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 Network, Women 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:
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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