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Pam Houston on Writing and the Natural World

“The language of the wilderness is the most beautiful language we have and it is our job to sing it, until and even after it is gone, no matter how much it hurts.”
― Pam Houston, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country

Next October, celebrated American author Pam Houston is leading a workshop at Zapata Ranch for the first time since 2002. We asked Pam a few questions about her process and inspiration.

Did you always know you were going to be a writer? Was writing always a clear and easy pursuit for you?

I had a wonderful babysitter who taught me to read when I was just over two, and I had less than wonderful parents so reading and writing were an escape from the violence of my household at a very early age. I believe if you are inclined to write, that desire will rise up in you and it will not leave you alone until you honor it. So did I know I would write, yes. Did I know I would be able to make my living at it? Well, no one knows that in advance and you have to do it for the love or it, the need of it, and then see whether or not the world wants to read what you have to say. If writing is ever easy it is a sure sign you are doing it wrong. Writing ought to always hurt at least a little, should always ask you to get bigger than you know you are. That’s what makes it different from mowing the lawn.

What part of the writing process excites you the most? What is your process?

Two parts are my favorite. First the gathering of the physical objects of the world, the sensory moments of life. I call these glimmers, and the first and most important part of my process is paying attention all the time I am in the world, paying attention with all of my senses open, and collecting these things, without thinking too much about how I will use them later in a story. Then, much later when I have put them onto the page, when I have put them down in combination with each other, my second favorite thing is trying to intuit what shape they want to make together, what form (again, from the physical world) the story will resemble. A braided river? A 12-sided Rubik’s cube? An almanac? An iceberg?

Houston’s workshop will be “generative,” with participants writing new work inspired by the surrounding ranch and using the physical world to help “access the emotional world.” The workshop’s itinerary includes hiking and riding horses on the ranch, in which Pam will guide participants in discussing elements of craft and accessing the landscape and all its creatures and components as metaphor.

Do you prefer non-fiction or fictional writing? What are the limitations/ advantages of memoir writing versus writing fictional work?

I do about the same amount of each. I guess I would admit to a slight preference for fiction, because even though my fiction is autobiographical, I am also free to embellish, exaggerate, or make a dog start talking out loud. But writing Deep Creek taught me that there is power in NOT being able to push the truth. In Deep Creek I couldn’t write my way into meaning, I had to wait until meaning emerged. Memoir is sort of a saturative process, while fiction is kind of an explosive one, and they can both be very satisfying.

What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of teaching creative writing? Why did you start teaching?

More and more my teaching is the most satisfying part of my work. I teach at the Institute of American Indian Arts, in Santa Fe and there I get to make and hold a space for these amazing young writers to find their voices, to find the shape of their stories. Writing can be a strange hall of mirrors, it can feel narcissistic and self-involved. Teaching never feels that way. The most important thing I can do for the world right now is to elevate the voices of my students, especially my Native students.

What do you believe to be the writer’s role in the efforts of conservation/ environmentalism?

I have been an environmentalist as long as I have been a writer. Longer, perhaps. My job is to make people be able to see and hear and smell the taste the beauty of the natural world, to write convincingly about its healing properties. I was so broken by my parents, by my childhood, and the natural world healed me, raised me, mothered me back to health. So it is my job to keep singing about it, even here in climate collapse, even in the face of this administration who has done everything it can to accelerate climate collapse, especially now. Lately, because things are so dire, my writing has become more activist. I used to say, if you want to convince someone, tell them your own story, and I still believe that, but I also think, these days, it is the writers job to call out the polluters, and to turn that lens on ourselves.

Who inspires you?

James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Kamala Harris, Christine Blasey Ford, Ross Gay, Lidia Yuknavitch, Tammy Duckworth, Elizabeth Warren, Wilco, Patti Smith, Blake Spalding, my students.

Those in creative pursuits often experience some level of a creative stalemate (writer’s block) or something similar….how do you break through it?

I go out into the natural world and start noticing.

What makes Zapata unique to other places that you’ve held workshops?

I taught a class at Zapata in 2002, when we were having a very severe drought, and the residents there took us out to a dry creek bed and had us dig our toes down into the sand. It was so hot, and dry, the plants were desiccated, but we didn’t have to dig down very far to feel the icy cold of the aquifer, under the river bed. I have never forgotten it. Mother Nature is so full of treasures, even though we keep stealing them. Beyond that, the buffalo, the dunes, the beautiful valley floor, the stunning sky.

In Deep Creek Pam writes,If you can’t fall in love with the San Juan mountains during the third week of September, you can’t fall in love.”  The workshop with Houston will be held October 3-10, 2021, which isn’t technically the third week of September, but it’s close enough. 

Click here to learn more about the workshop or or call us at 719-378-2356.

Space is limited to 12 students.

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