Photo by Louis Gakumba
In her latest book, When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams explores the legacy of her mother’s journals. [28:11]
Terry Tempest Williams: One of the interesting things I think as writers, at least for me, I never know where I’m going; if I did, I wouldn’t be interested. I thought I was writing a book about voice; it may be that I’ve written a book on silence...
Jo Reed: That was author and naturalist Terry Tempest Williams.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Terry Tempest Williams has written some 14 books including Refuge a memoir about her mother written in 1991. Refuge tells us about her mother's up bringing in a big Mormon family in Utah and her subsequent struggle with cancer--a illness that has claimed the lives of many women in her family and others as a result of ongoing nuclear testing in the nearby Nevada desert.
When Terry Tempest Williams’s mother lay dying, she told Terry that she had left her all of her journals, but made her promise not to look at them until after her death. What Terry found in those journals eventually led-- some 35 years later-- to a second memoir about her mother, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice.
Terry Tempest William: "I am 54 years old, the age my mother was when she died. This is what I remember. We were lying on her bed with a mohair blanket covering us. I was rubbing her back, feeling each vertebra with my fingers as a rung on a ladder. It was January and the ruthless clamp of cold wore down on us outside. Yet inside, mother’s tenderness and clarity of mind carried its own warmth. She was dying in the same way she was living, consciously. ‘I am leaving you all my journals,’ she said, facing the shuttered window, as I continued rubbing her back. ‘But you must promise me that you will not look at them until after I am gone.’ I gave her my word and then she told me where they were. I didn’t know my mother kept journals. A week later, she died. A month later, I found myself alone in the family home. I kept expecting mother to appear. Her absence became her presence. It was the right time to read her journals. They were exactly where she said they would be, three shelves of beautiful cloth-bound books, some floral, some paisley, others in solid colors. The spines of each one was perfectly aligned against the lip of the shelves. I opened the first journal; it was empty. I opened the second journal; it was empty. I opened the third journal; it too was empty as was the fourth the fifth, the sixth. Shelf after shelf after shelf, all my mother’s journals were blank."
Jo Reed: Terry, describe those moments when you began to realize that this -- what I assume you thought would be a treasure trove of insight to your mother -- and you found blank pages.
Terry Tempest Williams: It was like a second death, Jo. I couldn’t believe it. I kept pulling them off the shelf, looking, thumbing through them, nothing; looking through them, nothing. Blank, blank, blank; every one of them empty. And I thought, "This can’t be." It felt like a cruel joke; it felt like a betrayal. My mother’s journals became paper tombstones. And honestly, I couldn’t allow myself to think about it. You know that month between her death, any of us who have lost loved ones, you know what time period is; it’s, you lose track of all sense of time. It’s that laziness of grief. But I had that one touchstone: my mother’s journals. I thought finally, "We’ll be able to know what she was thinking, feeling, believing." Nothing. So I gathered them in my arms, I walked out of the house, I put them in my car, drove back out to the canyon, put them on my shelves unceremoniously, and wrote in them one after another through the years. And it really wasn’t until I turned the age my mother was when she died, 54 years old, that I thought, "Okay, what was my mother saying or not saying?"
Jo Reed: And how did you begin that exploration of trying to work through what your mother was saying and clearly not saying?
Terry Tempest Williams: I think in the beginning, I thought, was she saying fill them because I couldn’t. But that felt too simple, too obvious. We come from a Mormon family and Mormon women are expected to do two things, write, keep a record, keep a journal, and bear children. My mother did both.
Jo Reed: You know, it’s interesting because I knew about the bearing children; I did not know about the keeping journals. What’s the significance of that?
Terry Tempest Williams: I think it’s record-keeping. You know, we have journals of my great-great-grandmothers, my great grandmother. I have writings of my grandmothers. So it’s expected; it’s in a pioneering tradition. It’s a record of faith. It’s also the mundane. I mean, my ancestors’ journals crossing the plains from New York to Nauvoo to the American West, the Salt Lake Valley, you know, talk about children born and died; talk about the landscape; talk about how difficult it was. And so they’re powerful stories. My mother left me her journals and all her journals were blank. Was it an act of defiance? Again, the mystery. And the irony is my mother had four children, she kept her journals and all her journals were blank. My husband and I chose not to have children and the only thing that I’ve done religiously literally is keep a journal and use birth control.
