Susan J. Tweit
In her review of Walking Nature Home: A Life's Journey, Susan Albert wrote that Susan Tweit's book is "one of those rare memoirs that is much more than a life's story...It is a memoir that not only tells us about a lifetime's worth of experiences, but shows us how experience is shaped by knowledge, how knowledge is experienced through nature, and how nature can guide a human being to a fuller, healthier understanding of her place in the world."
Now, reviewer Susan Albert and memoirist Susan Tweit discuss the book, some of the issues involved in writing a memoir, and the writing life. For more discussion and other insights into the book and the writing process, check out Susan Tweit's blog tour. Listen to Matilda Butler's & Kendra Bonnett's interview with Susan.
Interviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 04/02/2009
Susan Albert: You've written eleven (if I counted correctly) previous books about nature. Those I've read are written with careful precision and detailed observations. What compelled you to move from writing about nature to the intimacy of memoir? And why now, at this particular time of your life?
Susan Tweit: The memoir is actually the first book I started years ago, so it really began before all of my other writing. That version didn't get anywhere, but I never stopped wanting to write the story. Every few years I would pick it up and make another try, and then put it away again when other deadlines intervened and what I'd written failed to come completely alive. In a sense, all of my other eleven books were practice, my lessons in learning how to write the story that is now Walking Nature Home.
Why did I finally get the story right now? I think because I learned that to write about my life, my mistakes, and what's most important to my heart and spirit, I had to find what the Zen folks call "beginner's mind," I had to remember what I didn't know that I know. I also had to write from a very vulnerable, fallible place, not an easy thing for one trained as an objective, authoritative scientist! Until I write as me, not the Superwoman I'd rather be, the story doesn't sing, and it won't touch others' hearts.
Walking Nature Home is a story of learning to live with chronic illness. Did you keep a journal during the periods of illness? (As well, you mention the "health log" your mother kept.) What role do you think writing has played in the healing process? How hard was it to write about being sick without being swallowed up by the writing?
I have always kept a journal, or at least jottings of data about my symptoms. When I say in the book that this illness has been my longest-running research project, I mean that quite literally. I've been taking notes on my symptoms—type, frequency, conditions, duration, what I was doing, wearing, feeling, eating, etc.—since I was diagnosed. Writing about it is definitely my way of walking out of the illness, by which I mean both not letting it take over my life and figuring out what my particular health challenges have to teach me other. I hope that Walking Nature Home is more than the story of learning to live with chronic illness though; my aim is for it to be the story of simply learning to live.
One of the things I admire about this memoir is your use of the constellations as a shaping, guiding metaphor for the book. You find personal meaning in those most impersonal configurations of star-matter, relating them to events, people, and puzzles in your own life. Did you begin the writing process with this metaphor in mind? Was it part of the initial work (or play) of thinking about the book, trying on different ways of exploring the life material? Or did it emerge somewhere along the way? Tell us a little about that.
I've always looked to the stars and the stories we assign to them, both as metaphors and literal guideposts for my life. The earliest versions of this story from nearly three decades ago didn't incorporate the stars in such a systematic way, though. As I sorted out what makes my story different, I realized that not everyone has the kind of connection I do with the night sky. I also realized that the stories attached to the constellations and star-features shed light on the themes in each chapter, and illuminated as well the lives of the people featured in the different chapters. I came to see the constellations and other star-features as central to my journey, and thus they came to frame the story.
In your book, Seasons in the Desert: A Naturalist's Notebook, you wrote a description of that fascinating wanderer, the tumbleweed. You concluded with this:
When I look at tumbleweed...I am reminded of my own tumbleweed existence, bouncing around the continent...I am reminded that life is by no means simple, that boundaries are never as clear as the lines drawn on a map, and that there are lessons to be learned from watching weeds.
Do you think that weeds and stars have anything in common? Or perhaps I should ask whether "watching weeds" and stargazing share something of the same kind of meaning-making impulse.
Pattern recognition is one of my best skills. As a scientist, I look at the patterns plants and plant communities draw on the land—where certain plants grow and where they do not, which other species they grow with and which they avoid, whether certain types of plants dominate or things are pretty evenly mixed—and then I parse out what those patterns mean to us, and to the whole community of the place. So I guess I have an advanced "meaning-making" impulse. I am always looking for the connections, as with the invisible lines that connect the stars into constellations. I want to understand the relationships between lives and species and events and places. Recognizing patterns is my strongest intuitive sense, and an important way I make sense of the world.
