This is not about fiction.
No, I come to you to write about the story in the non-fiction.
Like any good piece declaring the benefits of non-fiction as a literary force, I will draw largely on experiences of my own, fusing my own story into my plea for more on the climate movement in the memoir section of my local library.
In particular, I come to you inspired by an event that I decided to attend last minute. A couple of weeks ago, Terry Tempest Williams came to speak at my campus. For those of you unfamiliar with her work, Terry Tempest Williams is an environmental activist, naturalist, and a renowned American author. She has focused on the effect of the environment on human society, and the effect of human society on the environment, as well as the environment within religion.
In 2008, she published a book called “Finding Beauty in a Broken World,” from which she read excerpts at this particular speaking event.
At the time that I saw her, I was tired. I’d been traveling, I had a lot of work to catch up on, and I was feeling down about my role in this great climate movement. I feel (and felt) as though I have been working so hard on communicating a story that I’m not fully partaking in – I’m not actually helping to make the solutions that the other people in my various organizations are doing. I’m like the helper, the temp who writes up and proofs important documents at a publishing company.
Then, a friend tipped me off to this event. She was one of the planners, as a Wesley Scholar and an English Major, and she wanted to be sure that students would be in attendance.
I began skeptical. I had heard of the author, but I hadn’t heard much. I didn’t even know in what style “Finding Beauty in a Broken World” was written.
Then she began to speak.
Two years ago, Williams was tired herself. Silenced. Her muse had dried up, she felt the pressure of writing another book, but couldn’t find what it was she needed to write on. So she went in search of a new experience, something to underscore her career and bring her back to the activism of pen and paper.
Her journey brought her to a mosaic class in Italy, to a speaking engagement on the art form of mosaic in Utah, and ultimately to the opening of a genocide memorial in Rwanda.
She outlined this story with anecdotes, poetry, peppered here and there with stories to illustrate the interconnectedness of human existence, and the surprisingly sophisticated society of Prairie Dogs as evidence that we are not as special as we think we are. Speech is an incredibly powerful art form; in the right venue, a good speech can change the direction of a nation. We saw that in 2008, when Barack Obama’s stories of self, us, and now changed the way that rhetorical games played out in national politics.
And it is most certainly a form of communication that is reserved for very special people.
What was particularly striking about Williams’ speech, other than form, was that it was deeply personal. It was lifted from her life, streamlined, and placed in a specific order for it to make sense to us.
I took a creative writing class a year ago, and in that class we talked about the rise of the memoir. It has gained popularity sharply for the past ten years, and now it would appear that American readers can’t get enough of it. I can think of a couple reasons for this. First, that the supposed truth of the memoir draws people in – particularly if that truth is unexpected, “abnormal.” Second, that having such an intimate experience with someone else’s life is inspiring to people. It could be like an advice column without having to ask a question, or like a test-run for your own life.
I have never personally been pulled toward the category of memoir. If I want to escape, I tend to escape into a land of fantasy, mythology, or any other type of novel – fiction. But as I was listening to Williams speak, I felt like I could almost see myself in her position, years from now. I felt so deeply connected to her, to her writing/speaking style, and to her personal life-journey that I walked away rejuvenated.
I doubt that my life will ever be as full, and I doubt that I will ever have as much affect on the world as Terry Tempest Williams, but I felt a connection between her form of activism and mine. I love to write, I love to research, and I love speaking. I would like, someday, to be able to write the sorts of books that she does, to be able to make writing a primary action.
As an avid reader, there is something romantic about the world of books and writing. As a writer, I have often found myself creating new worlds – only slightly different from our own – through which to pull apart this human existence at this particular moment.
Writing is terribly persuasive, and if it’s not, it can inspire people to go on and prove the author wrong.
So often, books have helped me to define a particular moment in my life. I may be overestimating the power of books in others’ lives, but so often books are what help me to define the moment in which I’m living.
Perhaps this is just a window into my life and psyche, but I don’t think it’s entirely incorrect to assume that there are other people for whom this is true.
I want to see the memoirs of the youth climate movement. We need to tell our stories, to show people just what is possible. I know so many people who have done amazing things, and I want other people to know what we’ve done.
Statistics are good. They can be used to prove that we’ve done something. But they don’t resonate on their own. We need to tell the stories along with the stats. Lists of accomplishments are great for resumes, but they don’t have the lasting potential of a story.
Not only do I want to read these memoirs, but I want to read the Great American Novel of the climate generation.
Guess I’d better find some more time to write …