Susan J. Tweit began her career in Wyoming, studying grizzly bear habitat — which involved collecting and dissecting bear poop — mapping historic wildfires, and researching big sagebrush. She’s written thirteen books ranging from memoir and nature writing to kids and travel, along with hundreds of magazine articles, columns, and essays. She lives in a small cottage shaded by tall cottonwood trees in the sagebrush country of western Colorado.
SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Susan Tweit: “Bless the Birds” was inspired by the journey my late husband, Richard, and I took with his terminal brain cancer, and my passionate belief that our culture needs to learn to embrace the endings of our lives with the same tenderness we do our beginnings.
The book is a love story, a tale of how we humans can rise to be our best selves when the world goes crazy on us, whether because of a pandemic like COVID-19, deadly racism, or the crisis of our planet burning. The subtitle conveys the major theme: “Living with Love in a Time of Dying.” It’s about finding a way to act with love when the worst happens, and learning to appreciate our imperfect selves, along with the miracle of life on this numinous earth. “Bless the Birds” is also a journey story chronicling the sometimes scary, sometimes funny times in the 4,000-mile road trip along the Pacific Coast my late husband Richard and I took as our belated, 29-years-late honeymoon when we learned Richard’s cancer was terminal. That trip was our chance to reaffirm our vow to live with love and kindness no matter what came our way. And we did!
SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
Tweit: The excerpt is the first few pages of the book, which gives away the ending — Richard dies — and also shows the structure of the book, a journey within a journey. The larger story of how we determined to face Richard’s glioblastoma with as much love and grace as possible, and how we came to be the people we were, is framed by that honeymoon road trip. Each chapter begins with a place and a mileage along the way, and a vignette from the trip related to that particular chapter on the larger journey of life and death.
SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book?
Tweit: I am a scientist first, so all of my writing — especially “Bless the Birds” — is influenced by that experiential, evidence-based worldview. Which means I took notes and wrote in my journal and on my blog all through our time together, and because of that, I had a rich store of primary source material to use when it came time to write.
“Bless the Birds” isn’t my first memoir, and I definitely benefited by the experience of reading and studying other memoirs from writers I love, from Terry Tempest Williams (“Refuge”) and Teresa Jordan (“Riding the White Horse Home”), to Barry Lopez (“About This Life”).
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What I find compelling about memoir is that it is a way to make use of my life experiences, “composting” them, as it were, into stories that inspire, inform, or guide others, whether or not they will ever encounter similar situations. Memoir allows us to make sense of life, but its reach is bigger than that: At its best, memoir proves the truth of the saying, “The personal is the political.” Meaning how we live offers wisdom to illuminate national and world events, whether the generational trauma of racism, the struggle to live through the COVID-19 pandemic, or the long-term planetary crisis of climate change.
SunLit: Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?
Tweit: I first conceived of the story in “Bless the Birds” as much more chronological, and honestly, it included way too much medical detail and way too little reflection on the broader meanings of any life-journey. Over the years I worked on finding a narrative structure that worked (in between freelance writing deadlines), the story went through many revisions. It wasn’t until I was on a writing residency at Women’s International Study Center in Santa Fe, and sharing a casita with the playwright DS Magid, that I “found” the structure of a story within a story.
As we were preparing our dinners one night in the casita kitchen, DS asked about the story, and when I told her about our 4,000-mile road-trip as a belated honeymoon in the last months of Richard’s life, she was gripped: “It’s a film!” I toyed with that idea, but what struck me from her fascination with that part of the larger journey was that the road-trip really encapsulated all we loved and the way we lived. So I rewrote the book again, this time with the honeymoon road-trip framing the longer journey of our lives together.
While revising, I kept in mind writing advice I got from Nancy Fay, a former poetry editor in Santa Fe. When she read an early draft of “Walking Nature Home,” my first memoir, she said, “Let the f—ing story off the leash!” What she meant was, follow the story instead of trying to lead and control it. Don’t be afraid to probe the painful places, to walk with it into the dark nights and the crises. Let it sing to you and stop caring what others will think. So I did, and the story in “Bless the Birds” grew immensely more deep and wide and universal.
SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
Tweit: The biggest challenge was being honest about myself. I would like to be wiser, more even-tempered (I was a redhead most of my life, and I still have the temper to prove it!), more patient, and generally a better person. But I’m not.
Writing the real, fallible, imperfect, and vulnerable me into the story required a lot of effort and a lot of revising, and to be truthful, a lot of hard introspection. But it was worth it, judging from the comments from readers. The truth is, no one cares about a character who is already perfect. We learn from our own and others’ failures and imperfections.
