Mary Sojourner’s intuition is her raft down the winding river of life and craft. The Flagstaff author of seven nationally published books survives on a deep-rooted connection with earth and maintains acute self-awareness. At 74, she knows whom she’s loved, lost and found.
In 25 years since her first book “Sisters of the Dream” came to fruition, she writes herself onto the page and bares all. Her characters personify past lovers and old friends, but ever apparent is the character of place. The Arizona Daily Sun recently caught up with Sojourner and discussed the interconnected nature of writing with teaching and her latest novel “29.”
Sojourner will officially launch her new book Sunday, Sept. 21, at Firecreek Coffee Co., 22 E. Route 66. The event starts at 4 p.m. with a benefit reading for Friends of Flagstaff’s Future, followed by a book signing. For more information, visit Sojourner’s website, www.breakthroughwriting.net.
A way with words
Sojourner’s words weave unique tapestries whose loose ends never before connected.
In her 2004 memoir, “Solace,” Sojourner writes, “I serve the Goddess of the West, Our Lady of What Comes Around Goes Around. She informs every word, every silence in my work. She knows I stand firmly in the lineage of the obsessed, in the company of all who are hooked on anything we like. She tells me to live in this moment. And in the long run.”
Sojourner discovered her love of story as a little girl growing up in upstate New York. Her mother was a diagnosed bipolar-depressive and Sojourner used all manner of books to escape the chaos of watching her mother shape-shift. She found solace in the forests and lakes near her house. She is driven by topography, and eventually found her way home.
“I learned to immerse myself in what I experienced,” she said. “That led to my arrival at the edge of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and knowing I was finally, truly home.”
Landscape is as heavily written into each story as any of the human characters. Sojourner chronicled northern Arizona in her first novel “Sisters of the Dream” and a solar power plant decimating tribal lands of the Mojave Desert in “29.”
“Our Western earth has pushed me to write almost all of my political essays and commentaries,” she said. “That’s how I show gratitude to this home.”
To know is to teach
Sojourner is a student of literature. Ink-splashed pages are her professors. As a little girl, she was the one who checked out seven books at the library and returned them all the next day, finished cover to cover.
She called writing and teaching intuitive, even without formal training. She noted it was her editor at a feminist magazine in the ’70s who pushed her to write active sentences, and pinpoint “when writing fancy was just showing off.”
“I learned how to teach as a counselor and by experiencing bad teachers,” Sojourner said. “Editing flows out of writing. The great psychologist, Jung, believed that all creative works already exist. The maker, writer, artist, genius, cook, is the lightning rod that brings the strong work through.”
Sojourner helps hopeful writers find their voice and learn to act as the lightning rod. From her website, she mentors writers one-on-one via Skype or on the phone and teaches a writing circle Wednesdays in Flagstaff from 6 to 8 p.m. in six-week sessions.
Sojourner recognizes the importance of a writer to work at his or her own pace. Her background as a counselor helps her work with a student to rediscover the missing pieces in their writing.
She teaches students to make lists of their impressions and write from them. Most importantly, she noted, the strongest work draws on the senses. “In many ways, I’ve lived at least four different lives in this lifetime so far, which means there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of stories in my mind,” she said.
Sojourner noted she draws from her life experiences directly and others are “bent.” All are still truth, but some she said are “alchemized.”
“‘29’ is a good example,” she said of the “woman’s book for guys.”
“I lived in the Mojave for a year,” she continued. “It was one of the most intense times in my life — a cauterization really. When I began the rewrite of ‘29,’ which was originally set in Tucson, I knew the book needed to be a love letter to the people and lands of that chunk of the Mojave.”
The Chemehuevi tribe inhabits that expanse of desert. Sojourner said she heard a singer tell some students he “would have to break their heart before he taught them anything, because only a broken heart is open enough to learn.”
Sojourner doesn’t necessarily seek to alter perspectives with her fiction. She saves that art for her essays, columns and commentaries. In those forms she said, “I want my words to wake people up and break their hearts to pieces.”