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: http://shelleyarmitage.com/. 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.

Axes to Grind

Axes to grind

Two axes to grind

I have two axes to grind: a two-and-a-quarter-pound Boy’s Ax, and a Fiskars 28” Splitting Ax.

Tim gave me the Boy’s Ax for Christmas in 1984, my first winter in Vermont. I was living in a poorly insulated cabin smaller than my Manhattan apartment. I heated the cabin with a small, wood stove. The ax came in handy.

Last year, the ax flew off the handle. This had happened before. As previously, we bought a replacement haft of hickory. But it was also time for a new, heavier, axe, because for the past six years I’ve been splitting wood to heat my writing studio. The building is only a hundred square feet, and the wood stove is tiny; it takes six-inch pieces of wood. So Tim bought me the Fiskars 28, a highly engineered Finnish beauty that cuts wood the way a hot knife cuts butter.

Axes to Grind

A load of logs; my studio in the background.

He should know. Every year, he saws a load of logs to stove length, then splits it all with one of his ever-growing collection of axes and mauls.

AN AX, A PEN, A COMPUTER

A good ax makes a big difference, and not just in cutting firewood. My two axes are as critical to my writing as either a pen or my laptop. Splitting wood, building a fire, stoking the stove, and listening to the chuckle of the fire — these are all part of my writing ritual, and appropriately so. Humans have been using axes since the Stone Age; they predate writing, as does storytelling.

I like to think that after those early ax wielders chopped down trees and split logs and built fires, their clans gathered around that source of light and heat, and told stories. I need both the ax and the pen to follow in this long and distinctly human tradition.

Axes to grind

The tiny wood stove that heats my studio.

Deborah Lee Luskin is an author, speaker and educator dedicated to advancing issues through narrative and telling stories to create change. She blogs at www.deborahleeluskin.com, where this essay was originally posted.

The Evolution of Writers

 

I’m having a difficult time writing these days.

I’ll sit at my desk ready to work on a piece and then my phone beeps. There’s another news alert – The Press Secretary has doubled down on a clear lie at the daily press conference.

Or there’s an announcement of another Executive Order (decree).

Or I hear about some State Rep in Minnesota who passed an amendment so that health insurance companies won’t have to cover many pre-existing conditions like diabetes, prenatal care, ventilator care, Lyme disease … the list goes on and on and on. (Interestingly Erectile dysfunction will still be covered – Phew!)

Or there’s a gag order on government agencies who report directly to the public, (EPA, USDA) if you cared about the environment or the food that you eat, good luck, you’re now on your own.

Or an elected official is tweeting about the “fat women” who attended the Women’s March or the “lard” those women have in their brains.

I spend most of my time these days seething (when I’m not curled up in a fetal position.)

I am a writer. It means I have a vivid imagination. But one doesn’t need to have a bigly imagination to see what is happening. If I wrote fiction, I’d have enough material for many, many dystopian sagas.

America seems to be under attack from within. And it’s frightening, it’s challenging every belief I have ever held.

Our rights are being threatened, our information controlled, our children with chronic illness and people with disabilities are at risk, our very livelihood as writers is going to be challenged (will I be punished for even daring to write this?)

When suppression and repression is the new reality, it’s difficult to write about charming chickens or a walk I took through a bucolic town. It’s difficult to write anything positive when the cloud overhead is so heavy and ominous.

It’s difficult to write about anything except sharing outrage at what is happening. Again and again. That kind of writing seems to come easy, it comes from a bottomless well.

I know I’m not alone.

And I also know I can’t continue at this full throttle speed. As I have cautioned so many other people – “Take care of yourself, this is a marathon not a sprint.” I need to remind myself of that very advice every day.

Somehow I am going to have to section out time to block myself from what is happening in the world so that I can conjure up the writer I was before –  if that writer even still exists.

There is an app out there that automatically changes all pictures of Trump to kittens, maybe I need to install that.

Or maybe I need to lock myself in a room away from the internet, social media, and my phone.

Or better still, perhaps I need to try and capture these feelings of fear, loathing, and disgust and channel them into my writing. Chickens can be angry, walks can draw attention, mothers can speak out.

Words matter.

Maybe, just maybe, these times will usher in the evolution of a new kind of writer.  I am positive that once we have found our balance, we writers will find a way to cope and we will use our skills to make sure our fears and our voices are heard.

***

Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.

Friday Fun – How do you sing to your danger?

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION:  

When danger approaches sing to it.

Arab proverb

So much of good writing results from experiencing “danger” in our own lives. People get sick or die, families are threatened by financial insecurity, and politicians infringe on our rights. Even a personal challenge (like taking a long walk with your son) can present moments of danger.

Think about when you have experienced a profound sense of danger. Sit there and really chew on that feeling – notice that sudden race of pulse, that sweat that breaks out, that sense that you have to get up and physically move away from the memory.

And now try to sing to that danger by using that very specific experience in your writing going forward. Sing to make it real, sing to take away its power by sharing.

What words will you use to sing to danger?