Jo Reed: The book, When Women Were Birds, why the metaphor of birds?
Terry Tempest Williams: I love them. You know, they mark every moment in my life. My grandmother, Mimi, gave me Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds when I was 5. She made three little red dashes with her pen; I knew that meant, "I love you." Our bird books were journals. Every picture on every plate, whether it was [the bird] Western Tanager, it would be "Platt’s backyard 1967," or "Grand Teton National Park with a Great Blue Heron in 1962," you know, that’s where we marked our family histories. I think birds are mediators between heaven and earth. Birdsong, it’s been said, is truth in rehearsal. It’s my greatest passion.
Jo Reed: Did your mother have an affinity for bids as well or did you see her in some kind of a, I don’t know, a manifestation of some of the things you love about birds?
Terry Tempest Williams: She hated birds. Tippi Hedren, The Birds, Hitchcock, she hated birds. So, no. She really, I can’t say enough about how much she disliked birds. I remember I wanted a parakeet when I was little and because I hounded her so directly, we got a parakeet named Henry which was my father’s middle name; I think it was some passive-aggressive moment; who died very quickly. But my grandmother loved birds and my father loved birds. My mother did not.
Jo Reed: That’s very interesting. Well, much of the journal is obviously exploring your workings of the blanks pages of your mother’s journal. But it leads to a larger meditation or series of meditations on voice and silence. Talk about how you found your voice.
Terry Tempest Williams: You know one of the interesting things I think as writers, at least for me, I never know where I’m going; if I did, I wouldn’t be interested. I thought I was writing a book about voice; it may be that I’ve written a book on silence and that was a surprise to me. That ringing silence, that howling silence that I think we as women all know. How did I find my voice? I don’t think it’s something that you find and you say, "Ah-hah, I have a voice," done, move on. For me, finding my voice is an exercise in daily-ness. And I don’t care who we are or where we find ourselves, especially as women. I think it’s a struggle to speak the truth of our lives. I love Muriel Rukeyser when she asked the great question: "If a woman were to tell the truth of her life, the world would split open." The world is splitting open. I really think that now more than ever women are speaking profoundly and it is making a difference.
Jo Reed: I think voice, like courage, it’s a daily unfolding, it’s continuous. And I think voice and courage, in fact, often are closely related.
Terry Tempest Williams: I think that’s a great point. I love thinking about courage as sustained focus. And I think that’s something we as women are constantly thinking about, worrying about, and our voices are fierce and powerful, whether it is spoken or unspoken. And even though my mother’s journals were empty, blank, white pieces of paper, I find them to be profound in what she didn’t say much in the same way of John Cage’s Four Minutes, Thirty-three Seconds, his piece of music that was rendered in stillness. Much in the same way that Rauschenberg’s White Paintings were a commentary, a-- what did they call it, "a scandal of white." So then I thought, "Maybe my mother’s journals are a piece of performance art." There’s so many ways to look at it, a Japanese Cohen, a Buddhist Cohen, a kaleidoscope that I just keep turning to see what was she trying to say or not say.
Jo Reed: It’s so intriguing that it was a series of journals.
Terry Tempest Williams: Yea.
Jo Reed: That gives it such complexity. It’s not as though there was a journal and that was blank. But how many were there altogether?
Terry Tempest Williams: And I don’t know if she brought them over time. She must have. Because they were not, it wasn’t as though she brought them all at once. They were all so different, some yellowed, some not. And I think that was the thing that touched me the most is, there must have been an attempt, you know, that when she would purchase each journal that she thought, "Maybe now, maybe this one," because they really did feel that it was a compilation over time. You asked how many...30. So enough that it was a serious and it was a very conscious decision. And I have to tell you, it’s always complicated when you’re writing about your family and I knew that I would have to talk to my father about this in particular. And I had finished the book and had been living with it for about five years and I did not tell anyone that I had these journals, not my brothers, not my father, no one. It was too painful. And after I knew I would have to talk to dad, I went over to his home in Salt Lake and I just said, "Dad, I wanna talk to you about something. Do you know that mother left me her journals?" And he said, "I didn’t know she kept them," as I didn’t know. And he said, "Where were they?" and I told him. And then I said, "They were all blank, empty." And he said, "Well, that’s obvious; she was lazy." And I thought, "Okay, now I know why she didn’t keep them," you know? And that was it, end of discussion; Marlboro Man without the cigarette move on. About three weeks later, he called me and he said, "I’ve been thinking about Diane’s journals. I don’t think she was lazy." He said, "I think she was protecting all of us because I think if she had told the truth, she would have betrayed me, she would have betrayed you, she would have betrayed her sons, the church, her community and she could not do that. So she did not betray herself; she kept quiet." And I think that was a very astute comment.
