Memoir Writing: Interview with Shelley Armitage, Author of Walking the Llano

llano-front-cover1(This is an edited transcript from a live chat with Shelley Armitage at The Writer’s Chatroom on Jan 22, 2017.)

Moderator Lisa Haselton (aka Lisa J Jackson): Welcome to The Writer’s Chatroom. Our mission is to present fun and educational chats for readers and writers.

Let me introduce our guest, Shelley Armitage, author of the memoir, Walking the Llano.

Shelley grew up in the northwest Texas Panhandle in the small ranching and farming community of Vega, Texas, in Oldham County.

She still owns and operates a family farm, 1,200 acres of native grass, wheat and milo farmland bordering Highway Interstate 40 on the south and the Canadian River breaks on the north. Shelley shared this landscape from childhood on, riding with her father and grandfather to check crops and cattle and later jogging and today walking the farm roads.

Shelley’s professional life has offered her a connection with landscape through studies of photography, environmental literature, cultural and place studies. After living and working in diverse places—Portugal, Poland, Finland, and Hungary, teaching in the Southwest and Hawai’i, researching in New York, Washington DC, Oregon, Illinois, Missouri, Connecticut—place has taken on special meanings.

The author of eight books and fifty articles and essays, Shelley has held Fulbright Chairs in Warsaw and Budapest, a Distinguished Senior Professorship in Cincinnati, and the Dorrance Roderick Professorship in El Paso as well as three National Endowment for the Humanities grants, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and a Rockefeller grant.

Shelley resides part of each year in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

LH: Shelley, what is the Llano Estacado and why was it important to you to walk some of its many miles?

shelley1SA: The Llano Estacado is a vast tableland (much of it at 4,000 feet) – an elevated plateau – one of the largest in the U.S. My modest part is in the northwest part of Texas near the New Mexico state line.

I found it important to walk there in order to really sense the place, its prehistory, history, and the various stories, including the land’s own narrative by actually feeling the place. I say in the book that I felt I took the land up in my body and it came out writing.

Also, that area is much maligned, called by some still the Great American Desert, and stereotyped as flat and “unworthy of love.” I found special beauty and surprising revelations by spending many summers walking there.

LH: Do you remember a moment when you ‘knew’ you’d write the memoir? A day or when you noticed something in particular?

SA: Actually, I had been teaching a memoir course, without having written a memoir! And yes, looking back on notes and photographs I took, I started thinking about what Mary Austin said one time: “it’s the land that wants to be said.” Someone else I had done scholarly work on, a poet, also said she wanted to be a tongue for the wilderness.

I thought that memoir as a form was particularly suited for what I thought about the experiences: it may deal with interiority, but also with the explicit world, thus concrete experience, but also interior thoughts, even dreams, the spiritual, etc.

LH: Shelley, what did you discover about yourself as you walked in relationship to the land where you grew up?

SA: Oh, so many things. The walks were also a respite from the worries I had carrying for a declining mother and later dealing with her death (while this process was going on) and also the death of my brother. I essentially lost all my family while on these walks. I turned to the plains as a kind of family, believe it or not, something that gave me strength and wisdom. I did a lot of research after each walk and thus studied lifeways and beliefs of Native peoples, the care of the land by pastores (New Mexico sheepherders), etc. The stories are what help us along, as Leslie Silko has said, “we are nothing without the stories.” Living these other stories, while making my own, was profound for me.

In one passage, I say I want to be adopted by mother earth and father sky, which sounds very corny out of context, but as an adopted child, it resonated many ways.

LH: What were some of your challenges in writing the memoir?

SA: Well, for one, I had never written this kind of nonfiction. My scholarly works I hope are very readable; I have always thought of myself as a writer (or someone who attempts to be) rather than an academician. So grace and saying through style have always been important. I had never written about myself until this memoir. And it’s amazing how it went through so many stages. I wrote and rewrote it, through a few years. I think each time I got closer to it writing itself, a kind of flow that was natural. A real story. And I learned I could write in segments. That I didn’t have to have a logical sequence. This was the most freeing discovery–this and the realization that memoir allows for fictional devices, so as I say I did not have to make everything logically sequential.

LH: Thank you! Was it challenging to figure out what to include and what to leave out?

SA: Oh, yes. Great question. At one point (and back to the question about the poetic) I clipped and posted up on my garage wall the poetic lines I could not part with. Yet, I didn’t know exactly what to do with them. Then, looking at them on the wall (like Faulkner diagramming As I Lay Dying) I saw they were the subconscious underpinning of what I wanted to say. So I could build on them. That way, I could cull what didn’t fit, didn’t connect as extended metaphor or expanded imagistic theme.

LH: Sounds like quite the process! 🙂

SA: I found it kind of tricky when you already are a critic, a literary professor, and come at literature from that perspective. To critique oneself, yet not gut what is a primal sort of notion, the given line, the lyric voice, was difficult. I found another self, the one I had always wanted as a writer, in this book as in the poetry.

Chatter Janet: A reviewer of your memoir said “She carefully mines the history, character, and geology of the Llano Estacado and combines it with a compelling personal narrative to create an account that flows with lyricism, authenticity, and wisdom.” You have crafted a beautiful story I believe. What period in your life is in the book?

SA: The book, or I should say the experience of the walks, began in my fifties. That was a very transitional time for me; as I say, my mother had all sorts of health problems and I found myself the prime caregiver even though I lived 400 miles away. I think that experience (the combination of adventure and loss) really helped me grow.

Chatter Tricia: You mentioned your mother’s and brother’s deaths. Do you talk about your grieving in the memoir?

SA: Absolutely. I couple those experiences with the hikes, the walking. I don’t know how to explain those chapters, but everything is interwoven, which becomes the heart of the book. I still grieve frankly when I reread passages of the book and am buoyed as well. The walks helped me cope and gave me strength.

