Tuesday, August 30, 2016


guest re-post by Mary Beth Baptiste 

It's been two years since this post by Mary Beth appeared in our blog. I think it deserves an encore. 

- Lynn

After reading my book, Altitude Adjustment: A Quest for Love, Home, and Meaning in the Tetons, people often ask me, “Has your ex read it? What about those guys you worked with? What was their reaction?”

We memoir writers struggle with privacy issues. As human beings, we’re concerned about the reactions of others. When I write, I want to project a personal truth that represents a universal human condition. But I also realize that people close to me may not relate to my personal truth in a positive way, particularly if it involves behaviors or personality traits they themselves have struggled with in the past. My earliest decisions about how to write my book revolved around other people.

I knew I had a strong story that would strike at the hearts of many readers. But how could I tell it while keeping my family, ex-husband, coworkers, and former lovers from recognizing themselves and getting upset, and God forbid, suing me?

First I thought I’d fictionalize the story and write a novel. Sure. That would do it. A novel about a woman of Portuguese descent from Massachusetts who followed her lifelong dream and moved to Grand Teton National Park to work as a wildlife biologist. Complete protection. Total anonymity. Yeah, right.

I was suffering from what I call memoir angst: the disabling fear of facing the truth about one’s life and the roles others played in it.

After years of soul-searching, I decided, “Okay. I’ve got an unusual story with universal themes. I’m going to write it as memoir.”

I first wrote the book like someone else’s true confessions: no holds barred. I’ll show them and everybody else what jerks I was dealing with. My readers will see what I went through, how persecuted I was. They’ll get it.

Then I went back and read it. It was awful. That’s not real life, I realized. No one is thatbad. This is how time lends perspective to life: Had I written this story soon after the events occurred, it would have been nothing but whiny drivel, what counselors call “emotional diarrhea.” And, thank goodness, no reputable publishing company would have touched it.

So I got off the pity pot, gathered my wits, and grew up. I took more time and delved deeper. As I perused old journals and photos, poignant details surfaced. The deep-gut horror I felt when my ex-husband’s birthdate came out so high in the Vietnam War draft lottery. My parents’ love and devotion, even after I turned my back on everything they held dear in life. My boss’s restrained laugh, and how I could, just by being my own goofy self, coax it into a full guffaw. My confused lover’s bumbling but sincere attempts to help me through a rough time.

These are the things that give substance and depth to life, that strike harmonic chords in the human soul. These are the complications, the ‘yes buts,’ the messy things that infuse commonness with inspiration and beauty.

I still don’t know if my ex or my Grand Teton coworkers have read the book, or what they think of it, and I’m a little uncomfortable about that. While I did my best to change names, physical descriptions, and other details, the characters will know who they are and wonder if others will recognize them. My friend “Rachel” in the book, told me she enjoyed reading an account of parts of her life. When I expressed concern about the reactions of my ex and my other coworkers, she said, “I doubt any of them could read the book without it bringing a smile to their faces.”

If they do read the book, I hope they can see it merely as my personal journey. I hope they understand how our interactions strengthened me and made the story possible. I feel only gratitude and affection for all of them now, and wish them all good things in life.

Sure it would be great to receive a surprise email from my former boss or ex-husband, singing the book’s praises and congratulating me as others have. It would bring the work full-circle and wrap things up neatly. But real life seldom comes in neatly-wrapped packages.

Mary Beth Baptiste is the author of a memoir, Altitude Adjustment: A Quest for Love, Home, and Meaning in the Tetons, published this year by TwoDot/Globe Pequot Press. A winner of a 2014 Wyoming Arts Council literary fellowship, Mary Beth has published her creative nonfiction in a number of periodicals and anthologies. She lives in southeast Wyoming with her husband, Richard. 

Lynn chimes in…

In Altitude Adjustment, Mary Beth Baptiste battles inertia as well as family, ethnic, and religious tradition to pursue her dream of becoming a woodswoman in the Rocky Mountains. She takes the reader along for the bumpy ride as she recreates her life and herself.

I finished reading Altitude Adjustmentwhile on a camping trip at Vedauwoo. The book read like a novel, the questions tugging me along: Will she be able to stay in the Tetons? Will she find her match? Will her family reconcile themselves to the new Mary Beth? I squeezed chapters in between hikes, throwing the tennis ball for Luna, and cooking chili.

