For 17 years, the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Montana has invited an established working writer to campus to teach a semester-long course on nature and environmental writing to graduate students. William Kittredge was the first in 2003 and is also the program's namesake; he's been followed since then by writers including Robert Michael Pyle, Gary Ferguson, Terry Tempest Williams, Craig Childs and Rebecca Solnit. Joining this illustrious company as 2020's Kittredge Distinguished Visiting Writer in EVST is Washington writer Ana Maria Spagna.
Spagna received the invitation during the Montana Book Festival in 2018. "I read on a panel at Fact & Fiction and Phil Condon came and tapped me on the shoulder," Spagna says. "I had written to him in 2004 when my first book came out and I said, 'I could probably help you out, I've got a book out' and he was like, 'Maybe someday.'"
That first book, "Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw," is the story of Spagna's childhood growing up in southern California, and how the path her life took led her to working in the mountains as the lone woman on a trail crew in the North Cascades. It is a wonderful collection of reflective essays, an example of the form that has survived many shelf cullings from my personal collection in the years since I've read it.
Spagna has followed it up with six more books, most recently “Uplake: Restless Essays of Coming and Going” in 2018. She has won several awards and has been a finalist for the Washington State Book Award four times. In a way, her current teaching gig in Missoula is a full-circle event: Her first creative writing class was at UM many struggling-writer years ago. Since then Spagna’s continuing education — including a master's in fiction from Northern Arizona University and an MFA in poetry from Fairfield University — has opened the door to teaching, an undertaking she loves that came with some reluctance.
“My mom's a teacher,” Spagna says, “and I think my great fear was that I would be a teacher, too. I had the fear of 'those who can't, teach,’ right? I think I've carried that with me for a long, long time, and now I decided to be a grown-up about it. If you can communicate something, then communicate something.”
She tries to steer her students them outside the typical canon of outdoor writers to help them find new ways to approach their own writing, even if what they want to do is nature writing. She uses her own influences —Virginia Woolf, for example, and James Baldwin — in that effort.
“I think I've read every word that Ed Abbey ever wrote,” Spagna says. “So I get it. But it's sort of like how you have to distance yourself from your parents. You need other influences.”
Students are open to the approach, and they are savvier and more informed than one might think, particularly as it relates to modern views of wildness and the environment.
“It's just not all trees and animals,” Spagna says. “I think they (students) come in fully aware that a lot of our ideas about wilderness are bull---, and that it was never untrammeled by man … but they still want to write about trees and animals.”
In the process of writing, Spagna understands that, as in the pursuit of any craft, the more you write the better you get.
“It's not just a pretension,” Spagna says. “At first you're pretending. You have that arrogance about ‘OK, I'm a writer,’ but then you start to grow and actually become that (a writer). Humility is a huge part of the process.”
Spagna remains an active, working writer who pursues and submits writing across multiple disciplines, publishing both fiction and nonfiction. She believes her “writer self” is a better self than her “day-to-day” self, and her writing is a constant exploration of that.
“When I’m writing, I’m asking myself ‘What do I really believe?’” Spagna says. “And I don't know; that's why I'm writing. I want to find out.”