LH: Did your approach to the memoir-writing class change after you wrote the memoir?

SA: I think the one thing that most affected me was realizing how narrative is not sequential. I actually wrote almost flash pieces, sections, even some which were aided by prompts (or forced by prompts!!). But somehow there was a thread, a kind of subconscious reality, that, when I looked at the fragments, they could be worked together.

I should give an example. There is the obvious element of water, of the lack of it, in the llano. The Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest in the world, runs underneath, but is rapidly being depleted. So in terms of water I had a natural trope emerging. My mother actually died from water on the brain. At one point, thinking about her condition, I say “water will have its way.” This has been set up in earlier chapters with my observations of the landscape where water has previously sculpted the geography. And there is also an earlier section about my father building a dam which didn’t hold against the periodic rains. Water will have its way.

LH: What tips would you have for someone wanting to write a memoir?

SA: Value your own story (stories). Examine your life and think about the seemingly small and insignificant things about it which are waiting for you to revisit. With memoir, we have a double memory, that of the first experience, trying to remember it, and that of recreating that experience. It’s almost like revising oneself, perhaps we become a better self once written out. And I would say write, write, write then look at that writing as if it is someone else’s. What have you learned from it? What is missing? What do you want to know? And, back to my two suggestions, what can be found there? What is remarkable about the seemingly pedestrian elements of our lives?

And I forgot to say earlier that a major theme in the book is that we ARE the landscape. As Leslie Silko has said (sorry, but she is so right on in her comments), we are as much a part of the landscape as the boulders we stand on. In other words, landscape is not something “out there.” But, maybe we could say, in here.

LH: Shelley has been an entertaining and informative guest with much to share with us. Check out her website after chat: Our Chatroom Team and I want to thank Shelley for an interesting and entertaining chat. Thank you!

SA: Thanks! Super experience!!!

lisajjacksonLisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies and individuals tell their stories. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

4 thoughts on “Memoir Writing: Interview with Shelley Armitage, Author of Walking the Llano

  1. Thanks for sharing this interview .”Look at that writing as if it’s someone else’s” like a good key to working a memoir into something of interest for others.

  2. That title got my attention! To me, walking the Llano means walking in the Llano River towing my kayak because the water is too shallow to float. The Llano River starts in Junction, and I have floated most of it. The Llano Estacado means miles and miles of nothing, which is why I like it.

  3. As usual from Lisa Jackson et al s chatroom — this is a superb poly-logue post. Your guest,Shelley ,an interior yet dynamic meditator has found a resplendent raw material for confessional writing which David Graham touted perennially. I will also like to be inured in such recollections of time past retelling my paternal and maternal roots far out in nigerian – Africa and hope it prospers spiritually and otherwise materially my anonymous audience. The travail of the revered scholar and endogenous poet primarily inspired by her caring spirit coupled with the inextricable bond of real motherhood ,earthly affinity and the organic realization that nobody actually drops from the sky! Everybody has a root – history but only few are smart enough to treasure it as an indelible anthropological wealth. *Unless the memoir writer or poet embellished it beyond redemption then the antiquity will be uncivilized enough to turn off potential readers,admirers looking for or thirsty of authentic narration.Tacitly there will be those that will be provoked by works and wilderness walks like digging Kunta Kinte s ancestry back to Africa – recklessly partitioned because they were historically barren of Africa s prehistory archeology and economics of archaic centuries. Lisa ,Jammie and others hosting the Live To Write blog should regularly feature the like of bold ,interior – catalyzed writer like Shelley if majorly to inspire others not as much endowed or cerebrally matured to dig water from a stony wilderness,I was so lifted to embrace the extended metaphors, ‘we are the landscape’ and later her poetic influence strongly helped her to release herself from a scholar used to a maze of literary works of others now interiorly yielded to a project that wrote its name primordially (I want to be a “tongue for the wilderness) to fill up the historical injustice,neglect of the LLano Estacado There s much tech progress in the 21 st century yet as That prolific award winner, scifi writer published in an online ezine ,Talking Writing said that ‘ history is the raw data’and I think the next generation and revolution will experience ample holistic development germane to world peace if only they know that studying archeology and world history genuinely beyond class will draw us closer to mother earth and the sky will then become attainable voyage, I guess our joy will then be boundlessly stretched beyond planet earth and everything virgin,uncultivated or wilderness will then be put in proper perspective or anthropological taxonomy and recognized as part of nature s bottomless treasury. your interview with scholarly Shelley was well crafted and it opens more than artesian wells of history of that desert much more than the gripping memoir force.

    Gbemisoye Tijani Paul Harris Fellow * healthy living communications,southwest director Health & life coach(Allianceinmotion global ltd) Byline:pre-internet years :TIJANI MST,1980-1994) now Gbemi TIJANI MST or Rotarian Gbemi Tijani Convener: Writers Grace Group(Facebook) Ps: last Saturday,28/1/17 was the monthly reading of guests & members of Oyo ANA(association of Nigerian authors,Oyo state chapter,The Guest Writer enlightened authors and budding writers alike on Legal Literacy beyond copyrights matter.The following day,Tijani visited his auntie and found & picked more than a dozen published miscellany depicting issues still current with the polity & Fellowship of writers in the largest indigenous capital in west Africa and the intellectual capital of Nigeria. CHINUA Achebe most translated novelist (Things Fall Apart) & Wole Soyinka,Nobel Laureate 1986,first in Africa To win the coveted Swedish prize open to work adjudged excellent and productive for humanity — all started from University of Ibadan (1st & best) have been guest lecturers in many American Ivory Towers and were earliest founders of the Association of writers later called ANA in Nigeria.

    Sent from my iPad

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s