When I read the last page at dusk, I leaned back in my chair, watched the bats plunge through the pines, and felt, well, satisfied. And why not? I’d been educated (so that’s what wildlife biologists do--I never knew!), entertained (with a romance-novel-worthy description of copulating boreal toads, for one), and inspired (what dreams have I been postponing?)-- all in one memoir.

This book is a good reminder that some of us were born where we belong, and some of us have to bushwhack our way there. I’m glad Mary Beth found her way to Wyoming, the home of her heart. I’m happier still that she shared her story with us, goading us to stop kicking our own dreams down the road and get on with the business of making them happen. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Writing Lessons from a Long Bicycle Ride

This post was originally published over on The Writing Bug, right after the 2013 Ride for Sight. I did the 2016 Ride for Sight on August 14 -- same ride, same distance, same feeling of accomplishment, same lessons for my writing life. 

by Susan

I had a wonderful day Sunday before last at the Cheyenne Lions Ride for Sight. A perfect, amazing, glorious day -- 52 miles on the bicycle. Why yes, I AM bragging. So what does this have to do with writing? Looking at why I had such a good day, there were a few lessons for word work:

  1. I prepared -- I didn't go from zero to 50 without a few 20- and 30-milers. If I don't practice writing, I'm not going to able to succeed. Journaling and exercises all help me build up to longer and better work.
  2. I showed up -- That Sunday morning, I had little energy and wasn't entirely sure I had a long ride in me. Despite that, I showed up. If I don't show up to write, nothing will happen. When I make space for writing, it happens.
  3. I lowered my expectations -- I didn't engage in fantasies of riding the entire 100-mile course. I decided to do what I could do. When I write, if I think everything must be brilliant and perfect, I stop myself from doing as much as I can, because I get caught up in what I aspire to. The poet William Stafford was known for telling his students, "lower your standards and keep going." I just kept going.
  4. I trusted the process -- One year on the same ride, I had a horrible day because I got caught up in the outcome -- how many miles would I ride? I didn't pay enough attention to the mechanics of getting there. When I focused on a smooth cadence and a steady pace, the miles unfolded without misery. When I write, I need to focus on the process -- how to tell the story, what precise word do I need here, what I should cut. If I write while simultaneously fantasizing about publishing, it doesn't work.
  5. I fed myself -- I've bonked once or twice on long rides: collapsed on the ground, shaking and conversing with imaginary people. The surest route to bonking is to not eat enough. As writers, we need to do what "feeds" us outside of writing, whether it's time in nature, in the garden or with family. We need to take care of ourselves physically and mentally. Sure, on a big deadline we can push it, but we can't push it forever.
And the best lesson? When you do it right -- cycling or riding -- it feels like flying. That makes it all worth it.
What writing lessons do you get from other activities in your life? Which of these here resonate with you?

And ... who wants to go with me on the Ride for Sight next year!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


guest post by Alan Wilkinson

Lynn chimes in first...
Photo by Alan Wilkinson
Officers Quarters at Fort Robinson,
where retreat participants were housed
and many lively discussions ensued. 

Thirty seconds into my first conversation with Alan Wilkinson during the Storycatcher Workshop at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, I said to myself, Oh, I've got to hear more from this guy.

Alan is a Brit, and his sly humor, self-deprecation and wry perspectives on American culture made for a lot of interesting chats. He's a good listener, too, and naturally curious. Alan wandered the grounds at the old fort, taking photos and examining plants. He joined me at dusk in watching the bats as they spilled from the eaves of the old Officer Quarters and dispersed into the night.

The Red House On The Niobrara by [Wilkinson, Alan]Alan was a "featured writer" at Storycatcher. During his talk, titled "Making a Living as a Writer," Alan scrolled out his long and varied working/writing life. And I thought I had had a lot of jobs!

I've never been a rat catcher. Alan has. He's also worked as a freight train guard, ghostwriter and sugar-beet factory hand. He has scripted soaps. That's just for starters. Along the way he developed an ear for dialogue and can capture the verbal cadence of a North Yorkshire farmer or an old Nebraska rancher and put their voices on the page.

