Writing: Place, Community and Women’s Voices

Terrace of the Golden Hotel, the main conference venue, overlooking Clear Creek.

Terrace of the Golden Hotel, the main conference venue, overlooking Clear Creek.

I’ve just returned from four days in Golden, Colorado, at the 20th annual conference of Women Writing the West, an organization of writers and publishing professionals who write about the “Women’s West,” telling the stories of the West through the experiences of women in the past, present and future.

It was a packed event, the largest conference WWW has ever run, spread over four venues, and hosting a sell-out crowd of 150+ writers/editors/agents and publishers from all over the US and at least three Canadian provinces.

Moderator Dawn Wink gets excited when someone recognizes a photo of her place in the "Place As Character" panel.

Moderator Dawn Wink gets excited when someone recognizes a photo of her place in the “Place As Character” panel. Photo: Stephanie West Allen

I participated in three panels, organized the Thursday evening quilt reception and reading by finalists and winners from our WILLA Literary Awards and LAURA Short Fiction Awards, reported to the WWW Board Meeting and addressed the Membership meeting as well, signed books, and sponsored the screening of The Cherokee Word for Water, named one of the top five Native American films of the year, and deservedly so–the story, acting and filming are bone-deep authentic and inspiring.

The film traces the early story of Wilma Mankiller, first chief of the Cherokee Nation, as she returned to Cherokee Country with her two young daughters and began organizing poor rural communities. It was followed by a moving panel discussion including Kimberly Guerrero, the award-winning actress who played Wilma; Charlie Soap, Wilma’s husband and a director/producer of the film; and longtime friend of Wilma’s, producer Christina Kiehl.

Another fascinating story to me was that of Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder of the Little House series fame, and as keynote speaker Susan Wittig Albert explained, a famous writer who became more than her mother’s co-author, yet kept her role in shaping the stories secret.

Page Lambert, Kayann Short and me on the "Every Writer Needs a Community" panel. Photo: Stephanie West Allen

Page Lambert, Kayann Short and me on the “Every Writer Needs a Community” panel. (WWW commemorative quilt in the background.) Photo: Stephanie West Allen

The conference background sound was the buzz of excited voices as participants gathered to greet old friends, meet new ones, and share ideas and tips on all aspects of writing.

That excitement and sharing sums up Women Writing the West for me: community, not competition. A core value of the organization is to provide a supportive community to those of us engaged in telling and publishing stories about the West from a woman’s point of view.

Excitement... (A selfie with Dawn Wink at the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum.)

Excitement… (A selfie with Dawn Wink at the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum.)

To give you a taste of the conference, here are excerpts from my handout for the “Place As Character” panel featuring Dawn Wink, Julene Bair, Page Lambert, and me. The handout opens with a quote:

The birds and I share a natural history. It is a matter of rootedness, of living inside a place for so long that the mind and imagination fuse.

—Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

When we talk about place as character, we’re talking about writing that shows place as one of the driving and shaping factors in a story/essay/memoir/poem. Place, especially place in the West, where our spaces are so large, our skies so vast and our weather so unpredictable, sculpts the lives of those who live there and the stories we write, whether real or imagined.

How do we write place as believable, authentic character?

“Know the place so well that you “live inside of it.” Spend time there, and if you can’t do that, read voraciously, talk to people who live or have lived there. Soak yourself in the place until it “takes over mind and imagination,” as Terry Tempest Williams says.

Use rich sensory “data.” Go beyond what we see: describe how the wind sounds, what the place smells like, how the sleet feels…. If it’s hard to think of sensory details other than the visual, go outside and spend five minutes sitting with your eyes closed. Note everything you hear, smell, and feel (without opening your eyes. You’ll be able to read it when you’re done). Then prepare to be surprised at how much you notice when your dominant sense (vision) is turned off.

And finally:

Write as if it matters. Because we need your voice.

Cottonwoods along Clear Creek through the window screen.

Cottonwoods along Clear Creek through the window screen of my hotel room.

What’s Cooking: Savory Rosemary-Lavender Scones

Deck railings dripping before dawn....

