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.

The Next *Big* Thing

This is actually a repost of a blog post on my chicken blog but I thought that as writers, you might also like to see what is in store for 2013.

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It comes down to butt in chair

It comes down to butt in chair

Although many of you know that I write this blog, you may not know that in real life (you know the thing where you have to work for a living?) I am a full time writer and journalist. I write newspaper and magazine articles and marketing material. It’s what I do. It’s what makes me happy.  (If you want to read some of my writers’ advice blog posts go over to Live to Write – Write to Live.)

In my travels I’ve bumped elbows with some very talented authors. One particular author, Hilary Weisman Graham  who knew I was working on a book-length project recently sent me an invitation to be part of a writers’ tour – I accepted and that’s what this post is about.

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This post is part of a blog tour where writers share what the “Next Big Thing” is. The writer who tagged me is Hilary Weisman Graham over at http://www.hilarygraham.com/index.html Hilary has written Reunited which is a terrific Young Adult book about teen girls and the value of true friendship.  Hilary is also a screen writer and was on the Mark Burnett/Steven Spielberg-produced reality show ON THE LOT: THE SEARCH FOR AMERICA’S NEXT GREAT DIRECTOR (which aired on FOX primetime, the summer of 2007) – which is pretty cool.

Thanks Hilary for tagging me on this tour.

Other writer friends of mine who are working on projects include:

Gina Rosati – the fabulous writer of the YA book – Auracle and who is working on a new story that revolves around historical fiction.

Lauren Scheuer – the fabulous chicken writer and responsible for – Once Upon a Flock – Life with my soulful chickens. It’s the story of living with her gentle flock of chickens.

Jamie Wallace – the fabulous to-be writer who is working on a project and if we all nudge her just a little might make some significant progress on it this year.

Lisa Jackson – no, not *the * Lisa Jackson, this is another Lisa J who lives in New Hampshire and who also needs a kick in the butt to get her started because she is fabulous.

Chris Bohjalian, Meg Cabot, Jodi Picoult, and Judy Blume – yeah these are the big guys and all of them have been kind enough to be interviewed for this blog (and have chickens named after them.) They are always working on new projects. Go over to their websites and check out what they have in store for us.

Ten Interview Questions for my Next Big Thing:

What is your working title of your book?

The Hope of Feathers (after much going back and forth)

Where did the idea come from for the book?

The idea came as a direct offshoot of this blog. While I have enjoyed our chickens tremendously, I had no idea that they would be so instrumental in teaching me the valuable life lessons I needed to learn in order to care for my flock of 6 children.

Having chicks in the coop is a full time job. Every mama hen has to spend much of her time teaching the life skills needed so that each baby can eventually leave the nest and live on his own.

Basically, us mamas are laying the groundwork for our most prized possessions to leave us.  It’s bittersweet on a good day, and nothing short of heartbreaking on a bad one, especially when chronic illness in one of the chicks enters the picture.

But we understand on a very deep and visceral level that not only is this the way it’s supposed to be, but that no one benefits (you or the chick) if there is no growth. And without independence, there is no growth.

Still you worry.

So, you continue to teach throughout the years, being careful to demonstrate family values, to explain what being a flock member means, and what it means to truly look out for each other. You pray it sinks in. You pray that your chicks will have the knowledge and compassion one day to lift not only their wings but the wings of others’ as well.

And you pray that you will have the strength to watch as they fly away.

What genre does your book fall under?

Memoir and Chick lit :-)

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Ha! A movie? Wow, haven’t really thought that far. I’m not sure who would play the members of our family (perhaps Rambo for Trevor?) I only know that if it’s going to be made into a movie then Daniel Craig gets to play the part of my husband. (I can dream can’t I?)

 

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m hoping to get it published by an agency. I have the attention of a literary agent, now I just need to finish the damn thing.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

This book has been in progress since 2005. It’s really only in the last year that I’ve begun work on pulling this specific aspect of the story together.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I think the best way to describe my books is to say that it is a “Marley and Me, but with feathers.”

