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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Writer on the Rocks

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood speaks with writer Linda Tatelbaum about how she found the inspiration that would help her bulldoze her way through a writer’s block.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Linda Tatelbaum has a unique nostrum for writer's block. When the words don't come, she goes outside and lifts rocks. Ms. Tatelbaum lives in Maine in a house she and her husband built in 1977. Determined to live the simple life, they got by for many years without electricity or running water. And while over time they've made some concessions to solar power, telephones and a computer, they still grow and make much of their own food. Linda Tatelbaum is a professor of English at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and the author of two books, both of which she's published herself. Carrying Water as a Way of Life was her first, but the process isn't easy. In her newest book, Writer On the Rocks: Moving the Impossible, she describes the agony of hitting a writer's block and feeling totally helpless. Until one afternoon, when she found inspiration in a bulldozer smoothing the land where she would build her house.

TATELBAUM: On the last day of the site work a bulldozer was just smoothing out behind the house to make the water flow, you know, away from the house. And suddenly the blade of the bulldozer nicked the side of this really big rock. And I watched it, almost in slow motion. I watched this huge rock just kind of pivot and fall off the wall, to the back of the wall. And I'm screaming, "Stop, stop!" But of course, you can't hear over a bulldozer. So there it was. It was crooked, it was at a horrible angle and lying behind the wall. And it bothered me for years.

CURWOOD: You've nicknamed it The Big One.

TATELBAUM: The Big One. And I would look out the window and think, "Some day I'm going to get that rock back where it was." So at a certain point in my life, I had sort of said by the time I'm 50 I want to get that rock back where it was. I was 30 at the time. So here I am now in my 40s, approaching 50, and I'm thinking I'd better get going on some of these things I vowed to do by the time I'm 50. So I started working on this thing, and tried all different kinds of contraptions, of trying to roll it and trying to, you know, wedge it in all these different ways. And I would sometimes succeed in moving it. But I was never able to get it back up where it was because that's like trying to lift this huge rock up against gravity. And I worked on it for three years. And the book kind of goes over the story of all the different ways I tried to do that and how frustrating that was to me. It became a symbol for me of trying to put back things that had changed. I had lost some friends to death, and I was having this writer's block. And I wanted things to be the way they were, darn it. And I was going to move that rock, because to me that was like, if I can move this rock then I can do anything. But finally, I realized that I wasn't going to be able to get it back where it was, but I was going to be able to get it on the wall, just in a different place. And in a moment of insight I realized, if I just push it forward it will go right up onto the wall without as much effort as I'd been expending for three years. So to me, that was a big lesson, too, about revision when it comes to your dreams. You try and you try and you try, and instead of getting frustrated and giving up, you say well, what about if I did it this way?

CURWOOD: So your story, your book Writer on the Rocks, is about your writer's block and how you get out there and you move rocks. And at one point you tell the story of a rock you consider big and beautiful and it's out on the road. And a guy in a pickup truck comes by and says, "Hey lady, I'll give you $50 for that one."


CURWOOD: And you get nervous, and you think oh, he's going to come back and rip it off when I'm not here. And you cover it up with branches or something.


CURWOOD: Linda, it's just a rock.

TATELBAUM: (Laughs) It's just a rock, but I've discovered I have this fierce territoriality. And I feel like the protectress of trees and rocks and everything on the property that I own because I see so much change going on around me that I have this one place where I can keep things the way they are. And yes, I know it's just a rock, absolutely, but I feel somehow that geology dropped them there, and that's where they should be. Maybe they could be on a wall, but they should not be transported to town, where they go into some fancy estate. Somehow I have this instinct to keep them where they should be. Where they belong, again.

CURWOOD: In your book, on page 35 there's a picture of you. You're wearing a nice broad-brimmed hat. And in your lap is an adorable rabbit. Big eyes looking out. And in the course of the book I find out that you raise these rabbits, and you kill them for food. In fact, you literally do it. You do it yourself. A neighbor, Arthur is his name, I think. . .


CURWOOD: . . .taught you how to butcher rabbits. Your description of this whole process and what it meant to you is really compelling. Tell me about that.

