With two books published in two years by my dream publisher, you might wonder why I would be eager to go on a writer’s retreat hosted by a man with a grade nine education. Let’s just say that Richard Wagamese is no ordinary man. He’s actually one of Canada’s foremost authors. By February of 2012 he will have eleven books with major publishers to his credit, in genres stretching from journalism, to poetry and fiction, and has been awarded numerous accolades for his various works. Did I mention the publication dates for the last four of those books fell within a year of each other? I figured he must know something they don’t teach in school.
Being an Ojibway author, Richard Wagamese honours the traditional story telling methods handed down to him by his people and attributes them to his success. Last year he taught a course based on them called From Oral Tradition to the Printed Page at the University of Victoria. I was very curious, but being a mother of three, flying off to Victoria to go back to university just wasn’t an option. My prayers were answered however, when he decided to host a series of one week workshops, for two students at a time, from his beautiful home on Paul Lake in the mountains of British Columbia’s scenic interior. I absolutely HAD to go.
I didn’t know what to expect (besides meals I would not have to cook myself), never having been on any sort of writers’ retreat, but it didn’t take me long to realize this was not an average creative writing workshop. I was relieved when the first instruction we received was to forget all the rules. Phew, because I can’t understand them to save my life. As Richard explained, we all read and absorb the ways in which language is used in a natural way. If we get out of our own way these come through on their own, without thought. This made a lot of sense to me. I have no formal creative writing background myself. Absorbing art and nature, and taking in all that we can from the outside world is the only real training Richard recommends for a writer, apart from learning to calm one’s own mind.
For the five days that followed there was not one discussion of the use of semicolons or reflexive pronouns or anything else that either intimidates me or I just plain don’t know the meaning of. Instead, there were long walks, campfire type games and time spent on strengthening spiritual connection. I know this all sounds fun, but not so productive, but it was without a doubt the most productive writing week I have ever experienced. By the time I left, I had several poems and stories that were near ready for submission after the first draft, and it wasn’t just because I was kid free for the week. It was the combination of all of this seemingly unproductive activity and how it paid out when it was time to work. Richard himself can boast selling everything he has ever submitted and off the first draft!
So, how do long walks and campfire games equal productive, inspired and polished writing? There were four main teachings that I walked away with. First, that there is a channel (those of you who believe in the Muses, this is where they live) and that you can access that channel at any time, walk away and come back to it freely. It will be there waiting. And second, because that channel will wait for you, it is not only OK, but necessary to stop when you don’t feel in it. I like to force things and to marathon write, so learning to trust the channel was the most challenging, but rewarding aspect of the course, for me. Trusting the channel means not only trusting that the story will wait, but also that if you get out of your own way, the story will come through naturally, on its own. Basically, write as unconsciously as possible. Third, I learned that opening yourself to stimuli, collecting from the environment with all the senses, is a necessary pre-step to writing. And finally, I learned that stilling yourself allows you a clearer connection to the channel.
The channel is a spiritual place that doesn’t care if you are Buddhist or Christian or follow traditional Native American practices. But, acknowledging that stories are given to us through some spiritual energy is important if you are to be able to recognize the channel, let alone write in it. Traditional rituals such as smudging were a part of our daily routine, as was giving thanks and spending quiet time within ourselves. Doing these things helped to prepare us to receive the stories. After this time we were often given a word or a sentence to think about, before going on a long mountain walk or out on the lake. These excursions were not simply for leisure (though they certainly were a highlight), but were for gathering with the senses and connecting to the world around us, adding to our individual frame’s of reference through observation, contemplation and awareness. Sometimes, we did this mid exercise, as a way of learning to trust that we could access the channel when we returned to it. It was frustrating to leave something mid story, in fact mid sentence, but being able to return and find that contrary to my fears, the channel was waiting to receive me with open arms and renewed clarity was very reassuring.
Staying connected in the channel…truly in it and connected… turned out to be much harder than I thought, and I’m a panster with a lot of practice winging it. I found it to require a great deal of discipline. That not thinking about the story is something we’ve all experienced at one point, when we can barely keep up to our thoughts as we write, but under Richard’s instruction, this is not merely a fleeting spark of inspiration passing through, this is the way to write all the time. Getting into that sort of zone isn’t easy for most of us, which is where the campfire games came in. Ever play the game where you go around the circle with each person contributing only one word to the story at a time? How about telling a story until you find yourself saying “um” or grasping for the next thought and handing it over to another person, as soon as you catch yourself doing it? Or having fun with free association? These were all exercises we used to help us practice letting go and getting connected. And, I’m sure most of you remember doing word clouds in grade school? Well, we did those too…with crayons and construction paper and no rules…all the fun of kindergarten! Given only a word or an object, we just let loose a Crayola storm . We then went over each word, said it, circled it, tucked it in the back of our minds and unleashed compositions on our laptops, with no intent other than to put words down…any words.
It was a lot like being a child again, and honestly my children tell better stories than I do. We as adults have learned to override our natural story telling ability, and these exercises are just a few that can help you to find the discipline needed to hold yourself in that channel for longer and longer periods of time—that place children reach without thought. And, a beautiful thing happens as you get better at it; you learn to walk away when you find yourself struggling, to go put on some laundry, take a walk, or call a friend, which beats rewriting the same sentence over and over again, or staring at a blank screen. Writers’ block becomes a foreign concept, and because you know the channel will be waiting for you when you are ready, you can do this guilt free and with confidence.
There is so much more I would love to say about what I learned from the retreat and how my time under Richard’s tutelage improved my ability to write and rediscover that inner storyteller I knew so well in my youth, but I believe it is something that has to be experienced to be believed, so I would strongly encourage you to get out the crayons and construction paper, or if you aren’t so brave, to go for a long walk and follow it by writing freely— with run-on sentences and disregard for punctuation if that’s how it comes, and stop when the adult tries to take over again. The story will wait for you.
As for how I am doing with Richard’s teachings, in spite of the fact that I have had a heavy schedule of appearances and touring since my return from the retreat at the end of August, I have written more than thirty-five poems (that are ready for submission) a new children’s story and I am at least a quarter of the way through a new novel in a genre I never thought of exploring (which started as an exercise on the retreat). And no, my kids have yet to starve to death, or run out of clean clothes.
If you’re interested in learning more about Richard Wagamese’s techniques based on traditional Ojibway storytelling methods, check out his website at: www.richardwagamese.com, like his author page on facebook, or pop by his insightful blog at: www.wagamesewriter.wordpress.com.
Books by Richard Wagamese:
Keeper’n Me, Doubleday 1994 – Alberta Writers Guild Best Novel Award
A Quality of Light – Doubleday, 1997
The Terrible Summer – Warwick Press, 1997
For Joshua: An Ojibway Father Teaches His Son, Doubleday, 2002
Dream Wheels – Doubleday, 2006 – Canadian Authors Association Award for Fiction
Ragged Company – Doubleday, 2008
One Native Life – Douglas & McIntyre, 2008 – Globe and Mail 100 Best Books of the YearOne Story, One Song – Douglas & McIntyre 2011
Runaway Dreams, Ronsdale Press Sept 2011,
The Next Sure Thing, Orca, October 2011
Indian Horse, Douglas & McIntyre, coming February 2012.
Christy Jordan Fenton is the author of FATTY LEGS: A TRUE STORY (Annick Press 2010) and A STRANGER AT HOME (Annick Press 2011). Her work has appeared in Jones ave, Prairie Fire, and the anthology DiVerseCitiesII (Retro Relics 2011).