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’m a writer. I teach by writing. What I have learned with having chronic illness in the house and yet wanting that member of my family to be independent enough to leave the nest someday, is a story that all parents (especially mama hens) can relate to and which needed to be told.

It is the strength of my children and the way they support each other (just like flock members do) that inspired me to capture this story (and let’s face it, some help came from a little chick with orthopedic problems that ended up living in our house for 6 months who showed me I am doing no one a service by thinking I am protecting them from life by keeping them in the nest.)

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

There will be Lyme disease, disability, medical emergencies, flock stories, and of course Charlie, our house-chicken, will also play a big role in it.

My plan is to have the draft of this book finished within the next 3 months. There, I said it, now it has to be done.

So you want to write a memoir?

As a journalist, I’m often assigned stories where I have to interview an individual. 

Guess what? The people I’m told to interview are not being written about because they are boring, “do-the-same-thing-everyday” people, they are chosen because they have done something extraordinary, something that is considered news-worthy. They have risen above life circumstances and they’ve done something that people want to read about.

I actually love these assignments. They tend to inspire and renew my faith in the condition of man.

But one thing that comes out all the time is that when I interview these people, invariably they say “I should write a book about all this.” Sometimes they should, sometimes they shouldn’t, that’s not my call but from my experience, if you want to write a memoir, at a minimum, this is what you will need for your story.

A story line
A good story line has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. It also has a plot with tension. Your experience shouldn’t be a breeze, we want conflict, we want to hear about getting a wrong diagnosis, being caught in an elevator when it’s time to deliver your baby, having your arm stuck between a rock and a hard place. If your experience doesn’t have a little bit of drama, a moment or two of “I don’t think she’s going to make it.” then it’s not going to be read by too many people.

Winning a multi-million dollar lottery is not going to make a good memoir. Winning that lottery and then spending all that money until you go into debt so that you have to work at a fastfood restaurant in order to feed your family and make ends meet, but learning there is honor in work – now that might be a story.

Just the facts ‘mam
Your memoir shouldn’t be your life story (unless you are incredibly famous and people might want to know everything about you) limit your story to the beginning, middle, and ending of your specific life adventure. This doesn’t mean that you can’t pull in relevant experiences from your past, by all means if faith kept you alive for 23 days on a raft then mention your Sunday school experiences as a child.

My point here is to limit the information. Make sure that everything supports the main experience, if it doesn’t then consider not keeping it in the story. Consider the extraneous the gristle on the steak, if you don’t get rid of it, your readers are going to have to work too hard and will probably end up leaving your book on the plate.

A memoir has to have an ending
A beginning, a middle, and an end. I talk to a lot of people who might have a good story but there is no ending yet, they haven’t finished chemotherapy, they haven’t risen above welfare, their child has finally gotten the medical help they’ve needed but have not fully recovered yet.

If you’re in the middle of an experience that you think might be good for a memoir, keep constant notes, maintain a journal, and hold onto all documents. You might even want to blog about it as it happens, the point is, you can’t write your memoir until there is some sort of closure to your experience (think a recovery, or rescue.) And please, if you have anger about your situation, let it cool off a bit before you write your memoir. Anger is a great motivator but it can also be quite the poisonous pill to writing making you seem bitter instead of victorious.

Could I do it?
The reason we read memoirs is because we want to learn from them. How did that guy find the strength to cut his arm off to survive? (and could I?) How did another mother battle illness while raising her large family (and could I?) What exactly does Daniel Craig do for his daily workout? (and can I pretend that I could? – see what I mean about famous people?)

Rise above
The point of a memoir is to show how you endured a terrible or unusual situation and you lived to tell about it. We want you to be a better person for having gone through what you did.

We do not want to hear about how chronic illness stinks, what we really want to know is how despite chronic illness stinking, you were able to overcome and persevere. Inspire us to become the better person you’ve become because of your experiences.

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 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).

And yes, I am currently working on a memoir about living with the children and chickens. 

Photo Credit: Chris Friese