Jo Reed: Did that make sense to you, knowing your mother as you did?
Terry Tempest Williams: Yes, because I think she was private. And one of the things I wanted to also share with the reader and also it helped me to understand is that my mother was a private woman; she was not a silent one. And she was an eloquent woman. And her letters that she wrote to me were so beautiful, I kept every one. And I found a talk that she had given in the Mormon Relief Society in 1979 during the heat of the ERA, the Equal Rights Amendment, which was torturous, volatile, fiery, heartbreaking in Salt Lake City, Utah. There were 120 women that were supporting that amendment, the feminists within Salt Lake City, I remember this well. Suddenly, they were having a conference; they hoped for maybe 200 people to talk about why this should be ratified. The day of the conference, in Salt Lake City, over 10,000 women showed up. The Mormon Church had sent an alert to all of the Relief Societies, "Show up. This is dangerous; vote against it." It was a devastating moment. What I didn’t know is that my mother gave a very courageous talk in Relief Society, which is a Mormon women’s organization, of why the ERA mattered, how she was tired of being a role, a mother, a wife; and that, as women, Mormon women, we have a history of strength, we have a history of courage; it is time for us to speak. So there’s this paradox.
Jo Reed: You found that’s also true with your grandmother, your grandmother, Mimi.
Terry Tempest Williams: Very powerful woman, very smart. She was a union scholar, had probably one of the largest libraries of transformational psychology in the state. Sam Weller who was the great independent bookseller, one day told me-- I worked there through high school and college -- he said, "Did you happen to know that your grandmother had probably the most expansive library of Carl Jung, Krishnamurthy, Joseph Campbell, Marie-Louise von Franz?" She was a student always and a radical soul in a conservative religion.
Jo Reed: She gave a great deal to you?
Terry Tempest Williams: She did. I think my mother couldn’t handle me; I was too intense, whether it was birds, whether it was daydreaming. And so, I think it was a great tribute to my mother’s sense of self and security and self-knowledge that she basically said to my grandmother, "She’s yours, take her." And yet, I was extremely close with my mother. So I was raised by powerful women.
Jo Reed: And you did mention your mother’s letter. She wrote you just such an extraordinary letter after a visit she had with you when you were living in New York; you were a young adult. And when she got back, just the kind of letter I think there isn’t a daughter living who would not want that from her mother.
Terry Tempest Williams: And it makes me tear just thinking about. No, our words are powerful and our legacies and I cherish that. I have it on my desk as a reminder. You know, she says, and what she did, Jo...we had had this wonderful weekend in New York City -- I was working at the American Museum of Natural History at the time -- and we had spent the day at the Museum of Modern Art sitting in front of Monet’sWater Lilies. And she had wanted to mark that moment with a gift and she went into a stationery shop and found this beautiful glass globe, a paperweight, and she gave it to me with this note that said, "These are swirling waves. I see them as your creativity, your waves of creative expression. You’ll notice in the center of the globe is a red center; that is your heart. If you follow your heart, you will never lose your way."
[Excerpt from When Women Were Birds]
April 17, 1983
New York City
Dearest Terry -
When I walked into the stationary shop today, you seemed to be in everything I saw and touched. When I saw this paper weight, I knew there was a connection to you. I had to buy it because of what it represented but I didn't know what it was. And then, as we were sitting at the museum this afternoon watching Monet's mural, Water Lilies, I knew the secret of the gift I was giving you. In the center is the ball is the red lily pad, which is you, and all around you, beautiful billows of space. Never let anyone invade that part of you, Terry, it is your creativity. If you keep yourself centered, everything will be balanced in your life. Thank you for your love and friendship, you are a precious gift to me. I can't tell you how much you are constantly enriching my life. I will always treasure the experience we shared this week in New York.
