Transcript for Terry Tempest Williams on "When Women Were Birds"

Jim Fleming: When you the read the books of Terry Tempest Williams, you keep circling back to a common theme. No matter how much we love the natural world and the people closest to us, they remain mysterious. Her latest book, When Women Were Birds, is the story of Terry's lifelong quest to understand her mother. It's also an exploration of silence and the process of finding one's voice. Steve asks Terry Tempest Williams to read the first chapter.

Terry Tempest Williams: I am 54 years old. The age my mother was when she died. This is what I remember. We were lying on her bed with a mohair blanket covering us, I was rubbing her back, feeling each vertebra on her back with my fingers as a rung on a ladder. It was January and the ruthless clamp of cold poured down on us outside. Yet inside, mother's tenderness and clarity of mind carried its own warmth. She was dying in the same way she was living: consciously. I'm leaving you all my journals, she said. But you must promise me that you will not look at them after I am gone. I gave her my word and then she told me where they were. I didn't know my mother kept journals. A week later she died. That night, there was a full moon encircled by ice crystals. On the next full moon I found myself alone in the family home. I kept expecting mother to appear. Her absence became her presence. It was the right time to read her journals. They were exactly where she said they would be. Three shelves of beautiful cloth-bound books, some floral, some paisley, others solid in color. The spines of each were perfectly aligned against the lip of the shelves. I opened the first journal, it was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It, too, was empty. As was the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, shelf after shelf after shelf. All my mother's journals were blank.

Paulson: Wow. And she didn't explain at all why she left these blank journals to you?

Williams: Nothing. You know, when I saw those three journals, I thought, finally I can read what my mother was thinking. And then the first blank, the second blank, the third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, all of my mother's journals blank. It was like a second death and I just stuffed that down into the toes of my boots and just didn't deal with it. And really Steve it wasn't until I was 54, the age my mother was when she died that I brought that story back into consciousness, thinking, OK, why. What was my mother really trying to say to me?

Paulson: Well you say that your mother was not only a very private woman, she was also a coyote, a trickster and it would seem that leaving these blanks to you was bequeathing you a mystery.

Williams: That's exactly right. She knew what this would do to me. And it makes me smile. She was a coyote and she will remain so and I will never know what she was trying to say to me.

Paulson: Well, your whole book is essentially exploring this mystery and at various points you say, Well, it might have been an act of defiance, an act of aggression, an act of modesty or emotion circling the void, a cone, a meditation, all kinds of things. It sounds like you're still trying to figure it out.

Williams: Yeah. I really don't know. You know, you have to look at the context. We come out of a very strong Mormon family. You know, Mormon women were expected to do two things. Keep a journal, a record of one's family, and bear children. And my mother had four children and she kept a journal. She just didn't write in them.

Paulson: Do you think she intended for you to write in these journals? Is that why she gave them to you?

Williams: I was 30 years old when she died and I really wasn't a published writer. She knew that I kept journals incessantly and so again, coyote, you know, I'm leaving you all my journals and so the obvious impulse answer would be, fill them. Which I have to tell you I did unceremoniously. I took them home, I used them, I didn't think much about them. Although going back over those journals that I did write in, every single journal that I wrote in of hers, I said, this is one of mother's journals, so I was conscious and unconscious of what I was doing at the same time.

It is winter. Ravens are standing on a pile of bones. Black typeface on white paper picking an idea clean. It's what I do each time I sit down to write. What else are we to do with our obsession? Do they feed us, or are we simply scavenging our memories for one gleaning image of the truth of what is hunting us? To write, Margarite Duras remarked, is also not to speak, it is to keep silent. It is to howl noiselessly. Today there is a fresh snow, no visitations by ravens, just a pristine landscape wiped clean by a blizzard. What I wouldn't give to follow my mother's tracks before she covered them up with her silence. My mother was a great reader, she left me her journals and all her journals were blank. I believe she wanted them read. How do I read them now? I am afraid of silence. Silence creates a pathway to peace through pain. The pain of a distracted and frantic mind. Before it becomes still.

Paulson: You go on to say you fear silence because it leads you to yourself, a self you may not wish to confront. Listening to that silence takes you to an unknown place. But it sounds like you also want to cultivate that silence.

Williams: It's a paradox, isn't it? These blank journals that are filled with presence. I think about Thoreau again, Steve, when he talks about not being distracted by the wing of a mosquito and we're so good at that, distracting ourselves and having a million things going at once. We don't have to really face the depths of our own soul, even our own pain, which I think is the source of so much of our creativity. You know, it is silence. To me it's paying attention. It's being aware to everything that is around us. Where are we? Who are we in relationship to place and to each other?

