||Linda M. Hasselstrom is a rancher, writer, writing instructor and the full-time resident writer at Windbreak House Writing Retreats, established in 1996 on her ranch. She was a visiting faculty member for Iowa State University, Ames, and served as an online mentor for the University of Minnesota's Split Rock writing program and is now advisor to Texas Tech University Press. Hasselstrom's writing has appeared in dozens of anthologies and magazines; a poetry collection, Bitter Creek Junction won the Wrangler for Best Poetry Book, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City, OK. Bison: Monarch of the Plains was named best environmental and nature book of 1999 by the Independent Publishers Association. She has edited several important women's anthologies, including Leaning into the Wind, a collection of writings by western women, and is the author of several memoirs, notably Between Grass and Sky: Where I Live and Work and Going Over East: Reflections of a Rancher Woman. She will be one of our keynote speakers at the SCN Stories from the Heart Conference, April 11th-13th, 2014.
Read Susan Wittig Albert's reviews of Leaning into the Wind & Between Grass and Sky: Where I Live and Work for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Lisa Shirah-Hiers for the Story Circle Journal
Posted on 11/18/2013
Do you think writers experience the world differently from other people? What important role do we play in the world?
I think serious writers pay closer attention. Kathleen Norris quotes a man she met who said when he stopped writing, he stopped seeing. The two practices feed each other: I see more clearly because I write; I write more clearly because I see. We help people pay attention. We encourage them to slow down a little, view their world from a different perspective. Writers have observed the worlds we write about, but to write it down we have to be in isolation and quiet. But conversely, I urge writers to get away from the computer. If I want to see sunset, I have to get up and out, and when I do that, I have an opportunity to think as I walk and exercise. And thinking is, I believe, one of the most important, and most neglected, parts of writing. It's easy to sit in front of our computers tapping away without much thought. Getting out in the world requires us to think, but also offers us opportunities to simply think without writing.
On your website you've said you keep an almost daily journal. Can you tell us more about your journaling practice?
I don't doodle or make collages. I copy quotes; folders on my computer are filled with quotes on different topics. I copy conversations I hear, bumper stickers I read, signs on stores, anything that catches my attention. I tape in cartoons or quotes from others, photos once in awhile. Journaling should be entirely private to be useful. Privacy is essential. Honesty with oneself is essential. Write in a journal freely and openly to discover what you think, believe. Write spontaneously to see who you really are when you are not being polite or politically correct. I have sometimes written my side of an argument in my journal—and discovered that I was wrong, so I had to apologize!
When and where do you like to do your writing?
I get up at 4 or 5 a.m., let the dogs out, sit in bed with my journal and record the weather, any thoughts from the night, my plans for writing for the day. After breakfast, about 8:30, I go to my computer and begin to work on whatever writing I've scheduled for the day. Sometimes this is a commentary on another writer's work, if someone is coming to retreat or has hired me to do a Writing Conversation By eMail. I treat these jobs as seriously as my own writing—but I prefer to start the day with my own work. If I have a Writing Conversation in progress, I try to do my own work first, until that first glow is gone, and then get to the commentary. I write mostly at my computer on my desk in my basement office. I've tried writing on the deck and in unfamiliar locations and I'm usually too busy looking to do any serious writing. And I like to have my reference materials handy. Directly in front of me is a wall of pictures, a combination of prints of favorite paintings and photos of my grandmother and father, my partner and Georgia O'Keeffe—all inspirations. My spurs hang on that wall, with an antique mirror and quotations like, "I stayed at home and cultivated a sense of place and poetry" —Hildegarde Flanner. Outside my window are the raised beds where I grow tomatoes in summer, then a line of windbreak trees, then a high ridge where cattle pasture: a very narrow view.
You write in many genres: poetry, essay, memoir, blog. What makes you choose one over another?
I consider my self-created job to be writing prose about the ranching culture of my region, the arid High Plains. Poetry is what I do for relaxation and entertainment. This is not to denigrate folks for whom poetry is their primary art; for me it represents greater freedom than I find in writing essays based on fact. So I often write an essay on a topic, and then sometimes find that a poem emerges on a similar but related topic. Sometimes I'm amazed at what my subconscious mind has created while I've been busy on the essay. Or to put it another way, I often write essays to explain, but in poetry I am writing to learn what I think, to explore.
Let's talk about your Homestead House writing retreats. What do the women who come to write there say about it?