****

Deborah headshotDeborah Lee Luskin: Breathe before words. I don’t sing to my danger – during or after. I bring myself back to my breath. This helps ground me when I’m in any highly charged situation, and it helps quiet the static when I’m at my desk, so I can hear my voice and take dictation.

.

lisajjacksonLisa J. Jackson:  Can’t say I’ve ever tried the singing approach, but I can relate to the feelings of fear, the adrenaline rush after the danger has passed, and the best advice I received for processing everything was “look up.”

I fell out of a raft in white water on the Colorado River several years ago and had to be rescued. I was cool and focused until I was pulled to shore – then my body shook uncontrollably – my first true experience with adrenaline. Once back in the raft and through the rest of the white water… the raft calmly being pulled along with the now-calm current, my mind replayed what happened. As I was about to get hysterical with the overwhelming emotions, I warned the 3 ladies in my raft. The tour company owner told me to “look up.” She said there’s a psychological benefit to it. I had nothing to lose, the tears were forming. I looked up … and my thoughts cleared, words became coherent in my mind, it was more akin to poetry than song as all the scary parts of the experience softened and appreciation took over.

I get scared in airplanes — looking up helps the anxiety. Attending networking events gives me the jitters — looking up helps me get my breath. Dealing with emotional situations — when I feel tears coming, I look up, take a breath and refocus.

Lee Laughlin CU 7-13

Lee Laughlin I love to sing and have been told I have a decent voice, but I sing to motivate myself.  When it comes to fear, I am a person of touch.  Placing my hands on a surface, backing myself against a wall (literally), moving close to someone I trust.  My son is very much the same way, when he gets worked up, I will place both of my hands on his shoulders and press down. It grounds him.

When there is danger, I think singing would distract me. When there is danger, I want to be focused and alert to all that is happening so I can process and react.  Now, to use that to strengthen my writing!

Paring Down the Goals List

“Goals are dreams with deadlines.”   –Diana Scharf

I am a goal-oriented person. I love creating goals and checking them off my list. When I looked over my goals list from last year (and the year before, and the year before,) there was one goal that I hadn’t achieved, yet had continued to put on the list year after year: Write a book.

Given that I’m a goal-oriented person, as previously noted, I had to wonder why I haven’t achieved this goal.

There are a lot of practical reasons why I haven’t achieved this goal: family obligations, work obligations, etc. But those are just excuses.

Is this goal one I really want to achieve? My knee-jerk reaction is, “Yes! Of course,” and after some reflection, I know that I really do want to achieve this goal. I have a particular book in mind and I feel passionately about it.

So why haven’t I completed it?

It comes down to fear. Doesn’t it always?

I have a limiting belief about this goal that is basically summed up as: “Who do you think you are trying to write this book?” You can hear the tone, can’t you?

Yeah, me, too.

But that voice, with its nasty tone, is not going to stop me.

I have worked with this (limiting) belief and will continue to work with it until it stops interfering with the work I want to do in the world.

While I do that work, I’m also doing the work of writing the actual book. I have broken the task down into manageable chunks, and broken those down even more. I’m going to build trust with myself by setting an easily-achievable goal of 5000 words written on the book by January 31st.

I have many goals for 2017 and I’m shining a spotlight on one. I’ve given it a deadline. I’ve reviewed all the obstacles to achieving this goal and come up with a detailed plan to get me past each one of those obstacles.

I think I have a much better chance of completing this book by the end of the year.

What’s your most important goal for 2017?

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon:  I’m a master life coach, blogger, writer, and speaker. Check out my life coaching blog here. Happy New Year! Wishing you a wonderful, productive,  2017!

 

Reading out loud for a final edit

The kids are all back at school, Marc is out of town, and I have reserved this week to do a final edit of my manuscript.

“But how do you do that?” my son asked me last night at dinner.

Behold the new "Red Pen"

Behold the new “Red Pen”

“Well,” I told him, “I start on page one and I begin to read the entire thing out loud.”

And then, I explained, I look for areas where there are continuity breaks. For example when I was working on a chapter yesterday I noticed that I had written about “taking Motrin *again*” and yet I hadn’t mentioned any previous times that we had taken it. Oops – I went back and added that first instance.

Gone are the days of using a red pen, now I read out loud from the screen to find words that have been dropped and spellings that made it through spell check but were the wrong word. (Form instead of from.) All edits are done using my computer.

If I come across a passage that is particularly clunky and I can’t think of how to fix it, I highlight it to remind me to come back to it and I move on.

Quotation marks that weren’t added because they are a pain in the neck when you are brain dumping your story need to be added to dialogue.

When you read out loud, you “hear” the areas where your voice might have changed. Where you (I) might have added a snarky bit that doesn’t add anything to the story – out it comes.

When I read out loud, I also hear where I might have gone a little too light on descriptions. I stop to recall what it was I saw and felt and I add in those details.

I also hear some of the repetition that I didn’t seem to catch when I wrote the piece. When spoken, those words jump out front and center.

Reading out loud isn’t for everyone, it’s a slow process and I have to have absolute silence which is why this week is so good to do it – Please don’t interrupt me when I’m deep in my story.

But for me, it’s the best method for a review.

How about you? How do you do a final edit?

***

Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.