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Prose with the grace of nature

BY DANA JUDAS | NOVEMBER 11, 2009 7:20 AM

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Gretel Ehrlich’s prose is electrifying.

Despite being struck by lightning on her ranch in 1991, the author has remained a powerful force in the literary world.

Ehrlich is the last visiting writer in a series sponsored by the UI English department and the Nonfiction Writing Program. The award-winning essayist will speak at 7 p.m. today in 101 Becker Communication Studies Building and again Thursday at 11 a.m. in 304 English-Philosophy Building.

Both events are free and open to the public.

The native Californian is a multi-genre author, having published both short stories and essays. She was first trained as a filmmaker at UCLA, which led to her spending time on a Wyoming sheep ranch working on a documentary for PBS. After finishing, she stayed on as a ranch hand, where she acquired the material used in her first book, The Solace of Open Spaces.

John D’Agata, an associate professor in the Nonfiction Writing Program, said he believes that although Ehrlich often focuses on environmental issues, what interests people most about her is the writing itself.

“Ehrlich is a writer before she is a ‘nature writer,’ ” he said. “And I make that distinction because her work isn’t sanctimonious the way a lot of nature writing can be … she also isn’t as boringly politically pointed as a lot of environmental writers can be.”

D’Agata feels the urgency of Ehrlich’s work come through her sentence structures, he said. Ehrlich is a syntactical wizard, he said, making the writing potent for readers and allowing them to feel and participate in her emotional and intellectual stakes.

Ehrlich, who has penned 13 books, has been anthologized in The Best Essays of the Century, as well as The Best American Essays. She has received two endowments from the National Endowments for the Arts, and she is the 2009 recipient of the PEN/Thoreau Award. The award, which is given once every three years, is handed to authors who are innovators in the field of environmental writing.

Patricia Foster, a professor in the Nonfiction Writing Program, said she loves teaching Ehrlich’s work to her students because of the author’s voice. She hopes her students employ something new into their own writing styles.

“Students, I think, will learn something about sentences,” Foster wrote in an e-mail to the DI. “Hers are quiet but muscular — and also about immersion in a landscape and a passion. Writers often find their material, both researched and personal, in the chaos of their lives. Ehrlich went to Wyoming to work in ‘open’ spaces as a sheepherder because her own life had closed down. And she made a book out of it.”


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