Of interest to us here in Wyoming, Alan developed, early on in his life, a love of the American West. He has made twenty road trips in the last thirty years, crossing the region from east to west and north to south.

I came home from the workshop and promptly read The Red House on the Niobrara, Alan's delightful-to-read but difficult-to-describe book (memoir? travelogue? culture and landscape study? all of the above?). Even though I was born and raised in Niobrara County (just over the Wyoming/Nebraska border from the book's location), I learned so much that I didn't know. Sometimes it takes a furriner to show you your own place, you know?

And if you are bemoaning the fact that you can't lock yourself away in a turret and write 24/7, read on. Alan shows us what's possible if we just keep on writing, and learning, and living.

Without further ado, let me introduce you to Alan Wilkinson...

A Jobbing Writer

I adopted the term ‘jobbing writer’ some time ago. I never really gave it much thought, but when Lynn told me that she’d rarely heard it used in the USA, I realised that it’s not very common in the UK either. Over here, every second writer you read about is ‘an award-winning novelist’. They all seem to live in ‘London and Tuscany’. They are young and good-looking.

In my early forties, with a young family to support, and a yen to write quiet, introspective prose, I concluded that I was never going to be one of those cosmopolitan authors whose photos I saw, framed by French doors overlooking an acre of sunlit lawn. I mean the type whose partner has money, or a tenured academic post.

In 1993 I had a half-time lectureship, an MA in Creative Writing and a half-baked PhD. I knew what I was - a bloke who needed to make a living, this month, next month, every damned month - but who couldn’t imagine not writing. So I settled for being a hired hand: an echo of the time I operated as a jobbing gardener around town, one of several dozen jobs I had in my 20s and 30s before I surrendered to my fate.
Cheers! from Alan Wilkinson

‘Jobbing’ means I never turn down a paying proposition. Twenty-five years ago I was supplementing my modest academic income with book reviews, feature interviews, literary short fiction, and articles about my travels in the American West. I taught recreational writing classes, and I laboured on a novel.

Later, when the academic door slammed shut in my face, I put aside the novel and wrote corporate histories. Sure, I had to sit in boardrooms listening to men in suits blowing their own trumpets; but most of the time I was interviewing former staff in their 80s and 90s who had responded to my press releases. Did they have stories to tell, these sons and daughters of toil? You bet they did. And memories of their parents, who’d worked in horse-and-cart days before World War I. Towards the end of my visits, as we sat drinking tea, they’d tap me on the knee. ‘Now don’t be putting this in your book, young fellow-me-lad…’ And out came the confessions - furtive abstraction of merchandise, the scandal of the chairman who died in a sleeping car en route to London, in the arms of one of his shop assistants. Some stories made it into the books; some I logged away for future reference.

When the corporate research dried up I found my way into TV, writing voice-over scripts for documentaries, fleshing out the narrative in ten- or twenty-second gaps between scenes. At three syllables per second, you learn about concision - and, in an industry characterised by last-minute changes, speed. The courier would deliver the latest edit at 5 p.m. - and they wanted my script by 9 next morning. I generally had it done by midnight.

While I was in TV, I had a stab at drama. I submitted a script and spent eight months at Britain’s number two soap opera. I learned a crucial skill that had never been in my armoury, that of creating conflict. And then I got the hell out. Loved the money, hated the product.

I went through a fallow period, working a winter in the sugar-beet factory. I never resented that. I’d long ago come to the conclusion that all artists should stop work from time to time and experience what to most people is real life. I took on a bar job which would pay dividends ten years later when the proprietor’s husband wanted to write the story of his micro-brewery. He knew who to ask – and we go to press in October. So there’s another plus: do whatever comes your way and things will happen.

I’ve dwelt on the jobs that paid well. There were others I took because I couldn’t afford to refuse them. There was the bridegroom who rang me on a Thursday evening asking if I would write his speech for Saturday. An hour later, after thumbing through a book on wedding etiquette, he had his words and I had my £75 ($100).

Later I got to hear of a Chinese billionaire who spoke no English but wanted to write a novel which might become a Hollywood blockbuster: a truth serum is delivered to earth by alien invaders, on an asteroid. I quoted an outrageous fee, suspended disbelief, and delivered 90,000 words. While he was pleased with the result, he told his interpreter that he would have liked ‘more explosions.’

