When Terry Tempest Williams’ mother was dying, she bequeathed her personal journals to her daughter. “I didn’t know my mother kept journals,” Williams said.
Months later, on the night of a full moon, Williams found the three shelves of clothbound diaries. She took them down, opened them one at a time: They were all blank.
“What was my mother trying to say to me?” Williams said in a recent interview. “Did she want me to fill them because she could not? Or were her blank journals an act of defiance within a culture, Mormon, that valued women’s record keeping? She continues to speak to me through her silences, a longing that she passed on to me.”
In her new book, “When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice,” Williams uses that strange legacy to explore women’s voices — as writers, as mothers, as thinkers, as people in this world.
“To speak from one’s heart is to touch another’s heart,” she said. “To speak honestly, truthfully and boldly shatters complacency and encourages courageous actions.
“Each of us has a voice. It is more than our personal expression in the world, it is our offering of truth born out of authentic experience.”
Williams is best known for her strong and poetic writing on women, the environment and spirituality. She’ll be at Weyerhaeuser Chapel at Macalester College (sponsored by Common Good Books) on Monday, where she’ll talk about speaking up, dreaming, and why she always writes with a bowl of water at her side.
Q: Your new book explores women’s voices — early, motherly, silent, writerly. Why do you think this is an important topic to consider?
A: Women’s voices are changing the world, now more than ever before, from Eve Ensler and One Billion Rising, a global campaign to end violence to women; to Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl who was recently shot for speaking out on behalf of the educational rights of girls; to the power of our own mothers’ voices within the homes where we were raised.
Women’s voices are still silenced, discredited and undermined. Women still do not possess parity within leadership positions, be it in Congress or business or religious institutions.
Q: How do you think that women’s voices differ from men’s voices?
A: A woman’s voice is a voice of empathy, interconnected and interrelated, a call and a cry that can be both fierce and compassionate at once. When a woman speaks out, her voice is usually bound by the threads of injustice, sorrow and a desire for change. A woman’s voice asks that her children might flourish. A woman’s voice demands fairness. A woman speaks out of fear and necessity. It is beyond survival, it is rooted in life.
A woman’s voice is also joyous, a song upon the desert like water. It is rooted in real time and space, the work of mothers, families, communities. I believe each time a woman speaks, no matter her power or position, it originates from the secret quiverings of her heart. When one woman speaks, she gives other women the courage to speak. The question must be asked, “Who benefits when a woman remains silent?”
Q: Where are you right now?
A: I am sitting in the living room of my cousin’s home, which was our grandparents’ home in Salt Lake City, Utah, looking out over a very white landscape as it snows and snows. The large sycamore tree that we all climbed as children is still standing in the back yard and looms large as a place of safety, even through the pane-glass windows. A fire is burning. I have a cup of coffee next to me. My cousin is sitting across the room reading the Sunday New York Times.
Q: Describe your writing room.
A: My study is painted a slate blue, very peaceful with a depth of tone. There are two small windows that look out on a grove of aspens and pines. I have a long wooden table that used to be our dining room table, so I feel the presence of those I love. Bookshelves. Two black iron sconces lit by candles hang on the wall. A beautiful wood carving of great blue herons by the Aleut artist John Hoover draws me to my desk each day.
Q: What is your writing strategy — do you have rituals?
A: I don’t think I have a writing strategy. Deadlines are very compelling. Passion and anger over a particular political issue fuel my adrenaline. Books are a slow burn over time. And I appreciate the column I write for the Progressive that gets me to my desk on a regular basis.
The ritual I keep is this: I light a candle when I sit down to write to honor that I am now in a different state of mind. And I always have a small stone bowl filled with water on my desk. Why? So that in those hours, days, weeks, when nothing is happening on the page, the water is at least evaporating!
Q: How do you get past writers’ block?
A: Writer’s block for me simply means I am not ready to write yet, that I don’t fully understand the ideas I am working with yet. I understand the value of time within the creative process. We need time to let the ideas or story or essay marinate. Of course, there are times when a deadline pushes us to the page before we are ready. Procrastination is a constant companion to me. But sometimes, I just have to wait until the time is right, until I am mentally and emotionally, even spiritually ready to begin a long, rigorous piece.
Walking helps. Every day, walking helps me to integrate my thoughts before I begin to write. Writing is a very physical process. Sleep also helps. Often, my ideas, images, even lines come to me while dreaming.
Q: What books do you re-read?
A: Poetry: Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Robinson Jeffers, Denise Levertov, W.S. Merwin, Gary Snyder, Louise Gluck; I have re-read “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse many times through the years; George Orwell’s essays; Wallace Stegner’s essays; “Desert Solitaire,” by Edward Abbey; “Tracks,” by Louise Erdrich; all of Virginia Woolf’s novels, especially, “The Waves.”
Q: What’s on your desk?
A: I have a paper by Rolston Holmes III on “The Anthropocene” that I am reading; I have two film reviews that I just finished. I have some Zuni fetishes on my desk for protection, two feathers from a hermit thrush, some shells, a button from a friend, a glass globe given to my by my mother. A black vase with white tulips is near; and a photograph of my husband, Brooke.
Q: What’s been the best place so far to do a reading?
A: Independent bookstores, always. I feel so grateful to the beautiful communities and audiences that I have had the privilege of reading to over the years. The West is always my home ground. We share the same language, landscape. The Pacific Northwest and New England are also communities deeply familiar to me. But if I have to think of one reading in particular, it was a reading in Paris at the wonderful bookstore Village Books, now closed. I was reading from “Finding Beauty in a Broken World.”
When I was done, a man in the audience raised his hand and politely asked me to describe what a prairie dog looks like. It was David Sedaris. That made me very happy to give something back to a writer who has given so much to all of us.