Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Who put the "Ws" in "Wyoming Women Writing the West?"

Wyoming writers and those with Wyoming ties (in boldface below) had a major presence at the recent Associated Writers and Writing Programs' (AWP) conference in Denver.

Several attendees wrote interesting blogs about some of the conference's Western-themed panels.

First, this one from High County News' The Goat Blog (motto: "The Last Best Place for a Nuclear Waste Dump"). The header is "Women Writing the West" and it's by Nicholas Neely:

Over the weekend, I drove to Denver for The Association of Writers and Writing Program's annual conference, which assumed a bit of a Western theme this year. Poets and writers overran the downtown convention center, sampling from a myriad of readings and panels. One of these focused on the challenges women writing west of the Mississippi face, and the change these authors have brought to the Western literary landscape.

Moderator Alyson Hagy, a Virginian now writing in Wyoming, began the discussion by suggesting women have brought a "certain feminine intuition" to Western writing. Annie Proulx, for one, drew much needed attention to long-closeted issues in her powerful short story collection, Close Range: Wyoming Stories, spotlighting homoeroticism and rape (in the stories "Brokeback Mountain" and "The Mud Below" respectively). "Didn’t it take a female?" Hagy asked the audience. "We don't have men writing that kind of stuff."

"Western" writing implies a subject matter, the panel agreed, not where you put pen to paper. "In Wyoming, if you aren't writing about the West, you aren't a Western writer," said Hagy. What's more, Western writing seems as much about a certain "high riding, hard living" sensibility as it does about descriptions of sage and steppe. "We can’t disregard how traditions affect us," Hagy said. "What's key is to get outside it and say, 'What am I doing here? What’s really happening in this region?'" She proposed that, in ways, a non-Westerner is better-equipped to be critical.

Lee Ann Roripaugh, originally from Wyoming and now writing in South Dakota, noted that Western literature's prevailing characters and metaphors seem to be "inherently masculine and colonial" (even, say, in Proulx's writing). In response, Roripaugh is "consciously deconstructing, complicating" as she writes her poetry. Native writer Allison Hedge Coke likewise criticized the Romantic "West" and its literature's emphasis on "pioneerism." "Outside the West," Hedge Coke observed, "there's not a lot of interest in the regular life of the West," which isn't all cowboys and corrals, and stalwart women holding the community together. (Hedge Coke, for one, likes to make her female characters villains.)

When the panel was asked whether Western women authors have gained prominence and pushed the region's literature forward, there was a resounding "Yes." Debra Earling and HCN contributor Laura Pritchett were cited among the authors tackling un-Romantic topics like single parenthood, teen pregnancy and domestic violence. Roripaugh astutely suggested that seeing progress is, in part, "a matter of categorization." As she said, "I'm from the West, I write about childhood memory, but I'm frequently categorized as an Asian-American writer. I’m also sometimes categorized as a queer writer — though, usually I don’t perform all those identities at the same time."

But the panel agreed that Western women writers confront immense challenges. Vicki Lindner, also writing from Wyoming, candidly described the pressures she deals with: "I'm probably the only woman [in Laramie] who has never married, never had children. I'm half-Jewish in an all white, Christian place. It's extremely conservative — coming to Denver and seeing the Obama signs still in the windows made me feel all warm and cozy inside." Her transition to the West from New York City wasn't an easy one. "I remember thinking, 'This is not really all it’s cracked up to be.' I had to give up a rent-controlled apartment. I moved to a cabin in Wyoming and lived there for four years — I’m sorry Terry Tempest Williams and Gretel Ehrlich, you can’t say that."

Overall, the panel drove home the need to be skeptical of what we read, and the way we think, regardless of gender. Perhaps there is such a thing as "Western" writing, but the reality is one of plurality, not the industry's dime-novel, cinematic version. Hedge Coke suggested that the way to make further progress is to keep writing from many perspectives, while remembering "you have the right to tell your own story, and anything beyond that adds to myth making. Anything on top of that is punctuation on the conversation, but not a source."

Here's Jenny Shank writing about the AWP conference in her books column in New West:

The first western writer panel I attended was Thursday’s “Writing the West: The Transplanted Writer as Literary Outsider,” with New Mexico-based writers Summer Wood, Robert Wilder, and Uma Krishnaswami, and the Colorado writer Pam Houston. Each person discussed how being East coast transplants to the West affected his or her writing and subject matter.

Wood said she ended up in Taos when her truck broke down there. She found the Western landscape “intoxicating. “There’s a natural inclination to rhapsodize,” she said, “to write in the key of large.”

Essayist and humorist Robert Wilder described his Connecticut upbringing as “kind of a Cheever existence.” He feels that outsiders to the West play an important role in the region’s writing, as behaviors and customs that seem unremarkable to Westerners are anything but to those from outside the region. Wilder said his wife is from Wyoming, and that she once took him to a club there where the “stripper had to put her own quarters in the jukebox to play the music,” which everyone from the town considered normal. Observations like this have fueled his comedic writing.

Pam Houston said, “I’m decidedly from New Jersey. I can assure you that I don’t think of myself as a Western writer. I love the West exactly the way someone from New Jersey loves the West.” She came West to be “a ski bum” and work a variety of “funny jobs.” For example, she said in her twenties, she “led a lot of out-of-shape Texans to shoot sheep in Alaska.” Houston said she wrote no remarkable stories until she started to set her work in the West. “Graduate school taught me how to write, but there would have been no writing without that time outdoors. I was learning how to do it in class, but I was learning what to write from that time outdoors.”

Houston said she is currently finishing “a book that has 144 very short chapters of less than three pages each, and each one is titled with a place name,” such as Juneau, Alaska, and Marfa, Texas.”

On Friday I moderated the “To West or Not to West” panel. I was unable to take notes, as I was busy moderating, but some of my favorite moments that I remember are:

Steven Wingate’s response to my question about how of all regional writing traditions, only writers from the West have a label that is the same name as a genre, the Western, that tends to follow very specific rules, and is sometimes associated with clich├ęd and sentimental writing. Wingate discussed how Western literature arose out of popular Western dime store novels, whereas Southern literature originated from the tradition of great literary writers such as Faulkner, so the origins of these two regional literatures led to different expectations for what readers would encounter in books associated with them.

Marilyn Krysl discussed the diversity that she sees in the West, and read from her story “Dinner with Osama,” about some unusual practices of Boulder residents. Robert Garner McBrearty discussed his childhood in suburban San Antonio and read from his story “In The Bar.” Colorado native Janis Hallowell described her very Western upbringing, which included a lot of time spent on her uncle’s cattle ranch in Sheridan, Wyoming. Her fiction, however, defies the standard expectations for a Western writer.

When I asked everybody what they would like Western literature to become, Laura Pritchett quoted from her fine essay “The Girls’ Guide to Myth Bustin’” that appeared in 5280 last year, and called for writers to feature unexpected Western female characters in their works:

“So I’m making a modest proposal: I want the full spectrum. Especially when it comes to how being out here in the West defines us. I hope women get fair treatment in books and magazines in the near future — ’fair’ meaning that we’re not pigeonholed into one particular way of being. I hope we read about how motherhood just sorta stinks sometimes. And how nonmotherhood stinks sometimes. And about politics, poverty, wealth, sex, sexual orientation, class issues, overpopulation and global warming.”