My advice to memoir writers when I teach or coach is what I’ve learned as I’ve wrestled with my own stories and the meaning I take from my life experiences:
“Honor your stories, your experience, and your inner knowledge. Be fearless. If writing about something scares you, explore it (carefully). The things we are ashamed of, that frighten us, and that we avoid are often the stories that have the most power. Be yourself — don’t try to be perfect. No one cares about the person who knows it all already; readers want to know the real, fallible, imperfect, unique you. Listen carefully to your inner voice. Take it slowly if you need to, a word at a time, a paragraph at a time, a page at a time. But never give up!”
SunLit: What would you like readers to remember most about this story?
Tweit: That we can respond to the hardest times of our lives with love, and bring our best selves to the challenges. That what human beings bring to the community of this planet is that very ability to love and care for each other, from birth to death and beyond. That how we live — each moment of each day — is what creates the society and culture we inhabit. That all is impermanent — except love. And love is what sustains us, anyway.
“Bless the Birds” is not just our story. It’s a guide for how to live well at the end of our lives, and how to weather the grief and fear and anger that come whenever we face traumatic and terminal changes. Whether those are personal or national or global, “Bless the Birds” shows us ways to live through them and live beyond them with grace, generosity, and hope. Death comes to all of us, and learning how to, if not embrace it, at least to live with that understanding will give us the tools we need to live through any crisis. As I wrote in the end of “Bless the Birds,” the story can be,
“…A ray of light and a reminder that love lives, thrives, and surprises us throughout life, even when we feel most despairing of our future and that of this world. We can choose to lead with our hearts and dance our best steps along the way — hard as it may be — buoyed by the knowledge that life persists, new green sprouting from the ashes, poppies blooming, condors soaring the skies again. To be truly alive, our days fluttering like prayer flags of gratitude, hearts open to the knowledge that when the time comes, we will cycle on, our atoms dancing in life’s eternal circle. The one where any end is also a beginning.”
“Bless the Birds”
Where to find it
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SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Tweit: I’ve been a freelance writer for over three decades, so I’m disciplined about writing. Which doesn’t mean I always come out with great prose. But if I’m not at my desk, in front of my computer, the writing won’t happen. I write most fluidly and insightfully in the morning, when my brain is fresh.
So I make sure I’ve got fingers on keyboard by 9 or so in the morning, and I write until my creative juice dries up around 2 in the afternoon. I would love to say I write in longhand on legal pads or something more romantic like that, but the truth is that my mind goes faster than my hands, and writing by hand makes my fingers hurt, so I work at a laptop and on good days, the keys fly.
For revising, which really is 95 percent or more of writing, I alternate between reading from the computer screen and reading printed copy, and also I read my work out loud. I think reading out loud is one of the best ways to revise because hearing the story makes it sound so much more real, and it’s hard to read a stupid phrase or sentence without wincing, much less a scene or transition that makes no sense.
SunLit: What are the birds in the title of your book?
Tweit: The birds in the title are both illusory and real. The illusory birds appeared when Richard’s brain misfired, taking our marriage of nearly 30 years down a terrifying and unimagined path into terminal brain cancer. We were heading for a two- week artist-writer residency at a remote cabin in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, when he suddenly asked, “What’s with all the birds?”
I looked around with eyes trained by growing up in a birdwatching family, and saw no birds. As Richard described the thousands of avian forms he could see, tiny birds perched on each blade of grass along the roadside, birds wing-to-wing crowding the barbed wire fences and utility wires, giant birds on the rims of distant mesas, my skin crawled. His birds were not real.
They were, we learned later, hallucinations produced by a deadly tumor growing in his brain. Those birds sent us to the hospital in time for him to be diagnosed and for us to have more than two years of living before he died. If we had not heeded them, the traumatic brain-swelling that caused the avian hallucinations would have killed him within days. So I bless the birds for giving us time to learn how to live with the end of his life. Richard also watched birds, so the visions were very appropriate to who he was.
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
Tweit: My next project is in my head, and since I’ve been in a remote valley in the mountains western Wyoming working my butt off at a spiritual retreat center/ guest ranch all summer, I haven’t had time or energy to work on it.
I know the title though: “Practicing Terraphilia, Living with Love for Ourselves and This Earth.” It’s a linked collection of lyrical and personal essays about how to live each day in ways that nurture ourselves, our communities, and our planet.