Speaking from the Heart: Terry Tempest Williams
By Laurel A. Moulton '01
After a long moment of silence to allow everyone present to breathe
and re-center, Terry Tempest Williams began, I have not done
I want to speak from my heart without the safety
of notes. On October 24, in Gamble Auditorium, during her fourth
visit to Mount Holyoke, Williams discussed and answered questions
about the writing process, the significance of her book Refuge, and
the compromises she made while writing it. Refuge: An Unnatural History
of Family and Place (Pantheon, 1991) connects the changes in Williams's
native Utah landscape with her mother's struggle with cancer.
Williams's appearance was the third of a four-part series of
community dialogues surrounding her book. Last spring, Refuge was
chosen to kick off a tradition of an annual common reader
for incoming students. Before arriving at Mount Holyoke this fall,
each new student was sent a copy of the book to read. It was
beyond my wildest dreams that one day, ten years after writing Refuge,
a distinguished college such as Mount Holyoke would choose to have
Refuge as its common reader, said Williams.
In writing her book, Williams examined the question of how
to find refuge in change. At first, she said, I
thought I was writing a book about birds, about the Bear River Migratory
Bird Refuge. However, when her mother became ill, Williams could
not separate her mother's journey with cancer, and how it affected
her family, from the rise and fall of the Great Salt Lake and the
Bear River Refuge. The story she was writing in the book became the
story that she was living.
During the writing of her book, Williams was faced with trade-offs
between writing what was true to her experiences and balancing the
privacy concerns of her family and her Mormon upbringing. She, however,
encouraged students to write against [their] instincts. When
you think you have gone too far, go further. With the help of
her father, who read every new draft, she was able to come to a balance
between emotion and family integrity.
In addition to speaking about her journey writing Refuge, Williams
fielded questions from the audience about all angles of the book.
She addressed geology professor Michelle Markley's question about
the causes of the water level rise in Great Salt Lake, noting that
the next time around, she would like to be a geologist.
In response to a student's question regarding Williams's
involvement in political activism, the author commented, Writing
is a political act
writing is an act of faith, and cited
a passage at the end of Refuge about her arrest while she protested
at a Nevada nuclear test site. As the officer cinched the handcuffs
around my wrists another frisked my body. She found a pen and a pad
of paper tucked inside my left boot. And these?' she asked
sternly. Weapons,' I replied. Our eyes met. I smiled. She
pulled the leg of my trousers back over my boot.
Williams emphasized that writing comes from our center, out of silence
and stillness. We realize we have our own source [as women],
but we are separated from our sources, she said, citing the
separation from self that comes in the fast pace of everyday life.
It is exciting when somebody can speak from that stillness,
from the center, said a Hampshire College student who joined
in the dialogue.
Be fierce in your instincts in the midst of being open, Williams said. We can retrieve our power after it is lost.