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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Author Spotlight: Terry Tempest Williams

For my Writing the Body class this week, I was randomly selected to do a presentation on the book Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams. I could not believe that I had a) never read this book before and b) never heard of this woman before. In other words, I'm in love.

Terry Tempest Williams

A fierce environmentalist and great outdoorswoman, Williams uses the power of the pen to explore themes of place, community, family, humanity and our connection to the natural world. Utne Reader magazine says that her writing "follows wilderness trails into the realm of memory and family, exploring gender and community through the prism of landscape." What else is there left to say? Except that I want to be her.

She has a strong natural history background with a Masters of Science in environmental education. Her first book was a children's story about the Inuit Alaskans and their many words for snow. Since then, she has published 14 books of everything from memoir to essay collections and poetry. A truly wild writer, she has served as a naturalist at the Utah Museum of Natural History and she now teaches in the Environmental Humanities graduate program at the University of Utah. (Teach me, Terry!)

She grew up within sight of the Great Salt Lake and she comes from a long lineage Mormons. I am envious of her connection to place and community, where knowledge and ceremonies have been passed down through the generations. Reading Refuge, it is clear that her being is innately intertwined with the natural landscape around her. 

This book made me long for that connection, to both a rich culture and a wild place. I have connections to both of these things, but they are a shadow of what they could be if I didn't live in South Florida (land of pavement) and if I had a more stable family background. On the other hand, I am grateful for the dynamic upbringing that I was granted, with access to many beautiful places and cultures.

I wonder, though, if I will ever have access to the kind of deep knowledge that she possesses about her homeland. Will I ever find a place that becomes a part of me the way the Great Salt Lake area is a part of her bones and heart?

Check out this gorgeous portrait of her by artist Rob Shetterly. The quote beneath her image says: 
"The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time."

For more info on this amazing woman, check out her website: 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Publish or Perish

First First Draft
This weekend, some of my fellow MFA classmates put on an event called First Draft. The theme was "beginnings" and the genre was creative nonfiction. Since that's technically my genre, I was asked to read at the event, which I was more than happy to do. I didn't have anything specifically about beginnings, so I decided to write something new. I worked on it during the days leading up to the event and I was polishing up until it was time to leave the house. It isn't perfect, but I got a lot of satisfaction out of birthing something and sending it out into the world, within a reasonable time frame.

I think I have written before about the missing link for me when it comes to writing; I tend to sit on pieces rather than finding a home for them somewhere. I'm not sure why I have this tendency, but I think it comes from fear; nothing is ever really ready for publication. But is anything ever really finished?

My professor just finished a middle grade novel and she says she's holding on to it for a while before sending it to her editor so she can continue tweaking it to perfection. She believes in revisiting and revising, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

On the other hand, I have a different professor who has the opposite mentality. He says, Write it and send it out! Now, don't get me wrong. He's still focused on quality. But he is also adamant about getting your stuff out there.

Everyone falls on different sides of the fence when it comes to this question: to publish or not to publish. Some say it can hurt you to have something published in the wrong journal. Others say you shouldn't send out work until you're absolutely sure that it's golden. Others operate on the principle that the more publications, the better. Honestly, I'm befuddled. Who knows what the best move is. All I know is that I really want to get my writing out into the world (beyond this blog), without committing some kind of writerly faux pas...
I think I'm going to institute a new policy; from here on out, Friday will be my official submission day! On this day, I will take the time to research journals and send out at least TWO PIECES. I also take the holy oath that I will document my research as well as my submissions. Organization, huzzah!

We are very serious literary folks.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Function of Art

I have been thinking a lot about the function of art, for several reasons. Firstly, my heart goes out to the French artists and citizens who are in mourning after the tragedy at Charlie Hebdo. This was a stark (and unnecessary) reminder of the significant impact of art in our society, and the important role that artists hold.

I also read this fascinating article, The Death of the Artist, which explores the trajectory of the artist throughout history. According to William Deresiewicz, artists used to be artisans focused on tradition above all else. In order to become "master craftsmen," artists apprenticed alongside the greats of their time, putting in their 10,000 hours and then some. Art back then was something to be built and crafted with care, like a seaworthy ship.