I’d surely crossed a line with that one: things could not get any weirder.

Oh, but they could. In 2003 I got a call from a stand-up comedian who entertained the crowds at summer festivals as a sky-diving Elvis impersonator. Could I help him write a script for TV? I gave it my best shot, but after several weeks – and no money – he disappeared. (I was tempted to say he went to ground.)

I got over that: I’d already been approached by an agent about a ghost-writing project with a rural copper who wanted to write his memoirs. We did seven books together and made decent money. It was here that I realised just how valuable all that other experience had been, and how everything that happened added to my store of material.

 The copper’s brief for each chapter was to outline a scenario and tell me about the characters he’d worked with, or arrested. As we got into volume three, four and five, we would have calls that began with me asking,

‘So tell me about this guy.’

‘Oh, he was an amazing character, just amazing!’

‘And the incident?’

‘Incredible, mate, absolutely incredible!’

So I made it all up – settings, characters, dialogue. I’d learned to listen to speech patterns in my many menial jobs as younger man. The copper handled the procedural aspects. I drew on my own wide experience of people, their stories, and the countryside we were writing about. He found himself being sent on long walks to places he’d never visited. Later, when I wrote his childhood memoirs, they bore a strange resemblance to mine.

For a few years, ghost-writing became my main source of income. I wrote books with an international drug-smuggler, then the brewer, and am currently completing one for a Brit who was a bounty hunter in the USA for twenty years.

But what of that novel started in the 1990s? What of my hopes of being a literary presence in the world, of giving utterance to my unique poetic vision? I think it has benefited from being left aside for twenty-plus years while I polished my skills through practice, practice and more practice. Last year I had a three-month fellowship at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos and re-wrote it, radically. It scrubbed up pretty well, and I have an offer from a UK publisher.

I have lived one part of my dream – namely, being a writer for twenty-three years. And as I look to work on the personal projects I’ve had on hold all that time I feel I am far better prepared, as a writer, thanks to a long and unusual apprenticeship.


There Used To Be A Guy... But He Died: ...and other discoveries on a bike-ride across Nebraska by [Wilkinson, Alan]Alan Wilkinson lives in Durham, in the north of England. He has published around twenty books, numerous travel and feature articles, a handful of literary short stories and one radio play. 

When he’s not writing to order he writes about the American West. Among his recent books are The Red House on the Niobrara, about his six-month retreat in a hunting lodge in western Nebraska, and There Used To Be A Guy… But He Died, the story of Alan’s solitary bike ride across Nebraska. 

You can read more about Alan's adventures at his blog http://walkinonnails.blogspot.co.uk/ and via his website: http://alan-wilkinson.com/.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Just Close Your Eyes

by Susan

Most humans are visual creatures, relying on our eyes to maneuver through the world. You have only to witness the explosion of YouTube videos, infographics, and pictures online to realize how much we communicate in the language of sight.

As writers, we cannot rely on eyes alone in our words. We need to use all the senses when we write a story to bring the reader fully into the moment. But it's easy to forget that we have more than sight to work with.

I'm as guilty of it as the next writer. If I pop off a scene or a poem in a hurry, it's all sight, sight, sight. That murder victim's dead body is infested with maggots... but magically, my character doesn't smell it? No, no, no. We can do better.

I was taught five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. They now say we have more. Your ears don't just hear; they orient you as to up, down, and wow this merry-go-round is spinning fast. Your muscles and bones sense where all your body parts are. You sense hunger and thirst.

When all the senses are engaged, the writing is more powerful, but the language can be difficult to find. Smell is the hardest one for me, and is quite possibly the most powerful. Smell taps into the deepest emotional centers of the brain. Yet, what does bacon smell like. Well, it smells like ... bacon. I have a hard time going beyond to remember that it's fragrant, smoky, meaty.