Homestead House is the house where I grew up, my parents' house. When I began my retreats in 1996, I conducted them in the house I built with my husband George, which we'd named Windbreak House. When the ranch house became vacant, I re-imagined it as the retreat house, knowing my partner and I were going to move back into Windbreak House. Their responses are varied. One woman wrote, "The most important and empowering thing for me is to be in a house with a working writer. Together we generate energy which pushes each on, saying yes, this is important to do—if not for the world, at least for you, here, now. Be here now." Many talk about the landscape. As one remarked, "The vastness, the openness of the landscape requires the same in me." Writers of all experience are welcomed. I work to help them produce the best writing of which they are capable. Every experience is different. No one comes to the retreat who is not changed; no one comes who does not change me and the retreat.
What are some accomplishments you are proudest of in your personal and/or professional life?
Having been one of the three editors who enabled more than 500 women to write about their lives in Leaning into the Wind, Woven on the Wind and Crazy Woman Creek, the three anthologies of Western women's writing published by Houghton Mifflin. Without our persistence, our patience, our knowledge, our writing skills, many of those women might never have told their stories. Also spending my "valuable writing time" writing commentaries on the work of other writers so that they may write their best work. When my own writing time is curtailed by this work, it's my job to find a way to fit in it and often having a shorter deadline may improve what I do.
You write a lot about community. What makes a community a community? Which forces unite us and which tear us apart?
I think I spent the whole [essay collection, No Place Like Home,] trying to answer those questions! I made a particular effort to note the contradictions in community. In every instance, I tried to be brutally honest about my own feelings and opinions and to understand, insofar as I was able, the opinions of those with whom I disagreed. I've received some very sharp criticism from readers who think I'm too harsh or don't agree with me. But I wanted to show something of how ranchers think. My neighbors think I'm a liberal but some readers apparently think I am still too conservative.
Today it occurs to me that I helped edit another book about community: Crazy Woman Creek: Women Rewrite the American West, a collection of writings from several hundred women. In looking over what they said about what makes a community, I can echo some of their words: A patchwork of women; a neighborhood coming together to solve conflicts; feeling others' suffering and running toward it, caring; women cooking and talking together; more than just sharing an address. We also had a responsibility to each other; friendship and camaraderie; where you will be held accountable; people connected by mutual interests and interdependence; not something you belong to but something you work for. Each one of those phrases came from a different essay in that book, written by a different woman, but I agree with every one of them as definitions of community.
In which ways are people blinded to their surroundings?
I was adjunct faculty for an Iowa University for a few years recently, and loved walking across the beautiful campus, looking at the gorgeous buildings, flowers, trees. I kept having to sidestep to keep from being run over by students walking while looking down at their cell phones. No one made eye contact or looked at their surroundings.
When I drive through cities on weekend afternoons, I marvel at the lovely yards—but they are mostly empty except for a dog or two, chained to the porch. Where are the people? Perhaps out in the national forest—but I doubt it.
One of my favorite writing exercises is the rural or urban quiz with questions such as, "Trace the water you drink from precipitation to tap" and "Describe the soil around your home," and "Name five residents and any migratory birds in your area," and "From where you are reading this, point north," and "Were the stars visible last night?" Most folks, both urban and rural, have a hard time with some of the questions, if not all of them. We don't live observantly in our home places; we are too busy. We don't stop to look, to simply see what happens. We rush here and there, proud of our multi-tasking.
There was a time in the 50s, 60s and 70s when westerns were very popular. What was the appeal? Have our perceptions of the west changed?
I think the appeal was "wide open spaces," and the supposed freedom they offered. While to some, that freedom meant lawlessness, the ideal Westerner became the perfect human: kind, considerate of others, caring about the animals and land. Then new stereotypes arose: of rich ranchers, submissive women. The romance of the Westerner's tools kept a lot of these stereotypes alive: big hats, spurs, horses, guns: things men enjoy. Face it: it was mostly men who created, lived and perpetuated those stereotypes. Patricia Limerick (The Legacy of Conquest, 1987) was one of the first women historians to start smashing those stereotypes into smithereens and she's still doing it, thank goodness.
What are you most looking forward to at the SCN Conference?
Listening to other women's stories. As a writer, I have worked mostly alone, without creative writing classes or belonging to a writers' group, so the commentaries on my work have come mostly from editors rejecting it, or readers after it has been published. I have still not written about some of the most difficult, secret topics and I'm looking forward to being in the company of women who have.
What can conference attendees look forward to?
I'll do my best to distill some of my experiences as a writer into comments I hope will help them face their own writing with good cheer and with understanding that none of us are perfect.
What are the people/places/spaces/things that most feed your soul?
The prairie in its every mood and in my every mood.
To find out more about Linda's life and work visit her website.