Lane Emmons, Features Editor (lemmons@wwc)
This year’s Writer in Residence was Janisse Ray. Ray is a writer, naturalist and environmental activist. Her work includes “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood,” and “Wildcard Quilt: Taking a Chance on Home,” both memoirs; “Between Two Rivers: Stories from the Red Hills to the Gulf,” and “Pinhook: Finding Wholeness in a Fragmented Land,” both works of nonfiction; and a new book of poetry, “A House of Branches.” During her week at Warren Wilson, Ray was featured in Canon Lounge where she read an essay and a few poems from her new book, held a workshop on environmental writing, attended multiple classes and met with individual students to provide feedback on their own writing. Ray was kind enough to answer a few questions for The Echo about her own writing practice and experience.
The Echo: Who were you before you were a writer?
Janisse Ray: An eight-year-old child.
I’ve been trying to write since I was a girl.
In my lifetime, in addition to being a writer, I’ve been an alfalfa-sprout harvester & deliverer, an apple picker, a peach picker, a cashier, a volunteer coordinator, a graphic designer, a professor, a substitute teacher, a newsletter editor, a waitress, a seed-grower…what else?
E: In the “about the author” in your book “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood,” it says that you “left your home of Baxley, GA to go to college and did not return for several years.” What kept you away? What brought you back?
JR: I was away for 17 years, if I’m counting correctly. I never intended to go back. But the more I read about “place” and “sense of place,” and the more I thought about it, the more I began to enjoy the idea of returning. If all the best & brightest young people leave a place, what kind of doom does it spell for it? The diaspora of our young artists & thinkers leave behind a kind of cultural poverty in rural America, one that matches the economic poverty. I guess you can say I never really got south Georgia out of my bones, & finally I realized that, and I went home. No place I’ve ever lived really felt like home to me.
E: What is your writing practice? When you sit down to write, what does it look like?
JR: Early morning, a small, warm, & wood-filled office. A desk in a corner. Staring at the wall. Sheets of action verbs on the wall in front of me. Sometimes a sheet of paper & sometimes a computer. Two hours ahead of me.
Or, it looks like me & my journal, hanging out in the hammock on the side porch, where our old dog is sleeping. Watching titmice in the crepe myrtle, crows crossing the pastures. Watching the cows graze. Trying to say what needs to be said.
E: What are the challenges that come with switching between non fiction and poetry? Which genre do you prefer?
JR: I prefer beauty. I prefer power. The genre doesn’t matter to me. I just want to be a great writer. I want to be able to create something huge — monumental — with words, something that will transform lives.
E: Who are some of your favorite writers? Who has influenced you?
JR: Oh, I love all the nature writers. Most of them are also personal friends. Of the modern & current writers, my favorite is my hero, Wendell Berry. Also Rick Bass, Terry Tempest Williams, Mary Oliver, Susan Cerulean, Kay Byer, Cathy Smith Bowers, Pattiann Rogers. I think Cormac McCarthy is the greatest fiction writer alive.
Among the dead, Thoreau & Muir & Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings & Wordsworth & Flannery O’Connor & Faulkner…the list could go on & on. I’m a big fan of Southern literature, as well as Southern music. BIG fan. I’m sure I’m leaving out bundles of people.
E: Why should we (being the collective ‘we’ of writers) keep writing?
JR: Because story is transformative. People change because of stories they read. Story is powerful. Because we need to tell the stories of a world in which the things that matter are main characters. We need to tell new stories of how to navigate the world, how to take care of the earth, how to love each other. Because if we don’t tell our stories, corporations will tell them for us. And that won’t be pretty for the future of the planet. Or the human community.