terry tempest williams wrote her book finding beauty in a broken world in an attempt to increase understanding of our world’s staggering suffering. she writes of spending time in rwanda working with a small group of americans, known as barefoot artists, to create a memorial to those who lost their lives in the horrific genocide of 1994. surrounded by refugees, rwandans trying to reestablish families and communities, she employs her myriad gifts to connect at a spiritual level, the level of deepest need.
in describing the people, many of whom have little more than the insufficient clothing they wear, tempest williams brings them to life as dignified yet devastated, compelling yet staggeringly naked in their vulnerability. the people are achingly human, existing in inhumane circumstances. yet life continues, and the will to not only live but to thrive is demonstrated by the desire to participate, to engage, and to create.
the children she spends time with are arid soil begging for moisture–knowledge–to instigate their sprouting. and when terry leaves the community, the children call out to her, when you come back, bring us more pens and notebooks!
not food, not clothing, not candy, not money: pens, and notebooks.
for it is with those tools they can draw and write, they can create something from nothing, they can hold on to it and have both record and proof of their creations. their existences.
I, too, crave pens and notebooks. I, too, desire record and proof.
and I wish the same for everyone on earth.
at a workshop I attended last week, the presenter asked if anyone in the audience knew how to remain excited by their work throughout their career. the room was silent. he looked at each of us and then said, stay curious.
when I read a book–essay, article, news flash–I want to learn something. I’m insatiably curious. I love historical fiction for what I learn about a land, an era. I love mysteries set in an unfamiliar field or locale for what they teach about what to me is unlived, and thus unknown. I read nonfiction to increase my knowledge of a specific subject, and essays to open my mind to new thoughts and paths. creative nonfiction is thus one of my favorite genres, because it often combines a bit of everything I just mentioned.
creative nonfiction magazine defines creative nonfiction as “true stories well told.” its founder and editor, lee gutkind, goes on compare the genre to jazz— “it’s a rich mix of ﬂavors, ideas, and techniques . . .”
below is a sampling of creative nonfiction journeys I have taken, sitting on my couch, savoring every chapter.
the language of the night, ursula k leguin. a collection of essays that challenge thought so beautifully, guide gracefully, and delight completely. this woman is extraordinary in her creativity, and in her humanity.
rising from the plains, john mcphee. I could list just about every mcphee book here, but this is my absolute favorite, the one that taught me how to love difficult terrain, and the people who love it. mcphee is a master teacher with a poet’s heart.
refuge, terry tempest williams. terry is a force. though all her books are powerful and challenge our relationship with other, this book touches me more deeply for its theme of personal loss.
where rivers change direction, mark spragg. this book showed me how men encounter a different world than I do, and gave me not only a glimpse into that experience, but a deeper understanding of what it might be like to be male.
a little more about me, pam houston. I’m cheating a bit to add pam here: in her own words, her books are about 82% true. but they feel true, one hundred percent true, and they grab you, keep you solidly in your seat, pull your heart, and get you in the gut. this book is my favorite of hers.
I’d love to know which creative nonfiction books keep you riveted!