Friday, July 27, 2012

A Good Endorsement for Speed-Reading

In Idaho getting all my books and notes unpacked and organized but with the impending Sun Valley Writers Conference quickly approaching, there's so many books and so little time! The website contains a reading list and summary of all the authors who will be presenting this year as well as program notes. Sun Valley Writers Conference, August 17th - 20th.

Seeing the West I’ve Read

Last week I drove from Chicago, Illinois to Sun Valley, Idaho – a distance of 1846 miles and three days on the road through incredibly diverse and expansive landscapes. Few Americans these days see this vastness since, given a choice, most would fly. I know I would!

But I drive because my two giant dogs, who will spend three months with me in the northern Rockies, can’t fly on commercial airlines, not since 9/11 - the date indelibly imprinted in our collective memories. I can’t afford to fly them charter, so each summer we take to the road.

I was only able to grasp the enormity and diversity of the U.S. after driving out west. Starting from Chicago, we drove west out of Illinois into Iowa, across Iowa on through Nebraska,
Wyoming, into Utah and then north into Idaho.

In Illinois and Iowa jade corn fields extending to the horizon transitioned from flat to rolling. In Nebraska fields of crops progressed to cattle feed lots so densely packed even the most committed carnivore would reassess meat consumption. In central and western Nebraska,hundreds of long inactive oil pumps had been modernized and pressed back into service.

The North Platte Valley was crossed by mile-long trains transporting loads of coal or flat beds stacked 2 high with global shipping containers. The scene brought to life Stephen Ambrose’s books, Nothing Like It In the World, about the building of the transcontinental railroad and Undaunted Courage, a history of the Lewis and Clark western expeditions. Yet, among it all,the North Platte Valley was dotted with rivers and lakes, lush with trees and fields that gradually
thinned as we climbed into Wyoming.

In arid areas, tumbleweed blew like sci-fi creatures across the interstate. The great American dust bowl was so cataclysmic, that decades later the west still bears its scars. Classics like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath became increasingly poignant across the miles as did Timothy
Egan’s incredible dust bowl era chronicle, The Worst Hard Time: the Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.

Herds or wild mustangs, white-tailed antelope bounding across plains, and occasional ranches where bison grazed were sad sparse remnants of the millions of buffalo that grazed on these same plains decades ago. Richard White’s amazing book, It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A New History of the American West proved to be reading time well spent.

In Wyoming, landforms turned dramatic in our approach to the Vedauwoos vi dÉ™ vu:), a rocky outcrop of Sherman Granite in south-eastern Wyoming  just north  of Medicine Bow - Routt National Forest.  The name, anglicized from the Arapaho language "bito'o'wu"  means "earth-born" and the cliffs are extremely popular with rock climbers from all over the world who test their skills.

I first read about the Vedauwoos in James Salter's book Solo Faces,  a novel in which the  fictional character climbs there and is based upon actual climbers Slater – himself a climber,  met. Seeing ant-sized climbers rappelling down cliffs faces is the only sense I get of how massive these rocks really are.  In addition to the exit marked “The Vedauwoo”, my favorite exit is Happy Jack Road, the alternate route to the main outcroppings between Laramie and Cheyenne.

Crossing from Wyoming into Utah brought to mind Sally Denton’s American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857. In it, she illuminates a still controversial battle between two Mormon sects. And so we turned north crossing out of Utah into Idaho and a shelf filled with yet more books and hundreds of others I forgot to mention!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Energized in Iowa: A Week of Inspired Writing

Schaeffer Hall- building at University of Iowa in which all of our writing
workshops met daily.
This past week I accomplished more toward my writing goals than I have in the past  six months. How did I do this? Simple - I spent 7 days in Iowa City at the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival, that's how!

I returned home all energized about my writing - that lasted all of 3 days. This week, I've really been struggling to maintain the same momentum I had in Iowa City. I realize that just because the workshops I took were excellent, there was vastly more to the process than merely fantastic instructors, eager participants, exciting speakers, and plenty of time in which to write. I know, what else could there be?

Each day, there were writing assignments, readings to analyze and to discuss, classmates' essays to "workshop" - that special University of Iowa process in which each group member gets copies of the other group members' papers to read the day in advance. Each day, several participants' works were discussed positively,  constructively, and systematically. Accountability goes a long way, too.

Baaa. the exterior of the Natural History
Building on U of Iowa campus.


"What worked for you?" asked one instructor.

"What didn't work- but state this in the form of a question to the writer." said another.

"We all need praise and suggestions or advice." said the first one."

And the second one reminded us to, "always read your work out loud. You'll be surprised by what you can learn."

But there was even more to move me forward; I was in a place that gave legitimacy to my answer, "I'm a writer." when responding to the question, "what do you do?" And everywhere I went, people seemed focused on quality reading and writing. On the other hand,  there was no grocery shopping to distract me, or dogs to walk, or cooking and cleaning to manage. There was no laundry to fold as an escape, and no bills that couldn't wait for a week until I got home.

Recently, I read that Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage in just ten days and nights. Of course, his maid, man-servant, and cook managed all the aspects of his life that weren't related to his writing.

I like to imagine that if I, too, had all those mundane aspects of my life taken care of for me by others, I could surely be as productive as Crane was. Fortunately, I'm at no risk of having my fantasy destroyed!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Postcard from Iowa City!

This is the entrance of Prairie Lights Bookstore, an Iowa City landmark and renowned independent bookstore that has hosted hundreds, if not thousands, of amazing authors reading their works, meeting their readers and broadcasting presentations on NPR from the second floor sitting area. No trip to Iowa City should take place without a stop at Prairie Lights!