part, the mystery, the power of the empty page.
What has your experience living in the desert taught you about the unknown, and being human?
Living in the desert, you can’t take yourself very seriously when extremes are the norm of each day: extreme heat, flashfloods, winds. There is a reason natural arches, bridges, and sandstone towers have been created out of rock. Erosion is the law of the desert. Change is what we can count on. And water is forever on the minds of all who live here, human and wild.
Perspective is another word that comes to mind. Living adjacent to wild country is deeply humbling as well as soul-stirring. In some inexplicable way, a profound sense of responsibility seizes my heart. I think of Robinson Jeffer’s poem “The Answer” and these lines, “Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is/Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of the universe./Love that, not man/ Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions, or drown in despair/ when his days darken.” I feel awe and I am inspired and in love with the erosional landscape before me. Wild beauty not only rescues my spirit but restores it. There is a breathing, beating intelligence to all that is wild. I would say writing is a wild act that also requires our awareness and attention and patience.
Courage for me is defined by sustained focus. We are completely present in the moment at hand. We are not thinking about ourselves, but of something larger that moves us beyond the self.
Again, take prairie dogs. They are considered a “keystone” species. They create community. Their colonies create habitat so that close to 200 other species are drawn together — everything from rattlesnakes to coyotes to red-tail hawks. Take away the prairie dog and you take away a varied world.
And story helps us remember what moves us beyond the self?
Story bypasses rhetoric and pierces the heart. To tell a story is to create an action in the mind of the listener or reader. It is the same with bearing witness — be it watching a community of prairie dogs or witnessing the miles and miles of swirling oil from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. To bear witness is not a passive act, but an act of conscience and consequence that has the power to alter our collective consciousness. As writers, we are often changed by the story we are telling through empathy. We become part of the story by being present. Our challenge as writers, storytellers, is to create this kind of engagement with our readers. We want them to not only see the story we are telling but most importantly, to feel it. Writing is an act of faith that can lead to action if we maintain our focus and integrity through language, fact, and imagery.
Are you listening for the place where language, fact, and imagery merge?
It’s always the listening for me. It’s inside listening that I recover what I have forgotten. In silence and in stillness, my voice dwells.
After writing When Women Were Birds, what have you been listening for?
Jeanette Luise Eberhardy is currently working on the book, Creating Meaningful Work, a story about seven global activists, artists, and entrepreneurs who find ways to integrate work, education, and life purpose. Eberhardy is the founding partner of www.WivInc.com, helping leaders develop authentic stories for today’s challenges. She teaches writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.