I find word lists useful. Here are a few for the non-sight senses:

I encourage you to ask yourself if you've hit all, or at least most, of them when you write. Make a checklist. You might even try to write something that leaves out descriptions of sight completely. I'll close with a poem where I tried that. I can't claim that sight didn't sneak in on this one, but it was a great exercise to force me out of my visual comfort zone:

Englewood Park Loop

Begin downhill, bike tires whirring
Down the short street with the house
That smells of tea boiled 5 minutes too long
Of bacon, of fried chicken sizzling

Go down Markey. Cars pass
So close exhaust brushes elbow
Down to the flats where finally
You need to put feet to pedals

Frederick Road is to the left
Take the turnoff a mile down it
Where gravel trucks rumble
Past Mrs. Matoski's old house

Down the narrow road of trees
Where I collided with my brother
When I was 12, broke his derailleur
And we walked three miles home

Stand on Route 40 before you cross
Warm asphalt under your Chuck Taylors
Road stretching from the eastern shore
To the Colorado mountains

Through the park on the one-way road
Humidity wraps your shoulders
Like a well-used bath towel
Tree shadows touch and cool

Back down Frederick by Monnin's Farm
Where they are kind and will give
A hot, thirsty child cool water
From the hose at the side of the house

From Frederick, retrace your steps
Back up the hills that began it
Thighs aching, lungs tired
To the house and the taste of sweet tea

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Upcoming Writers' Workshops

We've been getting some notices of upcoming workshops. Although we try to put these on our calendar, there are a few (not in chronological order) that we thought deserved an extra shout-out.

Bearlodge Writers to Host Maine Author for Workshop Sept. 24, Sundance WY

Morgan Callan Rogers, author of two internationally-acclaimed novels and several short stories, will present an all-day workshop for writers on Saturday, September 24, in Sundance, Wyoming. The workshop will be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Crook County Courthouse. The author will also be available to the public to sign her books Friday, September 23, at Wild West Espresso in Sundance from 4 to 6:30 p.m.

In the intermediate-level workshop, Callan Rogers will guide fellow writers through the process of crafting a novel. “I’m going to trace the journey of [my novel] Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea from the moment I first heard my main character’s voice to publication and marketing,” she says. “We’ll be talking about the idea, voice, character development, plot twists, narrative lines and arcs, setting, dialogue, revision and the book as a whole.”

For a fee-per-page the author will also read and critique eight manuscripts of up to five pages from workshop attendees, electronically submitted to her before September 14. She will meet with these writers after the workshop to discuss their work.

The author holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine and is a former member of Bearlodge Writers of Sundance. The workshop, sponsored by Bearlodge Writers and supported by Sundance State Bank, will cost $50 per person. Lunch is included.

For more information or to preregister for the event (by September 7, please!) contact Ayme Ahrens at (307) 399-2000 or aymeahrens@yahoo.com.

Hill City Writers' Workshop Oct. 7-9, Hill City SD

The Hill City Arts Council invites you to the 2nd annual Hill City Writers’ Workshop: For the Love of Words! Writers of all levels can spend the weekend of October 7-9, 2016 improving their skills and learning from renowned regional writer-mentors Linda Hasselstrom, Bernie Hunhoff, South Dakota Poet Laureate Lee Ann Roripaugh, and Brian Bedard, our Keynote Speaker. There are many opportunities for you to participate ranging from manuscript review and one-on-one sessions with your Mentor, to attending public readings by our Mentors on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Or perhaps you’d just like to attend our Saturday evening dinner and keynote by Brian Bedard at Mount Rushmore’s Carvers Cafe. No matter your level of participation, if you have a love of words, this weekend workshop is for you.

Learn more about the event and how to register at www.hillcityarts.org , or through this link https://www.eventbrite.com/e/hill-city-writers-workshop-for-the-love-of-words-tickets-26567658582

Please contact the Hill City Arts Council at (605)574-2810 or info@hillcityarts.org if you have any questions or would like us to mail information for you to share with others.

Young Writers' Workshop Aug. 12, Laramie County Library, Cheyenne WY

Attendees at this year's Young Writers Workshop on Aug. 12 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. can expect a "bit of mystery, a bit of humor, and a lot of fun," as is par for the course with anything related to New York Times best-selling children & young adults author Jennifer Chambliss Bertman.

