For A While, I Couldn’t Write Like I Used To

For a while, I couldn’t write like I used to. I sat in front of this laptop and tapped my fingers lightly on the keys, not fully committing to forming letters into words on the screen. Sometimes I tried really hard, but only managed to strike a couple of paragraphs at most that encapsulated feeble thoughts at best.

Truthfully, I’ve barely done any creative writing at all in many months. At a time when I should be enjoying the greatest creative accomplishment of my life, I’ve been struggling through one of the toughest slumps. I only just had the epiphany that it’s because I’ve never experienced life like this before, and I need to truly understand it before I can try to be creative again.

Last winter I was wrapping up the finishing touches on my debut novel, Legacy, with editor Adeena Karasick. Writing the book really was a labour of love, and to work with such a talented storyteller to tighten up the manuscript was one of the greatest creative experiences I’ve had.

I was flying high. We were done by the end of the season, and left it in the hands of the publisher, Theytus Books, to complete the layout, design, and everything else on the business end. It would be months before the book would actually be published, but I was very pleased with where it was going, and had another huge task at hand.

With spring came planning the most important personal event of my life: the wedding to my beloved partner, Sarah. We were organizing a fairly big function in northern Ontario from far away in Ottawa. It was a big, tough job, and it required most of our free time, outside of our daily work routines. As such, I didn’t do any writing at all during the home stretch of the wedding planning.

Obviously, that was an insignificant sacrifice, given how momentous our marriage was. One day I will put into words the eminence of that whole experience. As I said in my wedding speech, I want to do it justice without relying on cliches. I’m still unable to do that, which proves to me that the power of the love I share with my wife has rendered me genuinely at a loss for words.

The honeymoon phase carried into the summer. I was still on an extended hiatus from writing anything substantial. I eagerly anticipated the impending release of Legacy in late summer/early fall, and was generally enjoying the seasonal leisure of weekend trips and concerts.

Then tragedy struck. In mid-July, one of my cousins died of a drug overdose. Five days later, the night after his funeral, another cousin killed himself. My family and community were devastated. It was unimaginable loss that I don’t think we’ll ever really get over. I do my best to remember and honour them as the good young men they were, but it’s still very difficult to cope with their deaths. I tried to write about them for my own personal healing, but didn’t get far.

Shortly after, another close family member ended up in a serious personal ordeal. So my focus for the rest of the summer was helping him get back on track. We come from a place that values a strong sense of family, so those bonds always take precedence over everything else.

As life slowly returned to normal into the fall, my book was finally released. I happily revisited that story as I began to travel to share it with others. Inspired by the journey that was opening in front of me, I tried to start writing again. All I could muster was half-finished blog posts about pretty inconsequential matters.

Given the gravity of the previous months’ events, I just didn’t know how to proceed. I wasn’t emotionally prepared to reflect on those experiences with written words. And I felt like I was spurning them by trying to write about other things. I questioned myself as a writer and a self-proclaimed “storyteller”.

But during my travels this fall, I was able to spend time with two of my mentors on two separate occasions in Toronto. They are revered Indigenous authors whom I admire and respect deeply. I explained to them some of my recent troubles with writing. They both told me in different ways not to worry about the words themselves. They said I was in the process of living the stories. Every challenge, triumph, and loss becomes an important element of a forthcoming narrative. It’s unfair to force them into writing before they’re resolved internally.

They each had a lot more to say that I won’t get into. But it was much-needed advice and support at a crucial time. On the way home from one of those trips, I began writing my next project. I am confident again, and I hope this new work will eventually emerge in a book.

I normally don’t like to self-indulge to this degree. These days, I stay away from the first-person perspective when I can. But I’m still learning how to be a writer. I’m still learning how to tell stories. And taking the time to look within is a big part of that. This has been the most eventful time of my life. Hopefully understanding and eventually writing about it will make me a better person. And I look forward to sharing what I’ve learned with you.

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Legacy Update

Legacy Cover

With Legacy, Waubgeshig Rice places himself squarely at the forefront of the next wave of Native authors. Bold, envisioned storytelling. A hands down pleasure to read.
-Richard Wagamese

I’m very happy to announce that my new novel Legacy will begin shipping across Canada by the second week of August. Published by Theytus Books and edited by the wonderfully brilliant Adeena Karasick, the story follows four young siblings from an Anishinaabe community as they try to rewrite their family’s legacy of tragedy.

Muskrat Magazine was kind enough to chat with me recently about the novel and published a great preview. Check it out for a better idea of the story and how it came about. I will announce an official launch in Ottawa (and hopefully Toronto) soon, and I’m currently lining up other readings at literary events. Stay tuned for details. Theytus is also working on an electronic version of the book, and hopefully that will be available not long after the hard copy.

This has been my greatest creative endeavour thus far. It’s a real labour of love, and I hope you get the chance to read it. Please take a moment to view the video below for more. Miigwech!

Knowlton Nash and the Outside World

We didn’t have power. We didn’t have running water. We grew up in a small house in an isolated corner of a treaty-settled island. As such, we weren’t meant to have much. But we had love. We had knowledge. We learned respect and humility. And because our roots were deeply embedded in both the reserved land on which we lived and in the town across the way, we were aware of the paradox of our lives.

To get a glimpse of life outside the bush, our parents provided us a small twelve-inch black-and-white television with erratically protruding rabbit ears. Our mom would delicately position the antennae while our dad would connect the wires of that tiny televised window to a car battery for power. There was only one reliable channel that came through the fuzz: CBC. Once in a while they’d get lucky and tune in CKCO-TV from Kitchener. But in the mid-1980s, CBC had all we needed: The Nature of Things with David Suzuki; Hockey Night in Canada; and The National.

The Nature of Things was educational and eye-opening. Hockey Night in Canada was an entertaining diversion from the daily rez routine (which, ultimately, led me to becoming a life-long Toronto Maple Leafs fan, for better or worse). Upon their conclusion, each show always led into The National with Knowlton Nash. Our parents would usually let us watch the first few stories, then it was time for bed.

Back then I was never really that interested in the news. The stories were always about far-off places in Canada and around the world that I felt no real connection to. Like many other kids of that era, I assumed Knowlton Nash was the host just because his name sounded similar to the show’s. And whenever his black-and-white bespectacled face occupied the tiny screen, it usually meant my day was over.

Eventually, we got hydro at our house. And as I got older and a little more aware, I began to understand the importance of the news, and I always associated Nash’s face with it. Still, the disconnect remained because I wasn’t seeing my life or my community reflected in the national narrative. I was no stranger to Canadian society; my mother is from the town that neighbours our community and I spent much of my childhood with my relatives there. But because “Indians” were rarely mentioned in the headlines, to me, Nash became the face of the world outside the rez.

But then people like Elijah Harper and the Mohawks of Kanesatake forced the national media to pay attention to Indigenous issues. That’s when the stories Nash introduced began to resonate a lot more with me. By the time he retired in the early 1990s, the media’s treatment of Indigenous stories was improving. It still has a long way to go today, but that’s when things started to turn around. At that point, Nash wasn’t as much of a foreign voice to me anymore.

He died this weekend at age 86. I never met him, but he’s highly regarded among my colleagues as a man of integrity and respect, and I believe them. Today I work at CBC, and have reported for the National dozens of times over the years. If there’s anything that I learned subconsciously from Nash, it’s that the outside world really isn’t that far out of reach.