Wyoming, I thought, would offer me the quiet solitude I needed in order to finish revising my novel. My expectations were simple: a comfortable room in which to write and a serene landscape where I could take relaxing strolls to clear my mind. My studio, with its antique furniture, window overlooking a distant dusk blue mountain, and corner easy chair across a gas-lit fireplace, turned out to be incredibly cozy and just what I needed. But I could not have been more wrong about the surrounding landscape.
The Jentel Artist Residency is located in the shadow of the Big Horn Mountains. I had imagined rolling hills, but these particular foothills were unlike any I had seen before. They were jagged in places. Red and black rock showed through their sparse grasses like a scraped knee jutting through threadbare pants. It seemed as though the earth had been pushed up by molten rock and volcanic gasses as well as scraped by glaciers, weathered by seas, and roughened by the flotsam of ancient rivers. The land looked pushed around and you had the sense when looking at it that it might push you around, too.
In the hills of Laurel Canyon where I live in L.A. (and which I’d found “rustic” compared to my urban apartments in Paris and New York), I had grown accustomed to the nightly howl of coyotes and to the occasional deer standing in my parking spot on the street. But I was still just a ten-minute walk (or one- to ten-minute drive, depending on traffic) from the bustle of West Hollywood. In Wyoming, one can see deer by the hundreds, and there are also elk, moose, bison, antelope, turkeys, bald eagles, horses, bull snakes, rattlesnakes, porcupines, and cattle. Don’t approach the cows or get too near to them in spring , warned our welcome packet. It’s calving season and the mothers are cranky. There are several deaths in Yellowstone every year because visitors attempt selfies with bison and end up getting gored. Inhabitants tell stories of how they rolled their cars—not because of alcohol, but because of wind. For most of the year, residents are not allowed to hike alone, as balmy days can turn swiftly into blinding blizzards. Year-round they are required to wear bright orange safety vests. The nature is beyond rugged; it is severe, harsh.
The five other artists who shared the house with me seemed prepared for this. Most of them had driven out in trucks or SUVs. One resident even arrived with forty pounds of freshly butchered elk in her trunk. All of them returned from hikes reporting sightings of buck or antelope carcasses, wondering who or what had taken their life. The landscape quickly and seamlessly found its way into their canvases and writings. Lichen-covered rocks and wild turkey feathers spawned new ideas for textures and patterns in their prints and installations. The brilliant poet on the other side of my studio wrote lines of verse in which porcupines and deer came and went freely. I watched as the whole outdoors became a magical snow-globe of power animals waiting to trot into her verbal forms. For my companions, a month in Wyoming offered endless material and experiential supply. Meanwhile, my book was set in an office cubicle in New York City. It concerned a six-month period in 2008 when I was grieving the sudden loss of my father while temping as a secretary on Wall Street. How was I to benefit from the images and experiences of this rugged mountain landscape?
Some places spark a murmuring in me, a font of subvocal verbal translation that happens naturally in response to a new encounter or experience. I hear sentences start to form in my head. The phrases go on in spite of me and don’t shut up, and that’s when I know I have an essay, a poem, or a segment of a novel waiting to be chiseled into finished lines. But I didn’t feel this here—at least not immediately. Instead, I experienced a kind of mute frustration I can only describe as “traveler’s block.” Hadn’t I failed as a person by not seeing and loving the beauty as they did?
It’s probably no coincidence that my traveler’s block hit me at the same time as a snag in my writing. I had to relearn (why is the lesson never permanent?) to fall in love with the process again. About a week into the residency, I realized that I was not going to leave with a fully edited manuscript in hand, that I was at least another two months away from achieving that goal. Defeated by my own failed expectations, I headed out alone for a hike in the thousand acres of land behind the house, hoping to rediscover a flow of words or at the very least escape my inner critic.
