1. You don’t need to be “educated” to write.
I did not read the white literary canon. My mother dragged me out of the classroom the day we were supposed to read Huckleberry Finn. She said I didn’t need to read that word two-hundred times to know it was wrong — to know white people were wrong throughout history.
“There are other books,” she said.
I remember her face and the freedom in it as we drove away. Mom had run away from residential school when she was about the same age. The same bravery she showed when she ran away from the nuns and priests was the same bravery she took to my teachers when she talked about race — when she talked about history. I used to be ashamed of it and that’s my burden now.
Class used to feel safe before she got me thinking. The place was decorated with rainbow paper weaving, pastoral drawings, and our first attempts at depth and realism — drawings with happy, smiling faces. It was the home of the VERY GOOD and SUPER STAR stickers. It was a place filled with remarkable growth and simplicity, and then it shifted. I became conscious of my difference as an Indigenous girl.
I loved literature, always, but it was difficult to find books that weren’t a problem. If I picked up Hemingway, I’d have to stop reading when I got to a story like “Indian Camp,” because it was violent about Indian women and Indian men, and our love. I didn’t want to waste my time on a white man who treated Indians like relics or savages or tokens or devices for a white male protagonist to imbue with meaning. There were no Native women writers in our libraries. It was all too hard, and I eventually dropped out at thirteen. It took a lot of time to get back on track and become a professor of English and a published author. And I still have no desire to read certain canonized work — it’s just not good for my soul.
I’m not arguing that people shouldn’t read the white literary canon; I’m saying that it doesn’t have to be our lodestar. I’m saying that a woman doesn’t have to read all the books deemed “necessary” by the white literary world to be a writer. If a classroom has made learning impossible or violent, she can still be a writer. That simple. Allowance is important. I did not feel much of it when I was coming up as a writer. So, I lied about what I read.
In my husband’s (my husband is white) family home, there is an Americana porcelain decanter of Mark Twain. It was the first time I saw the author, and he looked to me like a creepy Colonel Sanders. I have a good radar for bad men after meeting too many. I told this to my writing friend, and he said Twain collected young girls and called them his “Angel Fish.” It bothers me that white men take up so much space in literature. A pederast sits there, I think. A chicken-looking fuck.
I suppose I will never read Twain. And I have not read many of the books my colleagues have read, not Great Gatsby or Catcher in the Rye or Heart of Darkness, not Hemingway or Jack London, not most of the white men I was supposed to read. I know why I haven’t read these books, and what these books, and this education — what this canon — signifies. So I don’t judge when I meet a student who hasn’t read something that the white world has deemed “necessary.” I lied for years about what I read because I thought I had to have read these books to write my own. I thought I needed permission from white ghosts. I have not read these books, but I understand how stories function. In every family and culture, there is a way to tell a story. My friend Darrel J. McLeod is Cree, and his stories work cyclically because that’s how his elders tell a story. If you look inside of your language, and in your natural world, inside the voices of your mother and her mother, there’s a unique way to tell a story. Follow that. You don’t need to follow white ways of knowledge to speak your own way. Use your grandmothers as primary texts and sources; believe in their stories and their knowledge.
2. You have a story to tell.
I worked my way up as a writer by first getting my GED at El Paso Community College. Then I started taking writing classes and became the editor-in-chief for the student paper. I spent many nights in our building alone, and a professor would pop in to harass me.
He said troubling things, like, “Have you ever heard of the squaw stereotype?” He said Native women were easy. He tried to sound seductive when he said he knew I had a dark side in me. It was a constant bombardment, and I had no recourse because he was well-liked. The worst thing he ever said wasn’t sexual. He asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I said I would like to write a memoir. I had just read Camus and Sartre for the first time. He said, “You need to have lived a life of significance before you can write a memoir.” Fuck that guy. It hurt me so much that, instead of pursuing nonfiction, I got two degrees in fiction and tried to write a novel before I considered the possibility of writing my own story.
That man is a liar. Really, if you can sit across from someone and impart a story that compels or repulses or humors or helps, you can write about your life and do this work. It’s work, and it’s hard, but I believe there is room for our stories.
People are mostly voyeurs and lonely. I could listen to women tell me about meal planning or their favorite Instagram account because those things tell me a lot about her desires and her inner-life, the secret things people don’t know at first-glance. People are compelled by all kinds of stories.
I’m running a workshop, and an applicant said she has nothing significant to write about because she’s a stay-at-home mom. She potty trains, she said. I said, you’re keeping someone alive, and loving that person — creating a new generation, and that’s life-giving work that I want to read about. I want to see work about Indigenous motherhood. There’s not enough of that! There are so many stories under-represented, and how can we feel good about our lives if we’re not seeing those lives represented in their full humanity?
Readers and people with the luxury of time are interested in one’s lived experience, especially if that person has a unique way of speaking. There are books about the daily lives of women, but typically, it’s white women who get the reader’s time. The thing is — I know we can break down that wall.