Brooke and I were paddling down the Colorado River in West Water Canyon in Utah. The infamous Skull Rapid awaited us. We stopped for lunch near a side canyon where we tied up our raft. Swifts and swallows sailed above red rock walls that created the sandstone corridor where water cut through stone. Morning does purr, yellow warblers were singing in willows. We sat cross legged at the beach as Brooke took our sandwiches out of his pack. Woop, something shot past us like a rocket. Before I knew what had happened, Brooke was on his feet looking over at me. The corner of my eye was cut. Sharp, swift, and bleeding. I touched the razor thin line drawn by the tip of a speeding wing. Paragon, Brooke said, facing the side canyon. Did you see that? Then he sat down to look at my eye, catching the long red tear of blood at the edge of his finger. Are you OK? I was fine. But had I been leaning an inch to the right instead of toward Brooke, it would have been death by falcon. A great obituary. I am marked, scarred, my skin engraved by a feather. Death's cry comes through a ventriloquist whose lips you never see move until they are howling with laughter.

Paulson: That's an astonishing story. I mean, serious, you came pretty close to getting killed there.

Williams: Oh, yeah. I did and wouldn't that have been the best? I always say that if you have to die, death by falcon, I just, you know, there was a slight twinge of me that thought, "Oh, damn, that would have been such a great way to go." It was unbelievable. It happened so fast. It sounded like a rocket went off. And just there it was. Never, never have I seen that kind of power and force. It was absolutely astonishing to me. Again, we go back to your original notion of mystery, uncertainty, the ineffable, what we can never know but continually stand in awe of.

Paulson: I want to come back to the mystery of your mother. To some degree this book is about your relationship with your mother, and you say that your mother gave you your voice by withholding hers both in life and in death. Tell me more about what you mean by that.

Williams: I think there's so much of my mother that I didn't know. I think the questions that I'm asking now, Steve, as a woman in my 50's, are very different than the questions I could have ever hoped to ask as a woman in my 20's when I wrote Refuge. When my mother died of ovarian cancer, she had breast cancer when she was 38. She spoke to me but I know there's so much she never said. I saw the price that my mother paid for remaining silent. I saw the price that my mother paid for her grace and I think as her daughter I was very conscious of my anger. Call it sacred rage. You know, I think in some areas I have found my voice through my anger. I also have to say in the beginning I thought I was writing a book about voice but I think in the end I may have written a book about silence. What do we speak of? What do we withhold? And I think that's a constant assessment for women because the consequences when we speak out. I have to tell you, I am very nervous about this book. Nervous because of how it will be read within my family, within my community, in Salt Lake City I've already received a really tough letter from my father in law. I wish I could say it doesn't affect me but it does, but I still choose to speak because I think that that which is most personal is most general. And I do have a voice in the world. And if I'm afraid then I know that other people are afraid too.

Brooke and I have been married for almost four decades. A marriage is among the most private of landscapes. It is also the most demanding. How do you contain within a domestic arrangement the howling respect for the wild in each other? Quote, always keep it exciting and vital and interesting, unquote. Mother issued a challenge without instructions in her letter. In watching my parent's marriage, I came to believe their strength was in the time they spent together. Taking trips, long and short. Weekends out. The conversation they shared while driving big distances in the West. They had their own lives outside of their children and we knew it. In Brooke's and my marriage, I believe our strength is in the time we spend apart. Rilke provided us with a map. Quote, love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other. Unquote. I need my solitude. Brooke needs his freedom. When we come together, we meet whole. But sometimes the distances become too great and words don't help in the articulation of our souls when we want to share where we've been, what we have become. I have never been as lonely as I have been in my marriage. I have also never been more seen or more protected. Love has little to do with it. Marriage is more sandstone than granite. Similar to the terrain of Southern Utah. The geography of mountains, canyons, plateaus, the weathering creates the red rock windows and bridges. Beauty is transformed over time and not without destruction. Landscape is dynamic, so is marriage. Brooke and I have changed and we've changed each other. What has been washed and eroded away is as important as what remains. What remains for Brooke and me is conversation. Our shared love of ideas. We have never stopped loving all things wild and unruly, including each other. The feral fury of our twenties is such a different fire than our 50's. Deeper, fuller, the fire fanned now is just as intense and surprising because of the spaces we honor between us that hold the history. Brooke remains a mystery.

Paulson: That is so wonderful and so true. I mean, you can be married to someone for decades and in some ways you still don't know that person.

Williams: Yes, and I love that. I think if that mystery isn't there, then I can't imagine what you would have to come home to.

Fleming: Terry Tempest Williams talking with Paulson. Her book is called When Women Were Birds.


Comments for this interview

Tempest's mother (Claire, 05/05/2013 - 12:32pm)

Thank you. Many thoughts but I was intrigued about her mother's blank journals and her Mormon religion. "See, I was a good girl and prepared journals as I was told. I just didn't write in them." Smile.
I also enjoyed her insight into marriage and the need for separateness as well as togetherness.

Enjoyed her thoughts about (Maureen, 05/04/2012 - 7:46pm)

Enjoyed her thoughts about her mother and insights re: marriage