For a long time, I have conceived of my inner writing voice as a shy doe, a delicate creature that would scamper off at the slightest provocation. Voice, to me, is language, syntactically arranged, and drawn out by the imagined presence of a person, often a stranger, with whom I’d like to be speaking. Ironically, my project, while written in memory of my father, consists of emails I wrote to myself from a corporate office cubicle. Like Carlyle’s famous definition of lyric poetry, it’s private expression that’s meant to be overheard. My task in writing my novel was to feel my way back to the time period following my loss, but also to conceive of a world in which its speaker’s voice is relevant, if not deeply needed. I thought of this on my hike, when it seemed that my writing voice had deserted me for good.
Then, after forty minutes of trudging through snow flurries, I spotted a deer coming over the hill before me. It saw me and stopped. Slowly it stepped closer to where I stood and gazed at me a while. It seemed to dip and raise its head, a nod of approval or promise to return, and then I watched it leap away.
I wondered if this was what the others loved about the landscape, these trysts with the natural world in which you sense your own potential to frighten it or grow frightened by it, to disturb or to belong.
After I had stood with the deer and it scampered off, I turned homeward and saw that I was scaling down the steep face of a large hill of crumbling red rock, only the barest wisps of purple sage holding it together. Looking straight down I realized the danger and seeming impossibility of what was before me. But it also occurred to me that I could traverse, pausing each time a step threatened to trigger an avalanche of soft rock, then moving my foot to firmer ground. I had the distinct sense that I was learning something important about writing, remembering to focus on the immediate step before me rather than getting daunted by the steep distance that lay ahead.
Even though I was nearly finished with my book, I found I still had to make peace with uncertainty. I became easier on myself. I turned the absence of epiphanies into enticing mysteries, found ways to enjoy the questions rather forcing the answers. I became less critical about my feeling out of place there, too. I remembered, with renewed gratitude, that to be an artist is to be committed to not knowing where you are going. Because it’s on this half-lit journey of the creative process that we realize the world is speaking to us all the time. Maybe I could just be curious instead of so frustrated with myself, I thought during a car ride home after our presentations in town. As if on cue, The Sheridan High School billboard came into view at that moment and called out to me in large block letters: BE CURIOUS!
Somehow, I knew, my Wyoming traveler’s block and my writing slump were related, and I was determined to figure out how. Who were the people who felt an innate connection to the land, and what was it like to see it through their eyes? My curiosity led me to the house library where I stumbled on Close Range by Annie Proulx, another veteran of a Wyoming artist residency. In the opening story, “The Half-Skinned Steer,” a man discovers that his brother was killed by an emu and that he has inherited the family ranch. He drives cross-country to claim it, and hits a blizzard. Without spoiling the story, I will say that Proulx’s masterpiece leaves one with the distinct impression that in Wyoming you put your life at risk simply by walking outside. The book opens with the perfect epigraph, a quote from a retired Wyoming rancher: “Reality’s never really been of much use out here .” It strikes me as exactly right. The forces of nature in this state are behemoth, and weather and large animals are more terrifying and more relevant than any distant tragedy reported in the papers.
I felt relieved in knowing I was not supposed to find the land comforting. In fact, all the Wyoming authors I read extolled the fact that it was inhospitable to all but a few extremophiles. Its power to take their life away filled them with reverence for their surroundings and a simple gratitude for being alive. On one of our walks the poet said she had regretted not holding her hands over the deer carcass she’d seen on a hike; she had wanted to see if there was any heat radiating from the maggots that were feeding on it. I laughed with her at the time, but later marveled at her deep appreciation of how life cycled through the earth to renew it. I began thinking there was more to be learned from the landscape than I had realized, some natural instinct toward restoration that I’d be hard-pressed to find in a gentler place, one with more obvious, manicured charms.
