Interview with nature author Susan J. Tweit

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My guest today is an author, nature lover and plant ecologist. Her books include memoirs, beautifully illustrated travel books, nature guides, and even children’s books, but they all have strong ties with nature. Her books reveal connections with nature and life that have not been pondered or may have been overlooked in our everyday lives. Her books have won the ForeWord Book of the Year, the Colorado Book Award, and she is a five time recipient of Colorado Author’s League Award. With a background in science and plant ecology, she expertly weaves her natural environment into her writings, illustrating how all things interact and connect. Let me introduce creative nonfiction author, Susan J. Tweit.

Kaye: You are a female author who champions the natural environment. Do you identify most as a feminist, a naturalist or an environmentalist?

Susan: All of the above. I grew up in a family of naturalists and scientists; restoring everyday nature is my way of leaving the world a better place. And I work in two fields where women are still second-class citizens in so many ways: science and writing. So am a feminist just be participating in those fields as a woman.

Kaye: On your website you claim that you taught yourself to write after you realized that you enjoyed the stories told by the data more than you did doing the research. How does one teach oneself to write?

Susan: I don’t know how other people teach themselves to write creatively, but for me, as a scientist trained to eschew personal opinions and emotions, and to be extremely parsimonious with descriptive adverbs and adjectives, I found my writing voice in reading the works of writers whose works I admire. I read Ann Zwinger and Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez and Kim Stafford, Brenda Peterson and Linda Hogan, Leslie Marmon Silko and Denise Chávez, Robert Pyle and Gary Paul Nabhan, Sharman Apt Russell and Barbara Kingsolver, and so many others.

As I read, I thought about the mechanics of how each writer told their stories (whether fiction or essays), how they introduced subjects and characters, where they got personal and where they stepped back, how they described landscape and culture, how they used words and language… I tried out techniques and styles until I found my own voice, which has continued to evolve through twelve books and hundreds of essays, articles, and columns for newspapers and magazines.

Kaye: Connections are a common theme in many of your works. Can you talk a little about those?

Susan: As a plant ecologist, I am fascinated by the relationships and interrelationships that form community, whether the human community, or what I call “the community of the land,” the interwoven communities of species—from tiny microbes to gigantic redwood trees—that make life on Earth possible. Who loves who, who eats who, who sleeps with or pollinates who, who can’t stand who… All of those relationships weave the fabric of Life with a capital L. Without them we would not exist, and we have so much to learn about the connections that are vital to this planet. I just collaborated with science illustrator Samantha Peters on “Natural Partners,” a feature for WILDFLOWER Magazine on plants and the animals they rely on. It’s up on the internet here: https://www.wildflower.org/magazine/fauna/natural-partners (The print version took the cover of the magazine, and it’s really gorgeous!)

Kaye: Writing seems to be a way of life for you, and your love for nature is woven into almost everything you do. You have a background as a plant biologist and most of your books offer a perspective on nature and the environment, and you call your books love letters “to the earth and its living web of lives”. If you could convey one message to your readers, what would it be?

Susan: Get outside and get to know nature nearby. Learn even a handful of your neighbors in the world of plants and animals and you’ll never be bored. Nature is vital to our health and wellbeing—it’s the best antidote to stress I know of, the closest source of inspiration and renewal, and it doesn’t require a prescription or training. And it’s free!

Kaye: Besides writing and ecological restoration projects, what are your favorite things to do?

Susan: I’m an outdoors person, so I love taking long walks in the arroyo near my home, hiking with friends, and setting out on long road trips to see this amazing continent. At home, I tend a small garden of native wildflowers and other plants chosen to provide habitat for songbirds and pollinators, cook elaborate dinners for family and friends, and read. I’m an omnivorous reader, which leads into your next questions…

Kaye: You’ve written three memoirs about your life experiences. What makes an experience worthy to become a memoir?

Susan: Memoir is a way of distilling what our own lives and experiences have to offer others. What makes an experience worthy of memoir is partly whether we can find a way of telling the story that is compelling to others (that is, to a wider audience than our close friends and family!). It might be that we lived through a critical part of history, or our personal journey is exceptional in some way, or simply that we figure out how to relate our very ordinary story in a way that offers some universal wisdom about being human. Both of my published memoirs—Walking Nature Home; and Barren, Wild, and Worthless: Living in the Chihuahuan Desert—taught me about how to tell a story, how show the way we grow and change over time, and how to pick and choose telling detail. Each one presented different challenges, and the memoir I am working on now is challenging me in new ways. Telling my personal story may be my greatest learning experience as a writer!

