Becoming a professional writer is a process. I’ve been at it a long time now and I’m still learning, still working to grasp and use new tools, new approaches. This month will mark the thirty-second year that I’ve collected a pay check for writing. In that time I’ve moved from newspaper to radio to television to novels, memoirs and poetry. Along the way I’ve learned incredible amounts of things about the world, life, philosophy, and myself. I wouldn’t trade this life for anything.
Back when I first started there were no personal computers. We still used typewriters and carbon paper. There was no email and even a fax machine was considered unbelievable technology. We used to glue newspaper pages together. Research was done through books in libraries, archives and museums. To become the writer I am at fifty-five meant learning to negotiate one heck of a lot of changes in a short time.
Becoming a human being is a process too. It takes a lot of work to create a personal history. There’s far more to it than just showing up for life every day. There are choices, both profound and banal, that need to be made. There are things to consider. There are numerous directions to take at a moment’s notice and there are literally a multitude of people willing to offer opinion, advice, suggestion and judgment.
Just when you think you know life comes along to show you that you really don’t. For instance, when I made it back to my people when I was twenty four, there wasn’t anything I wanted to be more than I wanted to be regarded as a genuine Ojibway. See, I’d been lost for a long time and had no real idea of who I was. Foster homes and adoption into a white middle class family will do that to you.
So that by the time I made it home all I wanted to do was fit in and represent myself as the best Ojibway possible. The people I saw around me at gatherings and powwows and ceremonies made me proud – and I really wanted to reflect that pride. I set out to be the most native person I could be. But I was terrified of failure.
I thought that being a genuine Ojibway meant that I needed to know how to do certain things. Like hunting and fishing, how to set a gill net, track a moose, to speak my language and conduct ceremony. I thought it meant doing warrior things in a warrior world – or at least, what was left of it. As a man I thought that I needed to learn manly things expressed, of course, in an Ojibway motif.
But a woman I met set me straight. I was at a traditional camp north of Temiskaming. It was called a cultural survival camp and I took it at its word. I wanted to survive as a cultural person. One morning when the men set out to do some hunting for the evening meal, I asked to go. The oldest men looked at me and refused to take me. I was crushed. I felt defeated and unworthy.
“Come with me,” the woman said and led me into the bush. For an hour she sent me hacking through the timber for dry branches I could snap off with my hands or feet. I gathered armloads and trundled them back to camp. It was hot, sweaty work but I still felt useless and unworthy.
But when we got back to camp she told me to look at the old people. She told me to imagine how much they would appreciate a good, blazing fire in the evening’s chill. She asked me to imagine how safe it would make them feel. Then, she told me to look at the children. She asked me to imagine how it would feel for them to fill their bellies with meat cooked over the fire I started. She asked me to imagine how happy they would feel.
She told me that gathering wood and lighting a fire was very important work. She said that through it I would learn the biggest thing first. I would learn to care for people. In the end, that’s the most warrior-like thing you can do, she told me; to care for the people around you, to place their needs ahead of your own. I’ve always tried to remember that.
I’m not finished the process of becoming a writer, nor am I finished becoming a human being. There is always so much more to learn and incorporate into the process of living each day. Staying open to that and being willing to find the big lessons in the smallest of things is what gets you home, really. I’ve always tried to remember that too.