Soon I found myself bending the ears of the three women who ran the residency. Wyoming is the least populated state in America, and the people who choose to move here are fascinating. I asked the assistant director, Lynn, who had picked me up at the airport, if she had felt that her “home epiphany” was related to memories and the past or to the future and hints of a life still to come. “Does it make sense to say both?” she asked. And we agreed that one way of defining “home” might be a place that connects some foundational self to the person you’d like to become. Like me, she had recently lost a father and a brother. One of the things she appreciated about Wyoming, she told me, was that she was able to talk to them here, even though her father had no connection to the place and had felt most at home by the sea. I remembered that I often sense a direct line to my own father and brother whenever I am in Paris or in the vineyards of France and Italy—not a verbal communication, but one of shared impressions and comfort in silence. Perhaps our loved ones are always ready to visit with us, wherever we are, but we must go to the places where we feel our best selves in order to sense their company.
“Maybe we don’t find the places; maybe the places find us when we need them,” said Mary Jane, a sculptor and the director of our residency. She told me that her flight touched down in snow-swept Casper just when she felt she had exhausted her experience where she had been. “People say there’s nothing here,” she said. “I say if you slow down there’s everything here. Sit down and draw a circle around you and you’ll see . . . you’re not in the middle of nowhere, you’re in the middle of somewhere.” Later on my hike in the thousand acres, I tested her hypothesis. In a two- or three-foot radius around me I could see tiny yellow flowers growing through the snow, as well as bright orange, red, and green lichens on every rock, and holes belonging to snakes, rabbits, and other creatures who found shelter in the earth. It reminded me of approaching an Agnes Martin painting and watching the monochrome color field reveal itself to be a whole network of exquisitely hand-drawn lines you hadn’t seen to see. The passionate fierceness of the land is set against this minimalist backdrop: It’s an aesthetic that attunes you to minute differences, and whoever decides to stop and really see is rewarded with the fuller presence that great attention brings.
These sentiments were echoed by the founder and benefactor of our residency, Neltje Doubleday, who grew up between the vibrant publishing world of Manhattan and private schools in Europe. What she craved, however, was to live off the land, trusting the earth and her instincts to allow her survival, and looking to the enduring life of tiny flowers and insects for advice on how to grow. She found this particular place to have a strong healing energy. The valley instilled a respect for the awesome and, at times, terrifying power of nature. The things that grow and survive here do so against all odds, and so they become instructive in times when we yearn for a way to carry on. All three of the women emphasized the beauty of relying on one’s own skills and wits to get oneself out of challenging situations: digging a truck out of the snow and ice, eating off the land, learning to call on a neighbor’s generosity only when absolutely needed. This sense that they could overcome difficult situations in the physical environment gave them an invaluable confidence they were seeking.
After speaking to the women who ran the residency, I turned to the visual artists to study how they used their innate feeling for materials as a way to feel at home in the natural world. Although I’ve spent my academic career arguing for the materiality of language (its tangible forms of ink on tree pulp or compressions of air upon air), there is nevertheless the inescapable fact that words tend toward immateriality, toward ideals that are free to assume any variety of material forms that would still (most would argue) constitute the exact same text: certain words in a certain order. But for visual artists ideas are often born of interacting with materials. “What are you going to do with that?” I asked them, after we made a group trip to King’s Saddlery and they each returned with bags full of rope, pelts, thread, and wire. “I don’t know yet,” said the sculptor. “Probably just pull it out once in a while and touch it,” offered the printmaker. “That’s what I often do.”
As a writer, I am so paralyzed by the possibilities within English that I must rely on arbitrary rules or forms in order to be able to write anything at all. For me the creation of art was best expressed by the Oulipian dictum: If everything is permitted nothing is possible. When the whole material world, and not just a single language, becomes your supply closet, how do you decide what’s fair game for inclusion?
