Faculty Picks: Abbey, Tharp

Amy Irvine-- It's the 50th anniversary of the first printing of Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire—the book that etched indelibly into the American imagination the fathomless ocean of red raw lands in southern Utah. For the occasion, I have been commissioned to write a work that takes measure of Abbey’s near-prophetic concerns. Writing in the early sixties as a backcountry ranger in Arches National Monument (it’s now a full-blown national park), the Pennsylvania-born anarchist already believed that population, industry, and tourism were unsustainable. In his words: “growth for the sake of growth is a cancerous madness.” But even Cactus Ed could not have imagined just how aggressive and malignant that cancer would become—that the latest presidential administration would eviscerate two of the nation’s newest national monuments (also in Utah), and turn the Department of Interior, which is mandated to preserve the wilderness character of such lands, into the Department of Industry.

It’s easy then, to don the shroud of Abbey’s misanthropy (“I’m a humanist; I’d rather kill a man than a snake.”), to embrace his privileged solitude in the wilderness. Indeed, a more acute case of Ivory Cabin Syndrome there never was. For Abbey writes about his solitude as if he didn’t have a wife and kids in the wings. And the name he coined for Arches? “Abbey’s Country.” As if he had forgotten that the whole place had been stolen once from the region’s Native Americans, and then again from Mexico.

But we live in a far more crowded world now, and we cannot afford to hate the whole of us. So I’m trying to write the thing that takes on Abbey’s sneering, bigoted individualism with a more inclusive and communal approach to defending public wildlands. Which isn’t easy, when you’re the kind of person who prefers scorpions and quicksand to family reunions and neighborhood potlucks.

But I’m trying.

Lydia Peelle-- Many years ago, a friend recommended The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. Actually, that's not quite an accurate statement. When she heard I hadn't read it, said friend immediately put me in her car, drove me to the nearest bookstore, bought the book (in hardcover!), and handed it to me, saying, "I'm not going to tell you anything about it. Just, read it." How's that for a book recommendation? And I am forever grateful to my friend for literally putting this book in my hands, because it is one I turn to all the time.

Creative thinking, as Tharp reminds us, is no magical mystery. It is in fact a habit to be cultivated and sustained, and in this book Tharp shares the techniques, exercises, and rituals for creative work that she has developed in her long and successful career as a choreographer - techniques than any artist, working in any genre, can practice and benefit from. The ideas in this book are a wonderful reminder of mind-body oneness. And, they're fun!  Here's one: get up out of your chair, step away from the writing desk, start moving your body and, and, as Tharp puts it, "Do a Verb." What will happen? Who knows! I love this book for the way it shakes up my "writer" brain, and I love to recommend it to other writers.