I didn’t know about travel memoirs until I was in my late 20s. A white woman can travel, appropriate other cultures, write about it, and make a lot of money. We deserve something like that, too. We deserve an advance to travel the world and find ourselves — without mining a culture, though.
You could write a book about your meal planning or what you consume each day — food memoirs are a thing. You could write in a gratitude journal each day for a year, take those entries out, and develop a memoir from it. You could journal deeply, collect, revise — find a thread and pull. It’s important to find the spark of the right story to tell and then to refine your voice to make it remarkable.
3. Tell the truth and make it dynamic.
Writing can be cathartic. People get on me for saying that, but I have healed part of my heart by telling the truth about postpartum depression and violence and abuse through art.
A person can process an argument with a lover by trying to write it out or re-tell it to someone in story form. People usually tell stories about themselves where they are the victor, the most righteous, or the one done wrong. I tell these stories, too, but I’ve learned how to create backstories and sidebars that complicate my own telling, so that I can uncover the truth beneath my superficial feelings about it. I end up thinking about something differently the more I hash it out. Telling a story more than once helps me find a new victor, a new victim, a new thought.
In the story I used to tell myself about my mother, she was cruel and neglectful. It didn’t work after a few years of telling it. It felt too simple, like a children’s tale I told in order to sleep at night.
It’s true, she had cruelty. She often hit me called me names. Mom did not like me, but she loved me, she often said. Then I found old letters between her and her best friend, and there was so much humanity in the correspondence. I found idealism and kindness. One type-written letter is about her odd relationship with a pregnant garter snake in ’94. She wrote, “This is the snake that wars with me every year.” The snake stayed close to a crack in the front porch and slithered around our feet at times. Mom made a daily offering to her and tried pleading, asking her to start her family elsewhere. The snake would not go, and Mom’s fear was fifty baby snakes greeting us at our door. She tried dealing with this until my brother’s white friend said, “Would you like me to kill it?” It had never dawned on her to do that. She let him, and then felt horrible. Something shifted — I felt the tone of sadness in every word.
I read all these letters with a new love for my mother, and her inability to spell Albuquerque — but in all those pages there was no mention of me, while she occasionally and fondly talked about my brothers.
The story I tell now is that my mother was complicated, hurtful — a medicine woman who believed in Creator and interconnectedness, and her love was a deep and low hymn, like our Woman’s Warrior Song on the drum. Her love was hard to access, but I’ve forgiven her and seen how the brutalities against her created a lot of cyclical violence that is only now ending with me. The layered story of my mother keeps me up at night — I tell it anyway. To paraphrase a writer I love, Danielle Evans, “What is the narrative question” in your work, and “What will keep them up at night?” I think of these things. Ask yourself what of your life keeps you up at night, and if you are to impart a story, make it one where you risk something in the telling.
4. You’re gonna need a writing voice.
At a reading, an old student of mine asked how to form voice. The day before, it had started to snow. I looked outside and asked my students, “If we were writing in first-person or third person or second, how would we write a woman going outside in this weather?”
The students said things like, “Write that she walked to the door and opened it, and it was snowing.” Or, “Start with her putting her shoes on.” Those are good impulses.
I then asked them what sounds does first snow make underneath our feet?
The students said, “Crunchy.”
I said, “Yeah, and collapsible when it’s a little dry and brittle.”
We made the sound in our mouths together. We described the grey outside — a shadow-less grey. Then I asked them to think about the potential perspective in the story. How would the character feel, and how do they communicate? Instead of writing scene directions, like, “She walked towards the door and opened it: snow.” You can show the image truest to the lens. In this case, if the perspective was close to mine: The snow was a collapsible crunch under her feet. She was determined to run even though it was a grey and shadow-less day.
If you start with an image or sensory detail, you can place the reader where they need to be, and if you further refine it by finding more succinct wording or finding a stronger image, you can develop voice through revision. Avoid stage direction — look to place a reader in a cultivated reality.
5. You can make sugar of ugly sentences but you don’t want your words to dissolve as soon as they’re read.
I was talking to my friend from back home, and I was using words like “expositing” and “ambiguous” and “latent” and she said, “Terese, talk normal.” I realized sometimes you just need to use practical language. Fancy words sound nice, but sometimes they are unnecessary. Something can be lyrical and pretty and mean nothing at all. Overwriting is often someone trying to sound smart or trying to posture as a good writer when it’s all unnecessary. I’ve always had to overperform, and — even though I haven’t read most of the white literary canon — I’ve read a lot and written a lot to acquire my voice, so sometimes I over-use it. Sometimes, you just need to write someone walked out of the door and it was snowing — no flower, no glitter, no bullshit. To paraphrase a writer I love, Brandon Taylor, you don’t need to apply narrative density to something commonplace in your story. Find the right thing to give weight to and draw attention to. If you describe sweat on a shirt with drama and vivid detail, they’re going to think that sweat is important to the story at hand. Sometimes, sweat is important, and it’s part of a motif, which is a fancy way of saying it’s part of an underpinned theme. Themes in stories are successful, in my mind, when they come in threes or fours. If you have a motif or a theme, like the color red, or possums, or water, have it come in a pattern that makes sense to you. It’s an innate sense that tells me when I need to cut or pare down or amp up and sharpen. I gained that sense with a decade of writing and revising.