TATELBAUM: Well, my son actually wanted to have a farm, what he called a farm. He wanted to have a whole barn full of animals. His name is Noah, so that makes sense. And we, you know, we would explain to him, you really can't do that without completely committing your life to having hay fields and being home every day to milk cows and all that. So we decided we would raise rabbits, and we did that for nine years. And he fed them and I killed them. And it was a real spiritual experience for me, because in order to kill something you have to really know what you're doing. You have to really be consciously choosing to do that at the moment that you're doing it, and you have to love the creature that you're killing for it to fell clean. I mean, this is the way I experienced it. We raised them, we watched them be born. We took care of them. We talked to them. And at a certain point they do become a lot more -- as I say in the book, they start to look a lot more like dinner every day because they get bigger and they bounce around in the cage a lot more, and they get to be kind of a pain. So killing them to eat them is part of the process. I've always raised vegetables, and it's a very similar process. But of course, here you've got something that has eyes. And I think that when something has eyes and is looking at you, it's a lot different.

CURWOOD: And it can scream, too. Rabbits scream.

TATELBAUM: And they do scream. That's the worst part.

CURWOOD: And you talk to your students about killing the rabbits, too.

TATELBAUM: Well, I never used to tell anybody about it, just because I felt like my two lives were very separate. I'm a teacher during the week, and you know, on the days I'm not here teaching I'm at home being a homesteader. And I never really mix those two. But it accidentally happened to come out one time. We had just finished reading Carolyn Chute’s book The Beans of Egypt, Maine, in which some of the characters are hunting for rabbits. And the students were saying, "Eew, eating bunny rabbits, that's gross!" And so I said, "Well, what's so gross about it?" And I kind of wanted to engage them in the whole issue of meat, which -- I think the issue of meat-eating is a very interesting one. And so I, you know, they said, "Well, would you ever eat rabbit?" And I said, "Sure." And they said, "Have you ever eaten any?" And I said, "Well, sure." And they said, "Well, where do you get it?" And I'm like, duh, now I have to say where I get it. So I told them about it, and they were very shocked. They said, "Oh, our English teacher kills bunny rabbits." And then we talked about it for the whole rest of the class period. And in the end they ended up thinking it was the most interesting class of the whole semester, because it raised a lot of issues about, first of all, maybe, your public image versus your private image, what you eat and how responsible you're going to be for that, what it means to kill and to love.

CURWOOD: You said the last time we talked that you have managed to continue living the way you do because you've learned how and when and how much to compromise. What are the compromises that you feel you've had to make in the last couple of years to stay where you are?

TATELBAUM: I think that compromises have to do with, in a way, having become a publisher has pulled me out into the public a lot more, and has made me busier than I used to be, and has made the phone ring more often. It's interesting because I'm writing about the simple life, and I've made a move here, a career move, that's kind of made it a lot less simple. So that's something that is now my current struggle, to keep the balance between what I'm writing about and what matters to me, and also reaching out to other people, to be a teacher, to be a model for people, to hear about what other people are thinking about values in their lives.

CURWOOD: Can you keep it simple if there is the movie, "Carrying Water as a Way of Life"?

TATELBAUM: (Laughs) Well, I don't think it would make such a good movie. It's pretty much day to day to day. There isn't much intrigue, except whether we'll have a good crop or not.

CURWOOD: All the years that you've been homesteading in Maine, you have been in touch intimately with the life cycle, with birth and death and rebirth and death. In fact, you say that you're dying in one of the lines you use in your book. You say, well, I'm dying.

TATELBAUM: I don't mean -- I'm not knowingly dying at this moment, but I mean we all are dying all the time, from the moment we're born. But I think what makes it poignant is starting to think about what mark you're going to leave with your life. I'm very interested in finding old things and thinking, well, the person who had this thing or who, you know, made this stone wall, or who had this Mason jar that I found buried in leaves, thought of themselves as a permanent fixture on the landscape. And yet we're not. We pass. We pass through, and our life period is not very long --- a hundred years maybe at the most, if we're lucky. So it makes me think a lot about what I'm doing with my life, and what kind of a mark I'm leaving, and how long I really realistically think that's going to last.

CURWOOD: Is that why you took the hobby or the avocation of moving rocks, building with rocks on your land? That it's something that might stick around for, instead of 100 years, maybe 1,000 or so?

TATELBAUM: Yes, it is actually why I took it up. Because I like the idea of building something that I have a feeling is still going to be there. But I'm realizing and looking at all these fallen stone walls all around where I live, that that, too, is impermanent. The thing that's permanent about a stone wall, though, is the stone, and I think that accounts partly for my territorial instinct about wanting the stones to stay where they are and not be hauled off to town. Because I feel like, yeah, the wall that I build is probably going to tumble after another 100 years or so, but those rocks are not going anywhere. And that gives me a real sense of security somehow.

CURWOOD: Linda Tatelbaum's new book is entitled Writer on the Rocks: Moving the Impossible. It's published by About Time Press in Appleton, Maine. Thanks for joining us, Linda.

TATELBAUM: Thanks a lot, Steve.



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