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

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.

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