6. Writing takes time and commitment.
I had many false starts with my book. The first time I tried to write it, the thing was fiction. I ended up with two-hundred pages of really competent bullshit. It was contrived and elusive, and it was everything professors had taught me to write. They wanted me to sound whiter than I was, more pan-Indigenous than I was, and less sexual. They didn’t honor my weird. I won a scholarship to write in a studio in Vermont for four weeks. It was my only time away from the kids, so I knew I had to finish the book there. It took relentless work to uncover the truth in my pages. I taped each finished page to the wall and read each word out loud several times with a pen in my hand. I worked until I felt like each line had been dissected and fought for and earned. I sent it to editors and agents and received a couple of kind rejections before an editor sent me an effusive email about how terrifying and beautiful my story way. It was a small press that would honor the book’s integrity. From there, I’ve sold enough copies to take care of my family, and I’ve made appearances The Daily Show and PBS Newshour, and I’ve advanced my career in several other ways.
It’s been an upward journey, but there’s been secret lows I don’t talk a lot about. For example, nobody tells you that being a writer, if you reach a level of success, is actually very public. I often have to read my book and do writing workshops and interviews and nobody prepared me for that. It’s made me feel embarrassed and seen and ashamed of how revealing my work is at times, but the reward, I remind myself, is that it encourages others to write their own stories — to process their own traumas in productive ways. And that’s important to me. I’ve been able to stay alive and unafraid of good things by following up with a therapist bi-weekly, and taking my meds, and doing grounding exercises. In total, it’s all worth it and lovely and more collective than I thought it would be.
I have a student who’s finishing her book, and she often feels the weight of finishing upon her. She feels like she has a finite amount of time to write her book, and the world of publishing feels daunting. I told her, while a lot of people compare writing a book to giving birth to a child, I’d rather not. It’s more like hiking up a mountain. It can feel breathless and challenging, but you can always stop, look around you and enjoy something small in your periphery — there’s medicine alongside a mountain, too. Losing my breath for a beautiful view feels worth it. Plus, walking up a mountain sounds way better than passing human life through my body. Think about it like a journey worth walking, one you can take several breaks from, and you can always come down.
7. I have so much else to give you.
Since I had no “education.” I did not understand simple things like dialogue tags or tense or syntax, but I didn’t let any of that discourage me. I dated a professor and asked him to teach me grammar. It would have been easier to Google. You can Google those grammar and punctuation rules. Also, reading has helped me learn how to improve my language. You don’t necessarily need an MFA to become an author. You could meet authors in online communities and meet professors and steal reading lists from their classes. You could look for writing residencies and apply for scholarships. You can attend open-mics and readings in your hometown. There’s a community for you to be had.
Beyond community, writing is also a business and a hustle. The women I know have several side-hustles in their writing lives. For me, I was soliciting publications to get paid for op-ed work while I was writing a memoir, because I wanted to build my CV/Resume and online readership, and I had something to say about Native life and politics. In my experience, even if you write a novel, you’ll be asked by publications when you’re promoting your book to write an essay or an op-ed or a review, and publishing in a dynamic way prepares you for that.
I think of writing like a muscle, and I work it out daily. I look at my floor and ask myself how to best describe it. I give myself prompts. I was just talking to an audience about the practice of writing someone’s absence. A lot of people writing memoir are willing ghosts into the room, trying to capture them. People leave a very tangible absence when they aren’t there. When my mother was present, the world felt bolder and she encouraged me to be stronger. In her absence, I feel the lack of bravery and will, so I have to conjure that into the room to supplement the lack. On that same day, I also talked to the audience about how to write dialogue from true experiences. The truth of our lives is approximate. If you can get close to the bullseye of the experience, you’re honoring it correctly. It takes skill to know the truth of your life. If you’re writing about something that happened, and you’re coming out looking like you’ve done everything right, said everything correctly, and you’re infallible, most likely you have to mine a bit deeper into that experience.
For more writing tips, I follow authors on Twitter and read their work. Slowly, I’ve become confident and successful by never giving up and understanding that I have something to write. Keep writing, even two lines a day can be enough.
I think I heard Roxane Gay say once, “Finished is a feeling.” I tell my students this all the time. I tell them that it’s not a cheap feeling, either. It’s a genuine, “yes, I have done everything I can do,” feeling. Another tip — if you’re like me and consider your work as corporeal, you are writing from your body, which means the text is also a body and must have boundaries. Don’t give things up or mine your tragedies to a degree that feels unsafe or self-exploitive in order to please the audience, because you must protect yourself in the end. Vulnerability is good, but boundaries are crucial.