Kaye: Would you tell us about your Write & Retreat Workshops?

Susan: They are an immersion in writing, in learning place and story, and in the inner work that is the source of our creativity. Each one includes hands-on writing and workshop time, as well as time to retreat and nurture our inner selves. Each one is set in some extraordinary place chosen to inspire us, with time spend exploring that place. I don’t have any W&R workshops planned this year, but next year I may offer one set near Yellowstone National Park, that place of wildness and wonders.

Kaye: You are a member of Story Circle NetworkWomen Writing the Westand Colorado Author’s League. How are these organizations beneficial to you as a writer?

Susan: I am also a member of Wyoming Writers. Belonging to at least one professional writing organization is critical to writing: they offer education, resources, and, most importantly. community. Writing is an inherently solitary activity: pulling words from deep within, honing them into stories, and then offering the work of our hearts to the world is perilous. Finding a community of fellow sufferers… uh, writers, is essential to maintaining our sanity, growing in the craft, and getting published.

Kaye: What is the one thing in your writing career that is the most unusual or unique thing you’ve done so far?

Susan: Besides leaving behind a paycheck, benefits, and job security to chase words and stories? Hmm… It’s hard to choose just one. Kayaking with sea turtles in the Sea of Cortez off Baja California? Learning about how to blow up dams to restore a river and its salmon run? Dancing with a Native American community to celebrate the return of those salmon? Watching a grizzly bear mom teach her twin cubs how to dig and eat spring-beauty bulbs in a meadow in Yellowstone National Park? Walking alone through some of the wildest country in the Lower 48 states, carrying all I needed on my back to listen to myself? Tending my husband and the love of my life through his death from brain cancer and then figuring out how to write how to survive loss? Seeing monarch butterflies return to a restored patch of urban nature? I’ve been fortunate to experience miracles and wonders all along the way.

Kaye: What are you working on now? What can readers expect in the future from Susan J. Tweit?

Susan: I’m working on The Climate Victory Garden, a book about how gardens can help grow The Green New Deal and slow climate change. It’s another chapter in my life-long quest to leave this world in better shape than I found it by restoring nature nearby and our connection to the green and living world.

Many thanks to Susan for sharing with us today. You can learn more about Susan J.Tweit and her work by visiting the following links:

Amazon Author page: https://www.amazon.com/Susan-J.-Tweit/e/B000AQ53RY/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1547778739&sr=1-1

Website: http://susanjtweit.com/

Join us next Monday, when I’ll begin a new bi-monthly blog series, “His Name Was Michael”, which will chronicle the stages of writing a memoir as I work through them for my own memoir of the same name, telling the story of my son’s death and my own grief process. This first post will talk about the prewriting stage for memoir.

 

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Jeff’s Pep Talk: “Doing the MFA Thing”

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“Doing the MFA Thing”

By Jeff Bowles

The first Wednesday of every month, science fiction and horror writer Jeff Bowles offers advice to new and aspiring authors. Nobody ever said this writing thing would be easy. This is your pep talk.

When I was deciding to go back to school for an MFA, I noticed that a lot of writers—particularly those working in Science Fiction and Fantasy—looked down on the need to earn a secondary degree in what is essentially a field dominated by outsiders and formerly independent upstarts. Most successful writers have no MFA, after all. They learned to write successfully on their own. Teachers and professors need MFAs, but not writers. That’s the general feeling out there.

And I had no intention of becoming a teacher. I did, however, have a strong desire to tell stories at a higher level than I was capable of at that time. The thought of going back to school was both exciting and nausea inducing. Like many writers, I’ve got a touch of anxiety and isolationism. Meeting new people, lots of new people, it can be tricky for me. I also knew if I chose the wrong program, it’d set me back in my career rather than push me forward.

