William deBuys came to the Truchas Library recently to read for us from two of his books. Let me quote from the bio on his website (http://www.williamdebuys.com/) to give you an idea of the man:
“Writer and conservationist William deBuys is the author of seven books, which range from memoir and biography to environmental history and studies of place… DeBuys’s books include Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Mountain Range (UNM Press, 1985), which won a Southwest Book Award and is now in its ninth printing; River of Traps (UNM Press, 1990; Trinity University Press, 2008), which was recognized as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in General Non-Fiction in 1991… and The Walk (Trinity University Press, 2007), an excerpt from which won a Pushcart Prize in 2008. DeBuys… was named a Lyndhurst Fellow for 1986-1988, a Carl and Florence King Fellow at SMU in 1999-2000, and a Guggenheim Fellow in 2008-2009.” His most recent book, A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, published by Oxford University Press, came out last October.
I have quoted from several of his works numerous times on the blog and also posted a piece about his book The Walk (see previous post Taking the Walk With William deBuys).
It was a great honor that he came to our tiny village of Truchas to read for us. I continue to be amazed by the wonderful programs our small library offers. Truly remarkable for a village of 900.
In fact deBuys lived in Truchas back in the early 70s and recalled tutoring local children in the very building that is now the library. Back then it was the school. Several old-timers greeted him and he remembered them by name. Very impressive.
Some time ago I was privileged to interview William deBuys at his home in El Valle, just a few villages down the mountain from Truchas, on the High Road to Taos. Here is some of what he had to say about his writing life:
I asked him if he ever had doubts about what he was doing and he immediately answered, “Oh, all the time. Yeah.” Those of us pursuing this artist’s life can relate, right? I wondered what he did to get past them. And he told me there were lots of ways, including conversations he’d have with himself but, ultimately, the work is what got him through. He is driven to write and, once into a topic, the work propels him. He added, “But I think we’re born to live with doubt. And the only thing you can do is get up and go to work and try to get things to cohere.”
In fact he has a particular writing discipline he’s developed over the years that seems to work for him. He explains it this way: “When I’m composing, I have a rule of thumb, and that is that I have to make a good sentence before 8:30 in the morning.” He grins at me. “That means I have to be at my writing desk before 8:00, fed, coffeed, and really ready to focus. I’ve found that if I do that, I can have a productive morning of writing.”
He talks about the early years when he first came to New Mexico as a research assistant to Dr. Robert Coles. He was supposed to find out about these small, Hispanic villages and their people and report his ideas and findings and insights. He says he did a terrible job of it, in part because he was somewhat overwhelmed by the power of the land itself. He felt he couldn’t write about the people of northern New Mexico until he understood the land; that he needed to understand it before he could write about this place. He says,”Enchantment and Exploitation was, in a way, my effort to do that. One way to look at it is it’s my personal act of penance toward Robert Coles for having screwed up so badly that first year.”
But there was something else about those early years he says. “I was also learning my voice as a writer and asking questions: What is the story I want to tell and what is the tone in which I’m going to tell it? What is the language I’m going to use? How much is going to be researched and how much is going to be impressionistic? You have to find your way in an arena of overwhelming possibilities. You have to find your own path in there. And part of that path is your voice, your tone, your way of looking at things. And finding a writing voice for me was also about growing up. It took me a good chunk of my 20s to where I felt I had my licks down, and could settle down and tell a story the way I wanted to tell it.”
I asked him if he had any advice for people who are starting out as writers. This is what he had to say: “I think if the writing is something they feel is obligatory, they should steam ahead. If they feel it’s optional, they shouldn’t even try. There’s a poem, I’m trying to remember where I’ve stuck it, but it basically says, if you have to ask whether you should do this, you shouldn’t do it. But if you absolutely must do it then you just do it.” He adds, “I think each of us is very fortunate to find out what his or her work is, if we ever find that out, and having found that out, the only thing to do is to get at it.”
He says if he can write for a sustained period of time, he’ll do that. But if he needs to go earn a living doing something else, he’ll do that. Like many of us, he’s pieced together an income over the years so he can continue to write. “Sometimes I feel like I’m an airplane with no wings,” he jokes, “I have no visible means of support… I haven’t written any best sellers, that’s for sure, but I’m proud of all the books and I’m glad all of them came into being.”
If you haven’t read anything by William deBuys, I highly recommend you do. For those of you living in New Mexico, I would start with Enchantment and Exploitation. That book went a long way to helping me get a sense of place when I first moved here. Those of you outside the state should start with The Walk, a gorgeous piece of prose written as poetry.
One of these days deBuys will pursue a dream of his and offer us a work of fiction. I, personally, can’t wait for that.
Love to you all,