Speaking from the Heart: Terry Tempest Williams

By Laurel A. Moulton '01

Students chat with author Terry Tempest Williams (far right) following the author's talk at MHC October 24.
Photo by Fred LeBlanc

After a long moment of silence to allow everyone present to breathe and re-center, Terry Tempest Williams began, “I have not done this before… 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.
Participants from the community who joined in the dialogue were drawn in by Williams's sincerity and were provided with an opportunity to feel the emotions that drove Williams to write and share her story. “From beginning to end, she was totally honest,” said Anamaria Aristizabal '01, “sharing personal insight on parts of the book and issues that arose as its publication was imminent.”

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.”


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