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On an overcast Wednesday afternoon last week, a sharp blade of black obsidian rock rested next to the laptop belonging to independent writer Mary Sojourner, and ravens ate discarded corn chips under the pine trees outside her bedroom window

The rock is a reminder of an important part of the writing process: Editing.

"I move around in my life, gathering and collecting," Sojourner explained. "It isn't even conscious. It gets in me, and it cooks. I'll start to feel real jittery and nothing will calm the jitters, and all of a sudden I find myself at the computer writing, and it pours out. Then I get to do my favorite part and go in with my obsidian scalpel and edit."

NEEDING TO BE GONE

Sojourner, 71, is the author of two novels, "Sisters of the Dream" (1989) and "Going Through Ghosts" (2010), the short story collection, "Delicate" (2004), and an essay collection, "Bonelight: Ruin and Grace in the New Southwest" (2004).

She has also written two memoirs, "Solace: Rituals of Loss and Desire" (2004) and "She Bets Her Life: A True Story of Gambling Addiction," (2010).

Sojourner first moved to Flagstaff in 1985, and for more than 20 years here she kept busy writing, teaching creative writing, engaging in political activism and working as a commentator for National Public Radio.

Then in April 2008, after becoming disenchanted with rapid growth and high prices in Flagstaff, she moved to the Mojave Desert in California to live on a little mesa north of Joshua Tree.

"I needed to be gone," she said. "I had to heal from a number of personal losses here, including the fact that Flagstaff wasn't the town I moved to in 1985."

She returned briefly to Flagstaff in March 2009 to accept the award for literature at the first Viola Awards for excellence in the arts, sponsored by Flagstaff Cultural Partners.

"I was very touched to win it," Sojourner commented.

A DREAM OF TREES

After one year in the desert, Sojourner took the suggestion of a friend and moved to the city of Bend in central Oregon.

"I love the Mojave, and it fed my writing," she said, "but I couldn't live in the heat and the right-wing politics."

Bend was also not a good fit for the writer, although she wrote two books there, "She Bets Her Life" and "Going Through Ghosts," which she described as "a love letter to the people who work in the casinos and to the Nevada landscape."

About a year ago, she had an experience that led her back to Flagstaff and to one of her favorite places here, a circle of seven trees.

"I had a dream in which I was in the presence of that circle of seven trees," she said. "For the first time in seven years, I felt relaxed, warm and alive, and excited about life, so I came home. I'm not leaving again."

She said she was pleased to find the Flagstaff she returned to more like the town she knew in the 1980s and '90s.

"Activism is alive and well here," Sojourner said. "With The downturn in the economy, I think the people here are committed -- locals are locals."

Activism engaged Sojourner soon after her return here on May 31, specifically the work of the Save the Peaks coalition and the fight against using treated wastewater to make artificial snow at the Snowbowl ski resort on the San Francisco Peaks.

"Mostly what matters to me, I landed right in the Peaks work, which I had done for about 10 years before I left in 2008," she said. "This work feeds my soul. The Peaks are actually my boss now."

Protest work has helped her make new friends and to connect with old ones, she said.

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FORMULA IS NO FORMULA

Another passion, teaching creative writing workshops and writing circles, has also occupied Sojourner since her return.

"Another huge gift is that I'm teaching here," she said. "I started in almost immediately teaching a six-week writing circle once a week for two hours. I had done that for 20 years before I moved away."

A free writing workshop scheduled for Aug. 18 at Bookmans is completely full, and she is taking names for another free workshop in September.

"I'm so joyful to be teaching again," she said. "I teach the way I write: The formula is there is no formula. I've come to believe it's almost a magical process. I've taught grade school, junior high and high school, college age, adults and older people, and it always works. It just feels like a gift to me."

She said in writing circles she tries to establish a place of safety where participants can freely share and create.

For herself, however, a sense of safety in writing is not necessary a good thing.

"I would have to say it has been common that safety has not been good for my writing," Sojourner said. "My strongest writing has come out of extreme discomfort, passion for the land, grief, fury and joy."

Sojourner said she is working on several writing projects now, including finishing a novel begun earlier and starting a four-book series for young adults.

Betsey Bruner can be reached at bbruner@azdailysun.com or 556-2255.

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