Meet Mary Beath
Illustrator, author, naturalist, Mary Beath celebrates her "zigzaggy" path from a childhood in Washington, DC to a year in Istanbul, a decade in New York's East Village, and now the home she has found in Albuquerque, New Mexico's rural South Valley. Fascinated with science in childhood, she earned a BA Zoology at Duke University, and a BFA from Rhode Island School of Design. She leads a life in art and words that explores her love of what Aldo Leopold called "the community of the land." Her first book, Refuge of Whirling Light, received the Wrangler Award for Poetry from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and was a finalist for both the WILLA Literary Award from Women Writing the West and the Spur Literary Award from the Western Writers of America. She has taught in the Honors Program of the University of New Mexico.
Read Susan J. Tweit's review of Hiking Alone for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Posted on 06/23/2008
Your first book, Refuge of Whirling Light, was poetry, and it won one award and was a finalist for two others. What prompted you to move to writing creative nonfiction, specifically personal essays?
Often what seems linear turns out to be more complicated, and that's true of these two books.
When I began the early drafts of the essays in Hiking Alone, I'd been the proprietor of an illustration / design / writing studio for fifteen years, working on interpretive projects that concerned the natural world. I had degrees in both zoology (from Duke) and fine arts (from Rhode Island School of Design), and I'd put those two interests together into a career that, in a small way, helped the world. But it had begun to feel stale. My move to New Mexico from NYC had triggered a sense of expansion, and consequently I needed to break from some old patterns. For one thing, I'd begun toying with the idea of returning to school for a PhD in ecology and was taking graduate seminars at University of New Mexico. Some of the ideas I encountered, especially in the seminar on biological complexity, were so fascinating I had an urge to "translate" them into English for non-scientists. That correlated with my desire to make my work more satisfying and more challenging. I have to add here that I've always written a great deal—my journals are filled with words rather than pictures. At first I intended to write science pieces for the general reader, but only about topics that deeply engaged me. I'd alternate several months of writing with work for clients, and luckily they were understanding when I periodically disappeared. I loved the process, but as I followed my impulse to write from a place with lots of juice, I found the pieces, almost of their own accord, became more and more personal.
Not long after I started working on the essays, I began a daily practice meant to prime the pump for my prose. Every morning, without fail, I'd get up, have tea, and write a single page in a small notebook. I called these pages "effulgences," and because I never expected them to become public, my internal censor stayed quiet. I tapped a more honest, revealing, and probably more engaging part of myself than I would have otherwise. The effulgences—hundreds of them as time went on—resembled poems more than any other form, and eventually a selection—some reworked, some not at all monkeyed with—became Refuge of Whirling Light. It was an accidental book.
So, the poems and the personal essays grew at the same time. I consider myself essentially a prose writer who also writes poems. But perhaps that's true of all prose writers?
The essays in Hiking Alone span a wide range, from a sustainable agriculture project at Zuni Pueblo to marine biology in the Sea of Cortez and the final piece on the vision quest in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness. Yet they weave together beautifully. How did the ideas for the essays come to you? And at what point did you know you were working on a book?
The shapes and ideas of the essays mostly emerged from that great fecund estuary called "intuition." I have no recipes, and the pieces developed with their own strange internal logic, even when I felt I was groping in the dark.
But I'll make a stab at being more specific. Certain experiences call out "story!" to me. But story alone, even a very personal one, doesn't quite satisfy my taste for complication. So I bring in other elements that seem as if they might illuminate an aspect of the tale. And sometimes those secondary ideas take over and become the core. The challenge is not only to braid together disparate elements, but to discover what the piece is really about. The essay that concerns marine biology in the Sea of Cortez, for example, partly describes spectacular marine life, but is more deeply about my effort to find some peace with science, especially my realizations about how gender has affected the way science has often been practiced. And it's about several other things, too!
From the start I believed that some of the essays would become a book. How they'd get there wasn't clear for a long time, since I wrote the pieces without an overall plan. Because it was rather late when I began to focus seriously on writing, I couldn't bear the thought of spending time and energy sending out pieces over and over to periodicals. I know that's what one is supposed to do, but I've always disregarded rules that don't make sense for me.
The road from "essays" to "book" wasn't at all straightforward. Early readers of the (then) collection, including several potential agents, pointed out that I needed a "through line"—a thread that connected the diverse pieces. That had me flummoxed for awhile, because I thought I'd have to rework all the essays in a major way. So the original manuscript—which included only some of the essays in Hiking Alone—sat unread in my studio for several years. After Refuge of Whirling Light got such a good reception, I decided my publisher might be interested in a collection of prose. When I pulled the pieces out and read them with fresh eyes, I easily saw how they could fit together harmoniously. I also realized that I had become a better writer. I revised the pieces (some dramatically, despite my earlier resistance) and wrote a few more. The introduction came last, and it makes explicit the several "through lines."
Your father's dream of being a writer threads through several of the essays in Hiking Alone, and at the end of the book, you say that perhaps you have fulfilled his dreams, though not in the way he might have imagined or approved of. What does being a writer mean to you? How would you define "success" in writing?
