An interview with Holly Wren Spaulding

By Lindsay Simmons
Sun contributor

New projects, creative minds and proactive community involvement are abuzz in these woods. The Leelanau Enterprise reported in mid-May that the median age in Leelanau County increased by eight years between 2000 and 2010. Nevertheless, you don’t have to look far to find a 20- or 30-something who has returned to the area to shoulder a creative venture. The Glen Arbor Sun featured Crystal River Outfitters and M-22 Store owners Matt and Katy Wiesen in our opening edition. Cedar native Holly Wren Spaulding also deserves to be celebrated.

As a writer, activist, teacher and artist, Holly has suppressed society’s notion of cookie-cutter success while confidently choosing a less-traveled path that benefits her audience and community members. Most importantly she knows what she needs to feel fulfilled. Because Holly is a woman of numerous proverbial hats, she possesses a unique ability to shed inspiration on those who are passionate about so many things but can’t find the label that is often required for validation.

Glen Arbor Sun: How do you describe yourself?

Holly Wren Spaulding: The simple answer is that I am a writer and I teach writing to college students. But I’ve also worked — and continue to work in some cases — as an independent journalist, designer, screenprinter, farm worker, community organizer, water activist, and I spent several years helping to make “FLOW,” a documentary about the global water crisis. Each one of these identities expresses something important about my values and what I think is worthwhile to do with my time but I think at the heart is my curiosity and desire to communicate and put experience into words and so when I’m asked what I do I often just say I am a writer.

Sun: What are your most recent projects?

Spaulding: Lately my focus has been on a book-length manuscript of poems which I’m polishing up after about three years of writing; also LORE, a collaboration with six other artists from the region (which premiered earlier this month in Benzonia). Finally, I’m involved in Chaotic Harmony, which is a dance and spoken word performance inspired by Gwen Frostic’s art and environmental vision. The music is by Breathe Owl Breathe and Anne-Marie Oomen wrote the script based on Frostic’s words, so this is a chance for me to step away from the more solitary work of writing and embody someone else’s vision in a performance that I expect will stretch me in all kinds of interesting ways.

Sun: Of what are you most proud?

Spaulding: I’m proud when my students have received recognitions for their poems, as has happened several times in the last two years.

In terms of my own accomplishments, I’m glad I was able to have a part in founding Sweetwater Alliance in 2002 which, while it lasted, provided a platform for many of us young activists — I was in my late twenties at the time — to express our moral indignation at the prospect that corporations can too easily hijack the natural commons (in this case, Great Lakes water) and make a profit at the expense of the environment and future generations. I immediately found my writing skills useful in the work we did during those years, and while we were often discouraged, defeated, burned out, and even harassed for what we were doing, which in the simplest terms was to exercise our duty as citizens to speak out for what’s right and against what is nefarious, I had a sense of purpose, and that has always been important to me.

When we premiered “FLOW” at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008 I was really proud to see our work on the big screen. It had taken five years to make that film and a sustained effort like that can be a real act of faith.

Honestly, learning how to rock climb and completing my first, daylong, multi-pitch climb at Tacquitz in California was a big deal for me. It has been an important metaphor for me ever since because the physical challenge, as well as the extreme beauty of being on rock that high up in such a stunning landscape really puts all kinds of things in perspective. I started thinking about mortality in a more visceral way, and I also found out that there are really hard things that I can do as long as I get over my fear and stop wondering if I can.

Sun: Expand on your travels and how they have shaped who you are.

Spaulding: My grandparents were always bringing back photos and stories of their world travels and I knew at a young age that I wanted to do that too. I think there was a strong “get out of Dodge” impulse, too, especially growing up in Antrim County, which was a fine place to be a child but as I got older my appetite to see and understand how much bigger the world is really gripped me. I left for the first time when I was 16, and spent a year in Germany as an exchange student. I got a chance to see a lot of Europe and then after I finished high school at Interlochen, I returned for a half year and rode a lot of trains and became very comfortable living out of a backpack. This has been a theme.

I traveled as much as I could during the summers between college, and after I graduated I did so as well: New Zealand, the Cook Islands (to climb and backpack), Mexico (to make a film), Brazil and Argentina (to research and write about grassroots people’s movements), Japan (as a water activist), Southern Africa (as a writer and as part of a film crew) and back to Europe. Being a writer has meant that projects and interests create opportunities for me to go places and have something interesting to do while I’m there. All in all, my impulse to travel has been hugely formative — of my imagination, my politics, my sensibility — and whereas staying in one place for one’s whole life has a lot of integrity, especially if that rootedness cultivates a kind of radical connection with the landscape and culture of that place. On the other hand, it can lead to provincialism and myopia. I find that I understand other people and different ways of thinking about things and doing things a lot better now that I’ve had a chance to really witness the ways in which other people and cultures do these things.

Sun: How do you keep yourself motivated and stimulated, culturally or creatively —especially in a place where so many young people feel underwhelmed by opportunity?

Spaulding: It has been important to me to keep traveling, and to think of Leelanau as a base from which to depart and do other things. But more and more what I really need is long stretches of uninterrupted work time; I need silence. While I wanted to be on the go and inundating my senses during my twenties, my energy has changed in my thirties and so have my work habits so I find I don’t need to be stimulated as much because my imagination is already on overdrive. I do leave and have found ways to continue to travel — usually with some kind of project or to work somewhere else for a while — so that keeps me fed and watered in a way that is important.

I also read a lot and watch films and because I teach college, I’m surrounded by colleagues who are also cultivating a life of the mind, which is essential to my happiness. I’ve had to adjust some of my expectations about how I will make a living and I’ve accepted a kind of economic insecurity that I might not have to bear were I to move to a city with more opportunities. I used to resent the fact that living here meant I would not have the career that some of my peers have, but it has resulted in a kind of voluntary simplicity, which is better for the soul, and kinder to the earth anyway. I enjoy a quality of life that’s available to me regardless of income because I want to be near water and open land and we have that here. I now know other writers and artists so I feel fairly well supported in that part of my life, but it took time to make those connections and I basically had to decide that with what few spare hours I have in a week, I would be very intentional about who I spend my time with, and what I do. Hence, I have plenty of creative opportunities and I think some of them would be hard to come by in a larger city where I might not find my tribe, even if there are there. I think all of this takes time to build and that has been one of the happy outcomes of being here for the last decade or so.

Spaulding’s recent local journalistic efforts can be found in Edible Grand Traverse and the Glen Arbor Sun, and nationally in The Nation. Her handmade women’s garments and adornments are available on under” Hende”. Look for Spaulding’s creative writing classes at Northern Michigan College in Traverse City.