Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Activist-poet Tempest Williams enchants budding writers

Terry Tempest Williams, poet, activist and environmentalist, visited Whitman College for the first time in her career last Thursday.

The abundant nature of Williams’ work in many writing and environmental classes has made the author a minor literary celebrity for the Whitman community.   Her arrival on campus for the Visiting Writers Reading Series brought out some of her most avid readers and environmental and social advocates on campus.

Before her poetry reading in Cordiner Hall Thursday night, Williams held a lunchtime discussion for a small group of students in creative writing and nature writing classes.

The discussion was personal as Williams generously shared her struggles, her spirituality and her convictions with a group of former strangers she said she felt instantly connected to.  

Williams shared intimate stories about her family, speaking of their occasional anger alongside their occasional support and her fear of alienating loved ones.   She divulged the problem of writing about personal issues, displaying the writer’s burden to a group of budding authors.

Williams cried through much of the discussion and brought tears to the eyes of some of her audience as well.

Professor Don Snow, who has known Williams for 20 years, remarked on the writer’s ability to instantaneously connect with her audience.

“I think that’s why people feel such an intimate connection with her,” he said in an e-mail.   “There’s greatness in her, and this is the source of it, her immense generosity of heart and mind.”

William’s openness for closeness enticed senior Katrina Barlow.

“I went thinking that everyone loves Terry Tempest Williams.   I went with a grain of salt and I still fell in love with her in about two minutes.   She is incredibly intimate.   It’s totally unavoidable and unfair.   Her voice even sounds like silver bells,” she said.

Williams, airy and ethereal with silver hair and flowing scarves, began the discussion with introductions.   Along with their names and place of origin, she asked students and professors to say a word that has been rolling around in their heads lately.  

The words stretched from delicate to rough, playful to serious:   blood, nurturing, fetch, skin, steel, transition, madness, crepuscule, anarchy, milk and water were a few of the revealed words.  

According to Williams, the list of words acted as a shared spontaneous narrative that connected the classroom of individuals.  

“That’s where we begin as writers: with obsessions,” she said.

 Williams regaled the audience with personal stories.   She spoke in detail about her father, “the Marlboro man without the cigarette.”

Williams praised her father as her go-to source of honesty.   Nervous about the possible effect of her book “Refuge,” she turned to her father.   Smiling, Williams related his remark, “Don’t worry about it.   No one’s going to read it anyway.”

“Refuge” details the history of breast cancer in her Utah-based family.   She points the finger of blame at the nuclear tests conducted in the nearby Nevada desert by the U.S. Government.

But after her father read the book he became more serious about the effect the book may have.   He gave her a pearl-handled pistol. William’s voice softened as she explained that this is when she knew she was vulnerable.

This sense of vulnerability continued as Williams discussed the writer’s regret. She spoke of the rift between herself and multiple family members that sprung out of her desire to write about certain moments in her family’s history.   According to Williams, this is the burden of the writer.

Tears welled up in her eyes as Williams explained the need for the author to write what she needs to say.

 “You have to stay true to your heart,” said Williams.

Williams applauded the potential for originality and the potential for poetry in each student.

“The point is that we are storied creatures.   That’s what keeps us alive.   That’s what makes us human,” she said.

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