Free Writing Workshop with George Vlastos Aug. 13, Moose WY

George Vlastos's workshop, "The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain," will be held 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. at Craig Thomas Discovery And Visitor Center, Grand Teton National Park on Saturday, Aug. 13. Bring a journal, some water, and what you need to be comfortable writing outside in the Park. Learn more at https://www.facebook.com/events/1808416349391831/ (must be signed into your Facebook account to access link.)

Tuesday, August 2, 2016


guest post by Mary P. Donahue

Lynn chimes in first:

You meet the nicest people...

One of my favorite things about the writing life is the people I meet along the way. I met Mary in June at the Storycatcher Summer Writing Workshop and Festival at Fort Robinson and Chadron, Nebraska. I heard excerpts from Mary's captivating memoir-in-progress and had the opportunity to take a peek at images of her artwork (on her laptop). 

As I have always been intrigued by the intersection of different creative forms, I asked Mary to muse about how her art informs her writing and vice versa. What follows is the result, and I think, like me, you'll find it enlightening. 

“Nebraska Pine Ridges Series: Near Mile Marker 68 on Highway 20” 
by Mary P. Donahue (detail),
oil on canvas, 12” x 36”, 2016
Write what you see...

“Draw what you see. Not what you know.” This is what I say to beginning art students when we are drawing or painting from life. I am a visual artist, designer, and college art professor by education and career but I have often found myself writing as well. In writing, one hears what might be considered the opposite advice—“Write what you know.” When I posed this quandary to Dr. Kathy Bahr, a writing partner and retired English professor, she immediately saw these statements as similar. However, she found the word “know” to be restrictive because one could still write authentically about situations they did not experience firsthand. My eyebrows furrowed. I am going to have to figure this out.

Bret Anthony Johnston, in his essay, “Don’t Write What You Know,” (though he does not heed his own title advice and goes on to give examples of writers writing what they know) mentions the possibility of this cliché originating with Hemingway and becoming altered in the repeated telling. What he did find Hemingway said was, “From all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive.”

“Spirit Tree II: Fort Robinson, Nebraska,”
by Mary P. Donahue,
oil on canvas, 25” x 31”
The reason we tell beginning art students to draw what they see is so they leave behind the assumptions they have about their visual world. Forget that tree is a tree, I tell them. Or they will draw what they think and assume is a tree—a vertical trunk with a round bunch of green on top. They take a few looks at the tree and then stop looking. What they end up with is not visually accurate and, most likely, and maybe more importantly, not that interesting to look at because it is not emotionally authentic. Because they have not taken the time to observe a real tree. To look closely. To understand it. To be curious. To wonder about it. To use their senses to experience it. And more than just their eyes. 

This experience of the sensual becomes even more crucial now when so many have their nose buried in a digital device.

What kind of tree? What shape are the leaves? How do the branches divide? This is important and complex stuff. The irony is that those details actually open up new explorations and questions. The goal is for the artist to express their response to what they are looking at. By choice and focus, those details lead to the creative response—the essence of what the artist is trying to say. Some of us spend a lifetime understanding just what it is we are trying to say.

It is the same in writing. The details tell us everything and it is up to the writer to choose which details are important to include, which details propel the story, flesh out the essence, and paint the image. You must know what you are writing about in an intimate way so that those details and feelings can be expressed with authenticity.

All children start out drawing. Why is it that so many of us stop drawing? One unfortunate thing about “growing up” is that we think, in order for a drawing or painting to be good, that it must capture what we are looking at in complete realistic detail. Impossible. This was a recent discussion that I had with my former high school art teacher, Dr. Clar Baldus, who is now a clinical associate professor of art education and art education area coordinator at the University of Iowa as well as a visual artist. She offered this: “When children first start drawing, they draw what they know (based on visual memory) as they construct their own knowledge to make sense of their world. As development continues, they move toward trying to draw what they see (which is when many stop drawing because their skills can't keep up with what they are trying to draw—realistically) and they impose this standard of needing something to look "right" to be "good." We try to remove some of the bias in the rendering and achieve accuracy when we practice "seeing" through direct observation (And shut off our visual memory and the verbal processing of our brain that wants to label everything)."