I love you so much,
Jo Reed: The thing that was so impressive about this letter from the woman who bequeathed blank journals is it’s not just that it was eloquent. Her access to her emotions were also quite extraordinary. I mean, she really did have access to her emotional life.
Terry Tempest Williams: She was a woman who at 38 years of age with four children under 15 was diagnosed with breast cancer and was told that if she was lucky, she had two years to live. So she had faced her mortality. She did not waste her time. And that’s the other thing I think that she may have been saying by leaving me her empty journals. My mother did not have the luxury of looking back nor the privilege of projecting ahead. She was in the present and why would she have wasted her time? Because I think when you write in a journal, you’re reflecting back or projecting forward. She was in the center of her life.
Jo Reed: She was always present.
Terry Tempest Williams: Absolutely.
Jo Reed: Is that a gift she gave you?
Terry Tempest Williams: Absolutely. When my mother was with you, you felt seen, you felt heard; you were the only person that existed. And I think she did give me that gift of presence because I was too afraid that if I looked ahead, she would not be there.
Jo Reed: Your grandmother gave you the gift of nature?
Terry Tempest Williams: She gave you the gift of nature and I think a symbolic consciousness. You know, it was terrifying, we would stay overnight at her house and I would stay in the mornings as long as I could because I knew once we were at the breakfast table, she would say, "All right, tell me about your dreams." And I remember one dream in particular, I said, "Oh Mimi, I had this amazing dream. I was over across the street at Martha Young’s house" -- she was two years older than me -- "I was standing on the hearth; there was a fire burning. I was looking outside the glass doors and there was a great horned owl that was trying to get in. I opened the glass doors. The owl flew in and landed on my shoulder." She said, "Oh darling, that’s wonderful; you’re about to menstruate." I thought, "Remind me not to tell her any more of my dreams..." they were my brothers. And four days later, I did. That was my grandmother; synchronicity, serendipity, everything was flushed with meaning.
Jo Reed: That is a wonderful story. You write in your book, "When silence is a choice, it’s an unnerving presence. When silence is imposed, it’s censorship." When it’s a choice, do you see it as a form of voice?
Terry Tempest Williams: I do. I remember meeting a woman named Chandra Loka from India. She was to Indian dance what Martha Graham is to American dance. And I remember we were in Montana at a gathering of friends and she said, "You know, Terry, you don’t always have to be speaking." And she said, "There is something as powerful as words and that is silence." And she talked about a healthy indignation and how part of dance is an articulation of silence through the body. And she said, "There are times when I straighten my spine and I see my spine anchored to the very core of the earth and I think about the power of that, the heat of that. And I can hold that space with an indignation that burns." She had that kind of silence. I’ve never forgotten them.
Jo Reed: When you opened those journals, did you, obviously not at the time because of course you were younger and also quite devastated, but when you re-approached them when you were 54 and thought about it, did you think of that kind of silence as that what your mother was holding and offering?
Terry Tempest Williams: No. You’ve given me a gift today. No. And that’s why I keep learning because I think that’s true. I think that in those pages, there is a white heat that her voice is burning through. I hadn’t thought about it in that way.
Jo Reed: In some ways, I guess what you’re doing in your book is marking that or making a gesture towards your mother’s journal because there are blank pages.
Terry Tempest Williams: There are; there’s 12 blank pages after my discovery which is in the first-- it’s one page and a paragraph and then 12 empty pages that follow. I wanted the reader to experience that emptiness, that disappointment and think, "Wait, what’s going on here." That was important to me, that the reader have a physical experience as I did. It’s been funny in the publishing world, my editor, after the book came out, said, "We have a problem. The books are being sent back because bookstores think that there’s a printing error." And I said, "Really? Which bookstore?," "Barnes & Noble," you know, independent bookstores did not have a problem with that. It also has not been able to be translated on an e-book, which I love. But I think it’s indicative that we don’t know how to deal with silence. We don’t make space for silence and yet it is so crucial. I believe that our voice, our voices are most powerfully found when we are dwelling in silence.
Jo Reed: You and your mother obviously were very, very close and you’ve written about her and I’m thinking of Refuge.
