Writing to remember

“Schizophrenic” is how Debra Gwartney–assistant professor at PSU and long-time correspondent for Newsweek, National Public Radio and The Oregonian–laughingly refers to the last few years of her life.

“Schizophrenic” is how Debra Gwartney–assistant professor at PSU and long-time correspondent for Newsweek, National Public Radio and The Oregonian–laughingly refers to the last few years of her life.

Gwartney joined the English department as an assistant professor this year after three years of teaching at Portland State as an adjunct. With a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Arizona, as well as a master’s in fine arts from Bennington College in Vermont, Gwartney is a former nonfiction teacher at the University of Oregon and the co-editor of the acclaimed new book, Home Ground.

A compilation by 45 of America’s most beloved authors, from Barbara Kingsolver and Jon Krakauer to Joy Williams and Scott Russell Sanders, Home Ground explores the uniqueness of American landscape through the terms and colloquialisms used by people to describe their homelands–“the language of the land,” as Gwartney called it.

The book was published in 2006 by Trinity University Press, has been featured on NPR and is listed by The New York Times as one of the top 10 books.

Gwartney described her time at Portland State and adjusting to her new role as “exciting and challenging, a real awakening into the infrastructure of things.” Her appointment as an assistant professor, Gwartney said, has helped her develop a new awareness for campus politics, as well as rewarding relationships with the faculty in the English department.

More than creating a scientific reference or catalog of geological characteristics, of which there are already many, Gwartney said that the making of Home Ground “came out of a realization that no one had ever compiled terms for distinctly North American landforms in one volume.”

In her essay on the book, Gwartney gives examples of this “land language.”

“For instance, the term for a kind of dune called a ‘medano’ that forms only on North Carolina’s Outer Banks…and a strange jag of land found under the water off the coast of Monterey, Calif., that’s called a ‘submerged coast.'”

Home Ground also includes words like “grotto,” “scabland,” “painted desert,” “looking glass prairie,” and “barranca,” words that Gwartney said “have been included in languages since the beginning of human time on this continent.”

Each region has defining formations and traits that connect its inhabitants with their history. The Northwest is home to bountiful geological quirks, Gwartney said, that come with names like “cascade,” “duff” (the loose layer of ground cover that results from the mixture of various leaves and tree debris), “hole” and “geode” (a hollow concretionary or nodular stone often lined with crystals).

Some of the terminology, Gwartney said, can be used to identify the area around Portland State.

“Brown land,” Gwartney said, “can be found in a city in which a structure has been knocked down and there is a patch of earth visible among the buildings” (i.e., what used to be a Chinese restaurant on Southwest Fourth Avenue and has recently been demolished down to dirt).

She also mentioned the many “desire paths” here on campus (the footpaths in the grass between sidewalks), as well as the “terrain vague” that results when there is a tiny vacant space between urban buildings.

Since completing the Home Ground project, Debra has focused on putting together her memoir, a piece that she has been working on for the past seven years. After giving a reading from the piece at PSU Wednesday night, she was asked several questions about her method of writing memoir.

“It has taken me a really long time to find a distance,” she said, “let them become their own characters, let myself become a character.”

With the genres of creative nonfiction, memoir in particular, coming under suspicion for fabrication, Gwartney said to her audience that memoir is like a painting.

“A piece of art,” she said. “Everyone has to draw their own lines.”

This is an art form that Gwartney said she is looking forward to practicing and teaching at Portland State, as well as continuing to create in her well-established niche in the literary realm.