Saturday, April 17, 2010

Thoughts on attending the AWP Writers Conference in Denver – April 2010

I attended the three day conference, going to every panel that had anything to do with landscape, place, western writing.
landscape, place, western writing – These words mean everything to me. As an easterner, wanting to write about the west that I love, I need to know and understand what it means to live and be western. I learned so much about things I needed to know.

I wonder when this need, this desire, to know about the west started.

I awake in the middle of the night: It started in 8th grade social studies class. The class was assigned Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: Mr. Stevens social studies class at Rye Junior High. It was 1984, the year I moved from Plattsburgh, New York to Rye, New Hampshire.

In New York I was not a good student. I cared more about my friends and boys. I didn’t do homework and didn’t care about school. Months before leaving, I brought home a kitten and thought I could hide it from my parents. The first night I had the kitten, it was more important to go to a high school football game with my friends than to try to keep the kitten hidden in my closet.

That night is now in the family story archive and still makes me cringe when family members bring it up. I got all C’s on my report card and a C- in Mr. Burdeau’s social studies class.

Moving was a chance to start over. I decided that I wanted to be smart, and learn, and go to college. I got to prove myself when I got the first reading assignment - Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.

I was completely enthralled by Mr. Stevens and history; western history, Native American History. I got an A-. I couldn’t stop reading about the Native Americans, about mountain men, and the pioneers. That is how it started.

Every morning and afternoon I walked one mile to the conference in downtown Denver. The first morning I walked defensively, the way a woman, alone, is taught to walk in a city. Be aware of people. Be aware of your surroundings. Be on guard. After nine hours of listening to writers talk about writing, I walked back to my hotel differently. I thought about the writers, academia, of publishing books. I dreamed of being a presenter and encouraging other writers, like the writers did for me today.

I walked past the South Platte River, past the rail yards, and noticed a bird flying down from the bridge to the river. I couldn’t identify the bird and wished that I could. I fell asleep that night as the trains rumbled in the distance thinking about the writing life.

The next morning I walked the same path, past the sun blaring through iron fencing, and Coors Field. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe trains causing the bridge to vibrate. I thought about everything. I wondered what will happen when I’m away from this landscape, and the west. I wondered what my life would be like without the aridity, mountains, and trains. I realized, that morning, in the city, I am in love with this land and with the stories from this place.

I am drawn to people who live in hard-to-live places. I want to know the stories of their failures and successes. I want to write the stories of survival and loss and these stories will take place in a landscape of sagebrush and tumbleweed.

That day, I also learned that who I am and where I live means everything.
In a panel celebrating the writing contributions of William Kittredge, Rick Bass said to us, and him:
“You’ve never forgotten where you come from”
“You’ve make a generation think harder, deeper of what it means to be a westerner.”

I learned to write authentic stuff of where you are.
It was three great days.

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