When Women Were Birds: A Review

When Women Were Birds is the memoir of Terry Tempest Williams’ journey in becoming a writer.  It is also the story of her search for meaning in her dead mother’s last bequest: row after row of her mother’s journals, which turn out to be blank.  Williams has a lot to offer.  She’s an interesting person: a talented and successful writer, an environmentalist, a feminist, an ersatz Mormon.  But her delivery often leaves a whole lot to be desired.

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The title is indicative of the memoir’s tone, which in my case should’ve served as a sort of literary warning shot: Stay away!  This book is flowery, overly sentimental, and will induce many eye-rolls!  When Terry Tempest Williams (her real name: I was convinced at first that it was some ridiculous pen name or that she had changed her name to Tempest to show that she was an Artist — it turns out that Tempest is the actual last name she was born with, in which case I think it’s pretty lucky) is just writing anecdotes, she can be great.  Her insight and the meandering nature of her thought process can be very illuminating and her life experiences are often beautiful.

But, god, then she has to go and drive her point home with a sentimental little moral wrap-up, like this one: “I take a deep breath and side-step my fear and begin speaking from the place where beauty and bravery meet — within the chambers of a quivering heart.”

Argh!  Gag me!  In the words of Roald Dahl, “Bring us a basin!  We’re going to be sick!”

The sad part is, before that particular vomit-inducing bit of sentiment, Williams totally had me.  She was relating a story about being a child with a speech impediment.  She talked about how, as part of her speech therapy, she was told to read poetry aloud, and how that taught her to think about words– their rhythm, their meanings — and how to listen as a part of speaking.  It was a lovely story.  I sympathized with her child-self.  I understood where she was going.  The sentiment was there, but it wasn’t being flung at me like so much monkey-poo.  It was subtle.  It was beautiful.  Then…BAM!!! Feelings!!!

Reading about your emotions is making me physically ill.

Reading about your emotions is making me physically ill.

Puke.

The thing is, there is more to Williams’s memoir than sappy and unnecessary emotional outpourings.  There are plenty of reasons to read the book, if you can overlook the sappy parts.  There are plenty of pearls of wisdom about the art of writing, and plenty of hauntingly beautiful images of nature.  I get the idea that a younger, less cynical version of me would’ve even loved the sentimentality of this book.  The book isn’t all bad, and it has a lot of really wonderful ideas to offer and philosophical questions to ask.  There’s a story about a close encounter with a falcon that came close to wowing me.  There was another story about a harrowing encounter with a stranger in the woods which, after hearing it on the radio, induced me to put the book on my To-Read list.  But no matter how great she can be at times, I just can’t get away from Williams’s flowery language, or the feelings that she tries to shove down my throat at every juncture.  I want to sympathize with her, but Williams is often her own worst enemy, sabotaging all of her best work.  I wish I had edited this book.  I would have Gordon Lish’d the hell out of it until it was amazing.

I believe that part of being a great writer is not just knowing what to say, or how to say it, but it’s also knowing what not to say.  It’s knowing what to leave out, what to let the reader think and feel and discover about the narrative on her own, without being told by the writer.  Writing like Williams’s can feel like the literary equivalent of having your face physically grabbed by another person and thrust in the direction they want you to look.  It’s not only annoying, but it’s so much nicer to just be nudged by the writer, to look up just in time to see what they want you to.  I think of really good writing as a framework that allows the reader to fill in the emotional content himself.

Plus, there are a million sentences in this memoir that make no sense.  For instance:

“Women blessed with death-eyes are fearless.”

Or:

“What is birdsong but ‘truth in rehearsal’?”

And:

“We live among a gratitude of birds.”

For every valuable insight and nugget of truth the Williams bestows upon the reader, there is a ridiculous sentiment in some other part of the book.  Often, this ridiculous sentiment is along the lines of what I like to call the Sacred Vagina, which is exactly what it sounds like: a sort of idealization of all that is female, especially where it pertains to romanticizing the menstrual cycle (which, fine, is part of being female, but is anything but romantic or beautiful, I don’t care what you say).  It’s a sort of anti-male chauvinism that could fairly be called female chauvinism; I like to compare it to those ridiculous Primal Man retreats of the 80’s.  Blech.  Look:

“Earth.  Mother.  Goddess.  In every culture the voice of the Feminine emerges from the land itself.  We clothe her as Eve or Isis or Demeter. . . She is not to be classified.  She is not to be controlled.  She is the one who gathers seeds and plants them in the sand and dreams and calls forth rain.  She is the one who embodies the Moon, honoring the cyclic nature of life.  And it is Changing Woman who is honored in the ceremony of first blood.”

Guess what she's gonna use the mirror for?

Guess what she’s gonna look at with the mirror?

Ugh, kill me now.  I read things like this and, for funsies, replace every reference to womanhood with one to manhood.  It’s ridiculous.  It’s stupid when men do it, and it’s stupid when women do it, and it makes me want to throw the book into a box of tampons.

And yet…In the very next section, Williams relates how, whilst taking her marriage vows, the young, virginal version of herself kept thinking the word fuck, over and over and over again.  This makes me love her.  This makes me want to keep reading.  This is the paradox of When Women Were Birds.  One minute, I love it.  The next minute, I want to put it on the stove and light the burners.  Especially during one painful, protracted section on the Sacred Vagina, which occurs from pages 90 – 96 (if you want to read it), and during which I could not stop laughing.  I laughed so hard, in fact, that I shared the section with my best friend, who shared it with her roommate, and all us girls just sat around and had a good laugh.

Let me be clear here: I love feminism.  I think it’s one of the best social movements around, and I am proud to call myself a feminist.  But it’s this kind of deification of the most primal, base, functional parts of being female that makes people roll their eyes at the word “feminist.”  It’s the reason that young women around the world refuse to call themselves feminists, though most of them are.  I am not threatened or made uncomfortable by my (or anyone else’s) vagina, but god.  Obsessing over the female anatomy as if it were holy is just as stupid as obsessing over the male anatomy.  And pointing to the vagina as the source of female strength is no better than pointing to it as the source of female weakness.  A woman is strong or weak (or whatever she is) not because of her vagina, but because of who she is as a human being.  A vagina is not a holy presence between anyone’s legs.  It’s just another body part.  Feminism is about not obsessing over people’s genitalia, whatever they may be.

Plus, some of the connections Williams makes during her poetic vaginal waxings are, at best, like the hallucinations of a person tripping on mushrooms and, at worst, just plain stupid.  Sometimes, I want to tell her, a vagina is just a vagina.

Cigars, on the other hand...

Cigars, on the other hand…

Anywho…final verdict?  If I were teaching a creative writing class (which I hope to do some day), I would Xerox select sections of When Women Were Birds for my students and teach the hell out of those sections.  Because there is a lot to learn from this book.  But I would also tell my students they probably shouldn’t read too much into the rest of the memoir, because in a lot of ways it’s like the bad poetry I wrote when I was fifteen.  In fact, I’d probably advise any hypothetical students against reading the rest of the book, as I will you, dear reader, because it’s often so much drivel.  Unless you want a good laugh at the expense of the Sacred Vagina.

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