Terry Tempest Williams: Right.
Jo Reed: In this book, was the quest different?
Terry Tempest Williams: That’s a great question because I think often times as writers, we think, "Oh, I’ve written about that; move on." But anyone who’s lost a mother or someone close to them, you don't...you move on but you carry them with you, and I have daily conversations with my mother. So the questions I was asking inWhen Women Were Birds, I could not have even imagined when I was writing Refugeas a young woman in my twenties. Refuge was written from a daughter’s point of view.When Women Were Birds is written from a woman’s point of view.
Jo Reed: The other thing you point out and I’m sure writing the book helped clarify that even more, and it’s also something that I find as I get older, I’m much more aware of how much of my mother I am, after all those years of rebellion.
Terry Tempest Williams: Right, right. No, I think that’s true. I mean, There’s one passage in the book where I talk about what I call "reputations" where I write a line, I write another line over it and another line over that and another line over that so it’s completely illegible. That’s the point. I can fill whole placemats in restaurants, airsickness bags on planes. And at one point, I say, "If only my mother had known I was more of her sister than her daughter."
Jo Reed: That’s exactly the next question I was going to ask. If only, then what?
Terry Tempest Williams: You know, I was so young, I really wasn't a writer. I think I had written two children’s books and a book about Navajo storytelling. But I think my mother felt that I was outspoken, that I could articulate my feelings that I needed to. I think now she would be surprised how similar we are and how much I hold back. The other irony in the book’s folded paradoxes is my journals are much less personal than my books are because I have an expectation that my journals will be read and that my books won’t. And that, I know, sounds silly, but I’ve never seen anyone read one of my books. So I have that illusion that they’re private.
Jo Reed: They are out there.
Terry Tempest Williams: Yeah, you write for yourself to gain clarity whereas in Mormon culture, I have all my ancestors’ journals right there. So why wouldn’t mine be read there too unless I burned them or left them blank?
Jo Reed: So journals are about bearing witness.
Terry Tempest Williams: They are and I think bearing one’s soul. But on the other hand, it’s also about shopping lists and the mundane, which to me are even the most revealing when I look at the journals of the women in my family.
Jo Reed: In terms of the structure of the book, it’s basically 54 essays in miniature. How did you decide on this structure as you began writing?
Terry Tempest Williams: Structure is so important to me because I have such an unruly mind and I figure if I can find the structure, then I have the freedom and leeway to do what I want. I was always aware of music in this book, whether it was opera, whether it was Peter and the Wolf, finding voice through the different instruments. So it was 54 variations; 54 being the age my mother was when she died; 54 being the age I was when I was faced with my own health crisis, cavernous hemangioma, sitting on what they call "the eloquent part" of my brain that governs speech, pattern, metaphor, all the things you and I care about. And I think that’s the real story. I don’t mention it until the very end, but I remember being told, "It could rupture," and I could be cauliflower tomorrow. And they recommended surgery, but the risk of neurological deficit is high and I made the decision to do nothing. And I remember the surgeon looking at me and saying, "How well do you live with uncertainty?" And I looked at him and said, "What else is there?" And then I thought, "I wish I knew what my mother had been thinking when she was faced with breast cancer at 38, being told she had two years to live." And then I thought, "Her journals, she was telling me something." And I think it’s in the emptiness of her journals that I found her greatest presence.
Jo Reed: Read from the end of your book.
Terry Tempest Williams: Thank you so much, Jo, and I so appreciate your voice and this conversation.
"How shall we live? Once upon a time when women were birds, there was the understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated."
Jo Reed: Thank you so much, Terry. Thank you for the book; it was heartbreaking and heartening at the same time.
Terry Tempest Williams: Thank you so much and thank you for your voice at the National Endowment for the Arts.
Jo Reed: Thank you.
That was Terry Tempest Williams talking about her memoir, When Women Were Birds: 54 Variations on Voice. It was just released in paperback.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts of guitar music written and performed by Jorge Hernandez, used courtesy of Mr. Hernandez.
Excerpt of When Women Were Birds read by Terry Tempest Williams and Sally Gifford.
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Next week writer, a conversation 2011 NEA Opera Honoree, the late Robert Ward.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.