In what was later called the Romantic period, this all began to change. There was a shift away from tradition and rules in favor of individualism and originality. With revolution came secularization, and artists became prophet-like. Art moved away from craft and attained a "zenith of spiritual prestige." A century later, artists had become "cultural aristocrats," a far cry far from the lowly apprentices of the 16th and 17th centuries. 

In time, art moved away from the sacred and  into the realm of bureaucracy (I wrote bureaucrazy at first. Mistake? I think not). Deresiewicz explains that "after World War II in particular, and in America especially, art, like all religions as they age, became institutionalized." Institutions were created to "support" artists: museums, ballet companies, graduate programs, art councils, managers, agents, record labels, grants, etc. The trajectory of an artist became less spontaneous and serendipitous; now there was a formula for success and it involved climbing the professional ladder, as doctors and lawyers do.

Now, though, those institutions are disintegrating and the professional artist is left to fend for themselves. And so, the creative entrepreneur is born. This person must know not only how to create thoughtful art but also how to market themselves. Luckily, the internet provides us with a plethora of self-promotion options. And like any good business, artists must diversify. We have seen a rise in "multi-platform artists," people who claim to do it all but probably not very well. Additionally, like businesses, artists have moved towards selling an experience and not just a product - meaning they sell not only their work but also the creator and this person's lifestyle and process. I am somewhat guilty of this by writing this blog.

Several things are at risk for art today. First of all, artists have moved away from the long-held belief that one must put in 10,000 hours to make good work. Instead, they are spreading themselves thin and focusing too much on self-promotion. As a result, the artist of today makes many "contacts" - at the expense of lasting and collaborative relationships with others in their craft.

Additionally, the customer has become the central figure in an artists's life, and we all know that the customer is always right. Art has become a commodity to bought and traded. Deresiewicz  says it best: 

"It’s hard to believe that the new arrangement will not favor work that’s safer: more familiar, formulaic, user-friendly, eager to please—more like entertainment, less like art."

And so, this begs the question: What do we lose when we lose authentic art? What is its purpose in our culture? Yes, art can be entertainment and art can be aesthetically pleasing, but in my opinion, it does little if it is not challenging the status quo, making people think, and moving our culture forward.

Images taken from

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Ceremonies and Rituals

December is a time of ceremonies, or so we're told (by the Catholic church.) I was not raised overly religious although we have always upheld the traditional holidays: Noche Buena (Christmas Eve), Navidad (Christmas Day), and Los Reyes Magos (Three Kings Day). This year, though, I was not tuned in to the Christmas spirit.

After the semester was over, I promptly left the country to spend a glorious week in the Jamaican hills where I basked in waterfalls and sang songs while cooking meals with friends. Upon my arrival back in the States, I was surprised to see the green garlands hanging all over the terminal - I had completely forgotten that Christmas was near. But, the reminder was short-lived; the next day, I embarked on a 4-day kayaking journey through the Everglades backcounty. Let's just say that was definitely an adventure to remember...

While we were out in the wilderness, we celebrated the winter solstice, which happened to fall on the new moon. I realize that many people do not follow the moon's journey around our planet, but it is one that I have grown increasingly attuned to. For the past few years, my girlfriends and I have celebrated the new moon every month. This is a time to set intentions and plant seeds that will grow throughout the next month. Even farmers knew this a long time ago, when planting was closely tuned to the lunar calendar.

So, as we do every month, we made a fire and greeted the directions. We gave thanks to the elements for being with us always. Then, with the help of the sacred tobacco, we spoke our prayers and intentions for the coming moon cycle. Because this night was also the solstice, the longest night of the year, we set intentions for the next season to come.

By the time Christmas Eve and New Years rolled around, I felt somewhat unmoved by the whole thing. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the holidays. They provided me an opportunity to spend quality time with my family and friends, time which is always to be cherished. But whereas before I may have struggled to find meaning in these holidays, this year I didn't have to.

I guess what I'm getting at is this: find the sacred in your life, and celebrate it. If your holidays and rituals don't speak to your soul, then make up new ones. You're allowed. I used to yearn for a spiritual community, and I am forever grateful to have found one that respects the Earth and all beings that make their lives here.

Tonight is a full moon and I hope that you harness that wild energy, wherever you may be.