I felt convinced that the artists’ non-verbal ways of relating to things—through seeing and touching—held the ultimate secret to feeling more at home in my surroundings and finding flow in my work again. One night, the installation artist Elise told me she was driving her truck out to a nearby lake in order to bury materials she wanted to weather. She asked if I wanted to join. When we got there she removed a box from her trunk. “What’s in there?” I asked. “IV bags,” she told me. We walked to the water’s edge and she plopped down to remove them individually from the box and pile fistfuls of dirt over them.
The moon was full, and I stood by watching with admiration, envying the way she got to touch and interact with her work. “Can I help you?” I suddenly asked. She smiled and nodded. I fell to my knees and stuck my hands in the earth, which was cool and reddish-black in the moonlight. I patted the soil down and swept my hands in large arcs over each small mound. We buried them together in silence, then walked back to the truck and tossed the empty box in the backseat so that it would be there for our return. On the ride home she explained that she envisioned placing the weathered IV bags on a wall with a projected image, next to life-size human and animal forms, and surrounded by dirt, stones, and ash. The exhibit highlighted how forces in the natural world can both harm and heal us. It resonated with the violence and compassion she’d seen on the battlefield. Like my father, she was a war vet who had returned home with PTSD. Unlike my father, she had found a creative outlet for this pain while she was young. Our emotional brains respond powerfully to ritual. Elise understood this instinctively, which led her to incorporate moon phases, bodies of water, and burials in many of her works. We bury our dead and say we trust they rest in peace, but our psyches go on wanting to feel and heal the pain they suffered. In freeing them we free ourselves and transmute grief into art.
It wasn’t until the end of my residency that I realized my novel had begun with similar questions about how people relate to landscapes. I’d taken a writing course in college entitled “American Essays of Place,” and when I failed to find any place that spoke to me in a profound way, my professor let me write about my father instead—my father as a kind of refuge. Like me, he was a wanderer, traveling to over one hundred different countries in his lifetime, though he had chosen Champaign, Illinois, as our family base because of a university position. In my essay I wrote about how I felt solace around him because we’d see and comment on the same things: the particular tilt of a tree against a flat horizon, the shifting color of a harvest moon. My book, which is dedicated to him, recounts how I told him the last time we spoke that I’d always remember him as I had written about him in that essay, where place became a backdrop to the relationship it fostered. In noticing the same things about the prairie—an even more minimalist landscape than Wyoming—we realized how similar we were, and in that simple knowledge we felt less alone.
I suppose you might say that I did not choose this particular valley in Wyoming, that it chose me because the healing that I needed wasn’t really easy or kind: the final stage of grief for a writer who is putting a work of great personal significance to rest. The spaces we inhabit afford different opportunities for us to do the things we want to do—or need to know we can do. It struck me that maybe I’d ended up in this wild natural setting, about which I knew very little, because I was about to enter uncharted territory. Finishing a work of great personal significance meant for me letting go of a daily creative activity then stepping out into the place where that work takes on a life of its own.
On my last full day before I left, I saw that I had made decent progress on my novel edits. I wasn’t totally finished as I’d hoped, but that day would come soon enough, and the changes I’d made had given the revision a soulfulness and integrity I wasn’t expecting. And because I allowed the work the space it deserved, I was able to look around me and benefit from so much more than just the time to write. Heading out of the house I took one last walk alone along the dirt road that led out into the miles of hilly pasture I’d seen when we’d first driven in. I walked out several miles, crossing the road at one point to avoid the glare of a steer that had pressed itself to the barbed wire fence to watch me. I walked until I heard a chorus of lowing cattle in the distance, their sweet song carried to me by the wind before I saw them. I stopped, knowing I would see nothing like this for a long time. Hundreds of black cattle ranged against hills so green they hurt your eyes, and before me the red road snaked up into the hills then disappeared. And the dust and the light met in such a way that I could not tell whether it was a layer of earth lifted by the breeze—or shadows of the swiftly moving sky. And I smiled because I knew this feeling of spontaneous wonder and remembered all the times I had felt it before, and I let myself grow rapt at the murmur of a soft and unexpected voice.