For me, writing melds the challenge of craft—making the language and structure both shapely and accurate—with the exhilaration of exploration. The craft aspect relates to my years working in the visual arts, and brings with it the potential of a great satisfaction when something "clicks"—a sudden rightness that can emerge after long effort.
The exploration is more mysterious and more exciting. E.M. Forster said, "How can I know what I think till I see what I say?" For many years I was very shy, especially tentative about speaking, and the release and pleasure I've come to with words makes me feel I've grown into a self I didn't know existed. Language has fathomless possibilities, and gives me access to the muse (or whatever that source is) that visual art never did. Writing feeds me, gives me insights, and always surprises me. And that's a rush!
I also prize the terrific community aspect: I'm linked to other writers—past and present—organically. And I'm connected to readers in ways that have been as unexpected as they are gratifying. At this point, I can't imagine a better way to move though life.
As for "success"—it's a slippery concept, especially in any of the arts. Early on, my father was a scholar and a journalist, and did finally publish one book. So in a way, he succeeded. But writing had been such a hard road, especially during the Depression, that he finally chose a career where financial success was more certain: the law. And he dismissed his earlier dreams.
I deeply believe in the value of any creative effort, not only for the growth of awareness of one's self, but as a way to learn about the world and to provide genuine connections with others. With those criteria, any piece that emerges from a heartfelt, honest place, unburdened by cliché or fashion or sentimentality, is a success, regardless of any external standard.
My guidelines for my own success include those, but go further. I aim to write pieces that create a strong sense of place or emotion or sensation, or convey an idea or information in a convincing and memorable way. I want my work to be accessible to readers, who I hope will in some way gain from reading it. As for my own endeavors right now: I want to be able to continue to write, and for me that means continuing to publish.
What is your writing routine like? (Do you write every day at the same time? Once a week? Now and then when the mood strikes you?)
Mornings are my best times. In a typical day, I get up, have tea, exercise for about an hour, eat breakfast, then sit down to work. Sometimes that's reading or research or planning, but often it's literal writing. My first drafts are in longhand on unlined paper so I can cross out, draw arrows, add little sections with impunity. I type the first drafts, then revise on the printouts. I work until lunch, then usually do whatever tasks need tending to, and often return to writing until dinner. I write five or six days a week. It's my favorite thing to do. I find that a day off always charges my batteries, so when I return I've often solved problems. I'm working on a big project now, and feel exceptionally lucky to have this much time to write.
If you could spend a day with one particular writer (living or dead), who would you pick? And what would you do for that day?
In the context of Hiking Alone, I'd love to spend a day with Willa Cather. She wrote clearly about the land of Nebraska and New Mexico as central characters; she transcended many barriers that creative women faced in her era; she didn't follow standard novel writing forms of her day, but invented her own, to acclaim; she wrote books that integrated ideas with strong narratives.
Although interpersonal relationships were so important for Cather's writing, I'd rather spend the day with her on the land in New Mexico. Perhaps in Chaco Canyon, where the presence of the deep past can be felt so strongly.
What is your favorite hike?
Choosing one hike leaves out so many! With great gnashing of teeth, I'll limit my answer to two areas. In winter I often drive to Bluff, Utah and hike up and along Comb Ridge on slickrock, frequently with a ruin or rock art panel as destination. The days in January are usually clear and bright and about 60 degrees, the sense of space spectacular. The land in the Gila Wilderness around the Cliff Dwellings will always be close to my heart. The middle fork of the Gila River in spring or fall is a wonderful short backpack, with several natural hotsprings along the way.
What do you wish you had known when you began writing?
The kind of knowing that's most important to me comes from experience; it lives in bones and blood and nerve pathways. Writing "effulgences"—those day pages—every morning for years taught me to loosen much of my urge to control, to trust what came out and not judge it until much further along in the process. I learned to follow unfamiliar and sometimes emotionally dangerous paths, step by step, without fear or worry or self-criticism. That skill, or capacity, continues to be invaluable to me. Was it even possible to know such a thing when I began writing? Probably not!
If you could give beginning writers three pieces of advice, what would you tell them?
- Write regularly. Be intense about this. One of my earliest teachers, Reynolds Price, says, "The unconscious is like dogs and children. It loves routine and hates surprises." Show up.
- Read. Read the kind of work you'd like to write, but also read well-crafted work that's not in the same vein, but still interests you. Read with attention to the writing.
- Trust yourself, trust your own voice. You will improve as a writer by listening to considered and honest responses to your work (from other writers especially) but ultimately you are your own best teacher. Perhaps paradoxically, learn to assess your own work as if someone else had written it. Letting it sit unread for a week or two or more will help you gain some distance.
Susan J. Tweit is a plant ecologist who turned to writing when she realized that she loved the stories behind the data more than collecting the data itself. She has won regional and national awards for her writing on "the community of the land," most recently a Silver EDDIE award for "The Refuge," her cover feature for National Parks magazine on the crisis facing the nation's largest elk herd.
Her ten books include Seasons in the Desert, nominated for the Western States Book Award, The San Luis Valley: Sand Dunes and Sandhill Cranes, lauded as "a joy to read" by High Country News. Susan blogs at Community of the Land.