Deck railings dripping before dawn….

I woke this morning in the darkness before dawn and, as I always do, I first checked the view of the constellations—Orion, my favorite, was barely visible, glittering through a veil of high cloud. Next I checked the outside temperature: 49 degrees F, very warm for dawn at this time of year.

I grabbed my laptop and returned to bed, piling pillows behind me so I could sit up and write in my journal. Half an hour later, I heard a sound I don’t usually hear as night is yielding to day: thunder. I looked out and saw showers sweeping down the mountainsides.

Soon, rain was splattering the windows. With no sun to warm the house, I decided it was the perfect time to revive a Sunday tradition from the years BBC (before Richard’s brain cancer), when I baked scones almost every Sunday morning.

Fire at the push of a button on a remote, a luxury after years of splitting and burning wood.

Fire at the push of a button on a remote, a luxury after years of splitting and burning wood.

I could of course have simply turned on the charming and efficient gas fireplace tucked in the corner of my living-dining-kitchen “great” room as my supplemental heat source.

But if I’m going to pay for natural gas—and by “pay” I mean both shell out cash and also pay in terms of the effect of the CO2 added to the atmosphere when I burn it—I might as well use that gas to feed myself as well. Hence baking.

I don’t remember the last time I baked scones. I pretty much gave up baking when Richard entered hospice care three years ago. After he died, it was just me, and I was scrambling to finish the big house and build this small one.

I hunted through my recipe books and looked online for a savory scone recipe, and didn’t find one I really liked. I wanted something without much gluten, since lately I seem to be a little sensitive to it, and I had in mind using the herbs growing in pots on my deck, specifically the lavender, which is blooming again—crazy plants!—and the rosemary.

Food processor, ingredients, Mom's favorite green glass mixing bowl--I'm all set!

Food processor, ingredients, Mom’s favorite green glass mixing bowl–I’m set!

I wasn’t entirely sure I’d still remember how to get just the right texture to the dough and bake them so they’re crisp outside and crumbly within. But once I got out my ingredients and began to measure and mix and chop and whisk, my hands remembered.

Chopping freshly harvested lavender buds and rosemary leaves—oh, the fragrance!

Chopping freshly harvested lavender buds and rosemary leaves—oh, the fragrance!

And the results? I took some scones over to Ploughboy Local Market, and was gratified by the speed at which the scones were devoured, and the expressions of delight. But don’t take my word for it, make ‘em yourself!

Susan’s Savory Rosemary-Lavender Scones

1-1/4 cups spelt flour (this recipe was developed for high-altitude; below 5,000 feet, use 1 cup spelt flour)
1/2 cup unbleached flour (could just use all spelt flour)
1/2 cup blue cornmeal
1-1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 T finely chopped mixed rosemary leaves and lavender buds
5 T butter, cubed
1 egg, room temperature
1/2 cup buttermilk or half-n-half soured with 1 tsp vinegar
3 T maple syrup

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Mix dry ingredients plus chopped lavender and rosemary. (I do this in a food processor.) Cut in butter until flour/butter mix is crumbly. (In a food processor, pulse slowly just until crumbly.) Beat egg in small bowl, add buttermilk/soured cream and maple syrup and beat until combined. Reserve about a T for a wash for scones. Pour the rest into food processor, pulse just until the mix begins to gather into a mass. Put about a T flour each onto two cookie sheets. Scoop out half of the scone dough and dredge in flour on cookie sheet until it doesn’t stick. Flatten the ball gently and if it’s still sticky, gently knead in enough flour to make it workable. Carefully pat out into a half-inch thick round. Brush with reserved egg/cream/syrup wash. Cut into 8 wedges, separating wedges so they don’t stick while baking. Bake 15 minutes or until top is lightly browned. Repeat with the other half of the dough. Enjoy!

The finished scones cooling.

The finished scones cooling.

Coda: Getting back to my Sunday-morning baking feels like coming home again. I miss Richard and I always will, but I like this simple life I’m building on my own.