Writer Sarah Shotland struggled to write a big book in a big desert—and found inspiration in her own smallness.
Text and illustrations by Sarah Shotland
In Sedona, there are red rocks. This may seem like an obvious statement, a simplification. But it bears repeating: red rocks, everywhere, all the time, a lot of them. The first day I arrive at the Sedona Summer Colony, a photographer named Dave tells me, “You have to deal with all this before you can get to work.” This is the rocks. Apparently I’m supposed to be dealing with them before I get to writing.
This is not what I want to hear. I’m on a deadline—far beyond it, actually. Late. Really late. I’m here to finish this manuscript, but now these rocks are here, providing another reason to meander through my project, justify more fiddling, continue not putting my butt in a seat, fingers on the keyboard. Dave doesn’t know he’s just shaken my plan, but he notices my face, panic stricken.
“It’ll be okay,” Dave says. “Everyone manages to deal with them. But they can get in the way if you try to ignore them.”
Breakfast is about to be served, Dave wanders toward the cafeteria, leaving me on a clay and gravel road, to deal. The rock formations in Sedona are massive, almost extraterrestrial, or ultra-terrestrial. It’s difficult to lose sight of your smallness in their presence.
I’m writing a book about teaching creative writing in prisons, and one of the reasons I’m late is because there are so many Big Problems to talk about in exploring the topic. An incomplete list of issues that come up in the manuscript: mass incarceration, the death penalty, race, gender, class, Jim Crow, the drug war, sexual tension in the classroom, rape, abortion, environmental justice, poverty, addiction, my own family’s history with incarceration, education policy, welfare, private prisons, immigration, religion, prostitution and Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. The writing has been slow. Partially because I want to make sure I’m saying precisely what I mean about all these complicated topics, and partially because I’m scared to say exactly what I mean when I am one, small voice navigating a big book full of complicated issues. My experience is limited, biased, flawed, incomplete. In a system that incarcerates about three million people and supervises almost eight million, I have taught creative writing to a couple hundred. I have lost touch with most of my students—my students die, move, get transferred; they have no forwarding contact information. Even those who want to keep in touch may not know how I can get in touch with them, and in order to continue working in the prisons for years to come, I’m not allowed to give my personal contact information to them. There are big swaths of the book that I’m “perhapsing,” the phrase non-fiction writers sometimes use when they’re forced to speculate about history or feelings they can’t know. I can’t know a lot about my students. I’m trying my best with the book. And now Dave tells me I have to deal with something else.
Dealing with big red rocks turns out to be a very useful thing for my particular project.
Over the next week, I set myself up in the library, which faces Cathedral Rock. The big windows at the front of the building look directly out at the formations that surround the school. Throughout the day, other artists wander in and out. Textile artists from San Francisco whose sewing machines are set up on one side of the shelves. Theater and performance artists from Providence who come in to do table work for upcoming projects. On my last day, Pittsburgh singer and musician Anqwenique Wingfield sets up at the keyboard in the library and creates mesmerizing, hypnotic tracks that I’m counting down the days until I can purchase. I type. When I can’t type, I look at the rocks. When I can’t look at the rocks anymore, I pull random books from the shelves of the library and open to haphazard pages, read a few paragraphs. I look at the rocks. I remember there’s nothing to do but be a small thing. I type.
At night, I type and look at the sky. In Pittsburgh it’s easy to forget stars. In Sedona, they are thick-stacked, like the rocks have dispersed into the atmosphere. Two more black men are killed by police; five cops are killed in my hometown; there’s a bizarre and depressing election droning on; a coup in Turkey, where I wrote my last book; a steady stream of refugees pouring out from various points on the planet. Somehow I am lucky enough to lay in a field and look at stars. There’s no getting around the rocks. There’s no getting around the reality that these Big Things have been here, are going to be here, they’re solid, while I am, at best, a softly assembled person. It’s honest to stay small and say so in this book.
On my final day in Sedona, I wait for the Phoenix Airport Shuttle in the library, still typing, not wanting to leave the stunner of a view I have had for the last week. The final word count for my time in Sedona is nearing 50,000 words (to put that into context, a book weighs in around 100,000). It seems that these rocks have put me in my proper place, one that in accepting, I’m finally able to gain some momentum in writing. In this project, there’s nothing to do but say it small, but still, to say it, in the presence of the Big Things. It might be what Dave meant when he said I had to deal with the rocks.
Sarah Shotland is the author of Junkette (White Gorilla Press 2014). She is a novelist and playwright whose work has been performed in New Orleans, Dallas, Austin, Chicago and Florida; and internationally in Chongqing, PRC and Madrid, Spain. Her most recent play, Cereus Moonlight, was commissioned by miR Theater. After opening on the Space Coast of Florida, it played at the 25th annual Rhino Fest in Chicago.
She is the co-founder and Program Coordinator of Words Without Walls, which brings creative writing classes to jails, prisons and rehabilitation centers in Pittsburgh, PA. She is co-editor of the literary anthology Words without Walls: Writers on Addiction, Violence & Incarceration with Sheryl St. Germain, published by Trinity University Press in spring of 2015.
She teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing program at Chatham University and is a member of the Literary Arts faculty at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts.
More on her website: www.sarahshotland.com