I recently returned from an exciting and successful book tour in Finland. Till America vi gå was released July 4th American Independence Day by publisher Scriptum Förlags, Vasa, Finland. The Legacy of Ida Lillbroända: Finnish Emigrant to America 1893 was translated to Swedish with a generous grant from the Svenska Folkskolans Vänner. The publisher arranged press coverage, radio interviews and book signings in four cities. People in Finland are hungry to hear the stories of those who left their homeland in the late 19th century, and I was delighted to meet many people who said that we are related.
The Legacy of Ida Lillbroända received eight awards including Winner Gold Medal 2011 Indie Book Award; Benjamin Franklin Silver Medal; IPPY Bronze Medal; 2010 National Best Books finalist; 2011 International Book Award Finalist. My first book Minding a Sacred Place under pen name Sunnie Empie was honored with Independent Publishers IPPY award for Architecture.
Writing conveys feeling. I am passionate about writing. I write every day because I am compelled to do so. I always carry with me a small notebook and pen—and a book to read. I panic if I don’t have those three things within reach at all times.
Why do I write? An accumulation of life experiences gives me permission; passion makes it possible. Poetic prose and poetry allow manifestation of emotion, like a spirit being appearing in visible form. My poem “Paloverdes Weep” and my first published prose originated far from my Pacific Northwest homeland while living in Arizona in the verdant upper Sonoran Desert, home to many indigenous species from the tiniest bird Phainopepla nitens, whose survival depends on mistletoe that grows on paloverde trees, to towering saguaros. The pristine desert landscape was being rapidly transformed by land-hungry developers to asphalt-covered strip malls and subdivisions with names like Terra Vita (earth and life) that mocked the desert’s former presence.
The scene that prompted me to write my first story remains vivid: Beside the road lay a huge twisted pile of freshly broken tree trunk and limbs. I stopped the car. Tears filled my eyes, but I was not alone to mourn the tree’s brutal death. Across the road, an old gray pickup pulled up alongside the mangled remains. A gray-haired man wearing gray overalls stepped from his truck. He stood beside the remains of the blue paloverde that had just been ripped apart by the scraper’s blade and with his hands to his face, he openly sobbed. The magnificent blue paloverde tree, a century old or more, was the harbinger of spring in the high desert, the first to bloom in all its splendor among other paloverdes. People came from miles around to see the trees in bloom, a sea of gold so bright your eyes would squint.
The death of the paloverde was not a natural demise of Nature’s perfect specimen; this was murder. A glaring example of human disconnect from a place to love and share with all living things. I was compelled to write about the wanton destruction of this unique desert environment, as cacti toppled under the bulldozer’s blade. Back and forth, the powerful machine would manipulate the tall anthropomorphic saguaro, its arms flailing against the sky in a human-like attempt to fend off an attack by its brothers, arms reaching upward, pleading for help. Then, that wrenching, crunching sound of separation from Mother Earth and the distinct odor of virgin earth ravaged by the penetration and breaking of the desert’s protective centuries-old microbiotic crust.
As I watched the ongoing devastation, I was gripped by intense emotion:
I can’t take this anymore! What can one person do when state and local government mentality is so fixed on land development that consideration of ecological consequences has no place in their grand plan? My answer: Write.
—From Foreword to Love Is A Place: A collection of poetry by Arlene Sundquist Empie. "Winner" Poetry: General category, The 2012 USA Best Book Awards.
I do not fail to honor my dear departed friend and mentor Jean Lipman, who published 29 books. I am indebted to her encouragement decades ago to write, to write poetry, and to publish my stories. Jean had a wonderful sense of humor. She foresaw that I would publish, and she said, “Get your picture taken now.” Actually, she commanded:
I mean—Now,” as she emphasized the last word. “You know . . . ” she added with a twinkle. Sage advice from my 90 year-old friend: if it requires an author photo, don’t wait until you are older. And indeed, that prompted one of my first award-winning essays: “The Hand that Holds the Pen.”
I am puzzled when I hear talk of ‘writers block.’ A simple remedy is to pick up a well-written book or essay in your genre, and you cannot fail to find inspiration. Often when I least expect it, I read a passage that sparks a paragraph or page of writing. My advice to people longing to write, but don’t know where to start, is to pick up a pen and pad of paper and write something—anything. Consider then the magic of the pen and brain to hand connection - thoughts appearing as words on paper in flowing cursive. I pondered this before I read Juhani Pallasmaa’s book Thinking Hand.
Read, read, read. Juhani Pallasmaa, distinguished Finnish architect and phenomonologist is top of the list of authors who have most inspired my writing. I echo his thoughts that we need a firm foundation in classical literature: Know the literary classics, the philosophers, so that we can have discourse, discussions between people or groups, with language as our “common currency” based on knowledge and wisdom. His writings and citations have encouraged me to read Marcel Proust, Rainer Maria Rilke and work by other European writers.
Important to my life is The Well of Remembrance: Rediscovering the Earth Wisdom, Myths of Northern Europe by Ralph Metzner with a foreword by Marija Gimbutas, whose book The Language of the Goddess introduced me to the feminine divine. I can feel the presence of the deep past in the vast expansiveness of time and space that one can still enjoy in Finnish Lapland, parts of Ostrobothnia and Hopi mesas in the American Southwest.
I began writing knowing little about the craft of writing. I attended workshops at Pacific Northwest Writers Conference. I returned to the University of Washington for certificate courses in nonfiction narrative writing and “Writing the nonfiction book” with Professor Nick O’Connell, author of On Sacred Ground: The Spirit of Place in Pacific Northwest Literature. I continue to attend his workshops as well as with other Northwest writers and educators. There is much to learn, and there are wonderful resources available in the Pacific Northwest.
I am presently completing a biography subtitled From Immigrant’s Daughter to Professor Emeritus. I look into the future as a writer comfortable in my niche of nonfiction historical narrative writing and will continue in that genre. And I can call myself a poet.
I have an innate need for space, space around me, space beyond me. After years
in Arizona looking over the vast Sonoran desert, I returned to the magic Skagit, the place where I was born and raised. This Pacific Northwest native began writing with passion while in the Southwest; then, circling back along a familiar path to the blues and greens of sea and sky, forest and ferns, I continue to write from my studio beside the Salish Sea where thought and memory meld into twilight moments.
I bow to Nature and give thanks.
—Arlene Sundquist Empie 2013