If you are considering a creative writing MFA, know there are basically two categories these kinds of programs can fall into: literary and traditional vs. everyone else. I write genre fiction. I’m a hopeless pop culture nerd and it never occurred to me to write anything else. Luckily, that made my decision much easier. Sensing correctly that most traditional master’s programs can get snobby about what and how you write, I knew I needed to place myself among like-minded people. At the time I decided to apply, the early part of 2013, there were only a few programs in the United States that specialized in genre fiction (that is to say, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror, Crime; you know, the good stuff). Two of these were clear across the country, and all had a ‘low residency’ requirement, which is just another way of saying students have to live on campus a few weeks of the year.

The third program I found was a fairly new entry into what has since become a growing category of alternative MFA programs and certificates. It was also in my home state, Colorado, about 150 miles west of the little prairie town where I live with my wife. Western State Colorado University is a small but growing mountain college nestled in the Gunnison Valley, absolutely beautiful place, especially in the summer. The setting is rustic, but I’m a rural Colorado guy anyway, so it suited me just fine. Like I said, I was pretty nervous about meeting a whole new group of people, but I was hopeful in the very least that I’d come out of the program a much better writer, ready to take on the literary world in all its many serpentine manifestations.

During the two years I attended Western, I wrote an enormous amount of material, the majority of which I published. Actually, I started publishing it in the middle of my coursework, which impressed my classmates. I’d already been writing seriously for seven or eight years, and that’s kind of a stereotypical calibration mile marker at which point writers ‘stop being just okay’ and ‘start getting good’. Anyway, maybe the timing was on my side. Make no mistake, writers can be a jealous and fickle lot, and many who doubt their own abilities fall victim to popular whims and the nasty habit of clinging to others who, ehem, smell like success. That’s actually a constant in entertainment industries far and wide, so it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that nastiness and in-fighting can and do occur in MFA programs.

So while I can honestly say I produced a large amount of quality (and more importantly, saleable) work, the sum total of the experience was perhaps not exactly what I expected. For one, if you find that you’re a bit of a loner—as many authors are—you may consider other avenues. The notion of community is indeed important, but in programs such as these, group dynamics are a factor. You may experience interpersonal drama as the natural course. Heck, you may even participate in it. Some people think competition is good, that it breeds character, dedication, and an overall positive, can-do attitude. I don’t agree. I think it usually brings out the worst in people. The problem is that folks get into the mindset there is only so much success to go around, a grand lie if there ever was one. And really, a high-stress creative environment can only exacerbate insecurities, anxiety, and small-minded thinking. It’s entirely possible you’ll experience nothing of the sort during your time at an MFA, but then again, you may find yourself crawling through a big stinking pile of it.

The other thing worth mentioning is that if you as a writer are prone to overwork or burnout, you may consider getting a certificate or simply attending a really good writing workshop or two. There are plenty of those to go around, and they don’t require tens of thousands of dollar to attend, either. I wouldn’t trade my time at Western for anything. Really, I wouldn’t. The experiences I had, the people I met (even the ones I ended up disagreeing with), shaped me in unexpected ways. Pressure cooker situations can make you better at what you do, but they can also cause a slowdown or even complete stoppage of your natural creative drive. Ultimately, this is what happened to me, though luckily, writer’s block is perfectly surmountable given enough time and patience.

As I’m sure you well know, creative writing can be pretty difficult, especially when we as writers are put into situations or contracts under which we’re required to maintain constant output. But writing isn’t like most other creative professions, in that it doesn’t just require your creativity and imagination, but also your intellect and higher reasoning skills. To string one word after another, continuously, until a fully realized narrative emerges, that’s pretty hardcore, right? So again, if you are prone to periods of overwork or burnout, if you make a habit of pushing yourself too hard or of not being forgiving or gentle enough to allow yourself time to recoup your creative energy, an MFA may not be for you.

Yes, you can teach with one, and that may be the most useful outcome. Not every writer wants to teach. In fact, I think most don’t. But if you’ve been doing this a while, I’m sure you’ve also recognized the very real truth that superstar authors are few and far between, and even fewer simply got lucky on their paths, as opposed to agonizing over their craft for years and years before anyone showed even the slightest interest. So to teach or not to teach? Well, a paycheck is better than an empty bank account under any circumstance, and since reality is (unfortunately) rather persistent, you may find you need to pay some bills before your incredible new urban fantasy novel sees the light of day.