“Spirit Tree III: Fort Robinson, Nebraska,”
by Mary P. Donahue,
oil on canvas, 27” x 39”
So by getting students to look at the angle of the branches, that the spaces between leaves and branches have distinct shapes (negative space), this curve relative to that curve, the proportion of the trunk to the other branches, the color and value of the ground compared to the sky or the tree, the placement in space of objects on their paper or canvas, we get them to think in the more abstract terms of the formal elements of art: line, shape/mass, color, value, form, size/proportion. To get them to intuit these things, to understand what they are seeing in visual language. This is the practice of skills before one can give shape to the intangible things of the heart.

And so the artist, as Clar says, can shut off the verbal processing which allows those intangible things of the heart to be said through the expression of their line, the play of shapes, the feel of color.

 “Dakota Landscape: Tree and Rock,”
by Mary P. Donahue,
oil on canvas, 22”x 30”
It is the same in writing. As I relearned in a recent writing workshop with writer Kim Barnes and poet Robert Wrigley, honing the skills of syntax, rhythm, the sound of words, diction, imagery, and managing the choices of scene, setting, character, action, and dialogue are important in the craft of writing. With any discipline, one needs to develop the skills that ultimately enable us to express more completely the truths, the creative thinking—things that we know or feel but have not given form to, be it in art, writing, or scientific ideas. It is these intangible things of the heart that allow our human endeavors to transcend time and place and these lonely, separate vessels we call bodies. In Kim Barnes’ discussion of vertical versus horizontal movement in narrative, she sums up the role of all art in this way: “To EXIST is to abide by linear laws; to LIVE is to exist inside the spatial (the why of the story) and story must bring these two experiences together in a horizontal/vertical way.”

Robert Wrigley related frustration when asked by someone unfamiliar with poetry, “What are your poems about?” Life. Death. Everything.

What moves me to create a painting or write a story is something I experienced. Moments that made me feel. The reaching ache of a snag’s branches or the blue shadows cast in winter. Writing about when you take your aging mother for a drive on an open road surrounded by blue sky and pillowed clouds and sunshine and it feels like you are taking her to heaven.

In the book, Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People, authors Robert and Michéle Root-Bernstein examine how creative thinkers in a wide variety of fields from the arts to science move from imagination to realization. Their examination of writers, artists, scientists, and other creatives yield interesting similarities:

“The artist is not a man who describes but a man who FEELS,” wrote the poet e.e. cummings.

Georgia O’Keeffe wrote, “I long ago came to the conclusion that even if I could put down accurately the thing I saw and enjoyed, it would not give the observer the kind of feeling it gave me. I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at—not copy it.” 

Gary Snyder talks about reliving the whole experience… "re-experiencing, recall, visualization, revisualization. I’ll live through the whole thing again and try to see it more clearly.” 

Robert Frost called his poetry a process of “carrying out some intention more felt than thought…I’ve often been quoted: ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.’” 

Robert and Michéle Root-Bernstein sum this up by saying, "Once the poet or writer has relived inspiring or troubling images and feelings, the problem is the same one shared by scientists and artists: how to translate these internal feelings into an external language other people can experience."
Yes, the problem we all share. How do we connect to others from these mortally separate containers? How do we reconcile the things we know and the things we don’t know?

“Spirit Tree IV: Fort Robinson, Nebraska,”
by Mary P. Donahue,
pastel on paper, 19” x 25”
As Clar concluded in our discussion, “I believe skillfulness or talent in art (and writing) is the ability in drawing or writing to switch between knowing and seeing—using it to one's advantage to get meaning across. Much like a metaphor, it is the essence that is the meaning and beauty, not the description of the words or accuracy of the lines.”

This is when we progress to drawing and painting what we know…to be true. And writing what we see…inside the truth of our own emotions. This is when a tree becomes more than roots, branches, and leaves.

Mary P. Donahue is a professor of art at Chadron State College in Chadron, Nebraska. Originally from northeast Iowa, she has spent most of the last 30 years living near the western border of Wyoming or living near the eastern border of Wyoming. In between, she has put in many Wyoming miles, hiking, backpacking, and driving. 


Johnston, Bret Anthony. “Don’t Write What You Know.The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, Fiction 2011  Web. 8 July 2016.

Baldus, Clara M. “Re: Research.” Message to Mary Donahue. 24 June 2016. E-mail.

Root-Bernstein, Robert and Michéle. pg. 8, Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999. Print.