This is a question about voice. In those of your books that I've read, it seems to me that there's a progression from the objectivity of a trained scientist to a more subjective voice that often allows the observer to merge with the observed. Walking Nature Home seems to be the most subjective. Is that a fair statement, do you think? Have you perhaps been working toward memoir throughout your life as a writer?
That is so true! When I started writing, I was a working scientist who had never taken a writing class in her life. Worse yet, as a scientist I was taught to write as the objective, distant expert, to eschew opinions and personal statements, and to avoid adjectives and adverbs. (Boring...)
So I've been learning how to tell a story in a lyrical and compelling way ever since I decided that I loved to write about the stories in the data more than I loved collecting the data. In that sense, yes, I guess I've been working toward memoir throughout my life as a writer. At first, I didn't know what memoir was (in fact, I'm not sure the word was commonly used when I began writing). I just had these stories about the extended family of species we call nature to tell. They were important to me, so I worked to figure out how to tell the stories in a way that touched others as well. I'm a bit slow, so it's taken me a long time to find the poetry and the metaphor in the logical leadings of the science I so love.
I know that you're a "working writer," rather than an occasional writer. You couldn't have written as much as you have without a certain structure and discipline. You don't say much about that part of your life—your writing life—in your memoir. Was it just a matter of focus, or was there a reason for that omission?
I don't write much about my writing life because it seems so self-referential and self-indulgent. I talk about it when it adds something useful, such as when I teach writing or give talks to writers. But for this story, I felt that writing out the details of my writing life (except for those few that add something to the story of my day in the final chapter) would distract from the point of the story: how to live an authentic, openhearted, loving life with whatever you're given.
When you're working fulltime on a project, what is your workday like? I know you're an active researcher, gardener, homebuilder, wife/partner, environmental activist. How do you fit your writing work into the rest of your life?
Writing IS my life. I fit the rest of life around my writing! I really have a very structured day, and I save my most creative hours, which come in the morning, for the actual putting of words on virtual paper. So after I do my morning routine (yoga, breakfast, peruse the news in the paper and online, answer a few emails), I spend half an hour "priming the pump" with free writing in my journal. Once I have the words and sentences going, I turn to whatever deadline is uppermost on my list and simply write until I run out of steam, which is usually around one o'clock. Then I make lunch for my husband and me.
After lunch, I spend some time in the garden, answer more emails, return phone calls, interview people and do research for my magazine assignments and books, and handle the other business of writing. Sometime late in the afternoon I get out for a walk, usually just the four blocks to the Post Office to pick up the mail. When I get home, I make dinner, and after dinner, I go back to work from the couch with my feet up and my laptop in my lap. That's where I am now, with a fire crackling in the woodstove and the last light of the evening silhouetting the peaks. Their snow is dusky purple and the sky above them is aquamarine tinged with pale gold.
As you look ahead, what kind of writing intrigues you most? What do you want to do? What do you most look forward to writing?
Right now when I'm so immersed in book promotion, I simply look forward to having time to write more than a few paragraphs! The writing I most anticipate as soon as I have time to immerse myself in it is a kind of sequel to Walking Nature Home, but in a very different form. It's a book I call Rooted, a guide to how each of us can be at home in the place where we live, wherever that might be. I envision Rooted as a cross between a journal and a scrapbook including personal essays, notes on nature through the seasons, photos, recipes, tips on gardening and sustainable life, sketches from a field journal, and profiles of people whose work has changed how we see the world and their own lives as well.
Beyond that, I'm working on a kids. chapter book called Gluttonous: A Butterfly's Own Story, on change and loss in our lives. And a novel for middle graders in free verse called Big Dog Days. And then there's the mystery novel that I need to find the time to finish... I'll never run out of writing, and I'm enjoying trying different ways of telling the stories that touch my heart, all of which center on humans and our relationship to the community of nature. If I'm remembered for anything, I hope my words will have helped us live with more awareness, generosity, and respect for ourselves, other species, and this remarkable, animate planet.