At the time I attended Western State, the school’s Genre Fiction program was still pretty new, and as such, the faculty still had a few things to iron out. This led to an uneven learning experience at times, but as far as a basic academic progress went, I always felt satisfied. Some of my classmates had a bad habit of complaining about certain aspects of our coursework, but I was always of the opinion that you get out what you put in. In other words, I never even bothered second-guessing individual assignments or their value. I simply treated them as writing challenges, opportunities for me to have fun and excel. And I loved to write, so I committed myself to telling the best stories I could, and at least in the short term, it paid off for me.

One thing is certain, if you go into an intense learning environment with a bad attitude, you’re already behind the eight ball. I had a great attitude, though my somewhat imbalanced mental health picture (at the time I suffered from some pretty bad depression) set me apart from my classmates, in that I occasionally needed extra help and time in order to get my work done. My teachers were more than willing to accommodate me, and thanks to them, I graduated on time and with (mostly) straight A’s. I used that lovely piece of frameable paper to bounce myself into some editing and freelance work, but if I’m being honest, sustained productivity become an issue after that. Perhaps I was just dog tired. Can you really blame me?

When all is said and done, the choice to pursue an MFA comes down to what you value and what you think you can accomplish on your own. An intense, focused experience like this can make you a better writer. I know it made me better. But it’s also true that you can get better on your own, through dedication, persistence, and a healthy work ethic. I think I was open and ready for something that allowed me to hone my abilities in a safe, nurturing, and output-driven environment. I’d like to thank all the faculty and staff at Western State Colorado University for their generosity of spirit and willingness to pass on their considerable knowledge and expertise. Don’t forget, folks, this is your story. Tell it how you want to sell it!

Until next time!


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative short stories are collected in Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, Black Static, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars.

Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Video Games – Music – Entertainment – So Much More!


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Writing for a YA Audience: School is in Session

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I might be a writer, but I’m also a teacher.  Ever since I took my first class – ballet, age 3 – I wanted to teach.  I taught my dolls whatever I learned.  I taught my maternal grandmother.  Beneath the expert tutelage of a child age 5, she learned yoga, tap, jazz, and Spanish.  I contribute a lot of my success in Spanish (as in, I passed) to the hours spent teaching it to her.  Teaching was what I wanted to do.

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Photo by Abel Tan Jun Yang on Pexels.com

I went to college for elementary education.  I imagined a classroom of eager faces mirroring my grandmother’s.  We would do the best projects and everyone would love learning.  I walked in with my arms filled with my favorite books, materials for astronomy models, and a skip in my step.

Instead, I was faced with mandatory testing and parents angry that their child had homework on the night when they watch reality TV.  After college, I switched to teaching young adults in a collegial setting.  I fell in love with teaching all over again.  They were eager to learn.  (Well, most of them.)  I didn’t have to deal with parents who used foul language while screaming at their kid for using the same foul language.  There weren’t days spent learning how to pass a mandatory test instead of mastering the material.  Anyway, I digress…

I went from teaching adults at a local community college to teaching  adults for a financial institute.  On the side, I started teaching classes in one of my passions: writing.  Libraries in the area were willing to give me time on weekends or weeknights to teach writing to anyone who wanted to come, free of charge.  The classes ranged from general writing tips to fantasy-specific discussions to how to get published.

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Still today, even though I’m no longer teaching as a day job, I lead classes at local libraries.  The classes are always small and intimate – five people to ten.  This gives us the opportunity to have one-on-one discussions and to have the attendees share selections of writing for feedback.  Most recently, in August, I got to teach a two-part fantasy workshop to youth for a library summer program.  The ideas they came up with were complex and original.  They weren’t afraid to write out of the box.

The best part about teaching a writing class is observing the passion in everyone’s face.  Whereas my grandmother’s passion came from helping me better myself, these students have a passion for the written word, and I’ll do anything I can to help them expand that passion.

Jordan Elizabeth is a young adult fantasy author.  If you’re a teacher or librarian, she would love to talk to you about leading a workshop or giving a presentation.  You can connect with Jordan via her website, JordanElizabethBooks.com.