Coming Home – The Beginning – Writing 101

Carol A. Hand

August 28, 2001. Mavis was nervous. It was her first day visiting the Ojibwe community where she would spend the next nine months. What made it especially challenging was her role there. She wasn’t really sure what it meant to conduct an ethnographic study. Her parents had already had a difficult time figuring out what she did for jobs, but a researcher? People avoided her when they found out what she did for a living, particularly those she knew in the Ojibwe community. “You think you’re too good for us,” they’d say. They never took the time to find out who she really was and they didn’t want her around.

The funny thing about Mavis was that people often thought she was a pushover because they saw her as small, frail, and reserved. But things are relative in more than one way. During the time she spent on the rez as a child, she learned to see herself as tall. She was tall compared to many of her cousins – a gangling Ichabod Crane. And the people she volunteered with in the Kentucky hills, cutting down trees with an ax to build a summer camp, learned to accept her as one of the crew. “She’s small, but damn that teenie bopper can work,” they’d say.

If you watch her carefully, you’ll notice she walks with a confident stride and holds herself tall – all 5’ 3”. She wears her straight dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, thick eyeglasses, no makeup, no frilly clothes. The only concession she makes when she needs to look professional is to put on a tailored jacket over her tee shirt and good jeans.

In a sense, doing this study was a chance for Mavis to go home. Not the one she grew up in and not the rez where she spent her summers as a child. She wasn’t going there expecting anything from others. She was there because she knew that Native American children were still being taken away from their families and communities. Even though federal legislation was supposed to stop the practice that began when the Spaniards first arrived in what is now Florida in the 1500s, the removal of Native American children from their families and communities continued unabated for the next five centuries. It was still going on. Mavis wanted to know why and if it was possible to stop it.

The day was warm sunny by the time Mavis pulled up outside of the old tribal building that served as the center for tribal social services. She found Linda in her office.

Peeking through the open door, Mavis saw Linda typing at her computer, back to the door. “Hey Linda,” she said. “It’s so nice to finally meet your in person.” Linda turned and got up from her chair to shake Mavis’ hand. “I don’t know how to tell you how grateful I am for agreeing to help me learn more about the community.”

“Here, have a seat” Linda said, pointing to a chair by the small round table in her office. “Tell me how I can help you. I’d like to take you to the elders’ center for lunch today. That’s the best way to meet people in the community who might be willing to talk to you. But first, tell me what you want to know.”

Mavis sorted through the pile of papers she brought and handed a pile to Linda, explaining each one. “These are the things I’m required by the university to share with the community. They explain the purpose of the research and the questions I plan to ask. And these are consent forms that people need to sign if they’re willing to let me share what they say. It also promises that their names and identities will never appear in anything I write or say in public or in private.”

Linda quickly skimmed the forms and began laughing. “You can’t share these with elders. They’ll never understand what you want to know. Here, we have half an hour before lunch. Let’s come up with some questions they’ll understand.”

Linda rolled her chair back to the computer and began typing. Mavis dragged her chair closer so she could peak over Linda’s shoulder. With a rapid-fire exchange, Mavis and Linda worked together to write new questions. Linda enlarged the print so elders would be able to read them more easily, quickly made copies, and she and Mavis sped out the door. They hopped into Linda’s old silver 1990 Cadillac, a boat of a car from Mavis’ perspective.

It was that first day when Mavis met many of the elders and community members who would become the most prolific storytellers. Thomas, Raymond, and Lucille, all elders, were there that first day. Each shared stories that would make a lasting impression on Mavis. She would leave the community when her research was done in August of 2002, but the weight of responsibility their stories conveyed would stay with her for the rest of her lifetime.

When lunch was finished, Linda and Mavis left the elder’s center. Instead of driving back to her office, Linda told Mavis she wanted to take her somewhere that would help her understand the community. They drove down winding wooded roads and finally pulled over near an opening in the woods, a grass-covered field. “Come on,” said Linda,” I want to show you something.”

She led Mavis down a well-worn path toward a small lake. “This is a special lake that we see as the center of our community. To us, it symbolizes the home where we have lived as a people for centuries. It’s our home on this earth and in the universe. I come here when I want to pray. It also symbolizes the home where we hope our children can always come in the future to feel the spirits of their ancestors. A place where they can come to remember who they are so they can teach their children and their children’s children where we come from and where we belong.”

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Photo: by Drew Geraets

It was an auspicious beginning of a friendship that would last many years, although Mavis and Linda would never meet face to face again after Mavis left the community.

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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18 thoughts on “Coming Home – The Beginning – Writing 101”

    1. Thank you for your lovely comments, Cynthia 🙂 This si my first serious attempt to write fiction. I’ve realized it’s the only way I can share what I learned as a researcher in a way that protects the identity of people who shared their stories. It’s not easy to transition from academic writing to fiction, so I wnrolled in Writing 101 to be an experiment to see if it works. Your kind words give me encouragement to keep going and taking the risk of looking foolish in the process of learning a new language ❤

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  1. You’ve got lots of good info in here but I think I like the first-person narration better. Maybe don’t worry so much about the fact you are writing “fiction”. You are creating a character named Mavis who has shared many of your own experiences but is also free to be different from you and diverge from the factual truth in order to get at the real truth. You can write in her voice and she can feel free to reflect on the strange situation of being a researcher in a community she wants to think of as her own and wants to support.

    You used the freedom of third-person to offer us a physical description of Mavis but you can get this across through her own thoughts and actions as well. Not in these words, but you can do stuff like: I feel a little ridiculous trying to make my 5′ 3″ look tall but I can’t let people see me as weak and frail. I used to want to be shorter, towering over my cousins on the rez. And now, I tell myself, Mavis, putting a tailored jacket over your teeshirt does not turn you into a professional. Faking a confident stride does not make you tall.

    I love it that Linda, unlike so many other people Mavis encounters as a researcher, actually has very solid and helpful suggestions.

    Anyway, there’s two genres today your work might fit in. Fiction, yes, but keeping in mind that ever since Moby Dick American fiction has allowed space for thought, natural history, etc., it doesn’t have to be a plot that simply moves dramatically from A to B. So don’t censor out your knowledge, what you’ve learned and can express so eloquently. Then, the popular genre today is Creative Nonfiction which allows a nonfiction author to use fictional technique, change name, create composite characters, philosophize if you wish, include dreams and speculation as or almost as reality. Creative NF acknowledges that memory is malleable and any reconstruction of the past is faulty, biased, constructed. So that sometimes the most honest way to recreate the past is to do so creatively. If that makes sense to you. I’ve seen some Creative Nonfiction that strays so far from fact I’m not sure why they don’t call it fiction.

    Anyway, I think just write this draft without censoring yourself and worry about labels later. I’ve found very often with beginning fiction writers that they often censor out what they are most expert in because they feel no one else can be interested. But the energy that accompanies writing about a passion will carry the reader.

    What you are doing is exciting!

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    1. I appreciate your comments and suggestions, Diane, as well as all you’re teaching me about writing and literature. It is exciting to embark on this adventure, but a bit overwhelming at the moment. Time for a reflection piece, I think, as I work out the next steps. I am deeply grateful to you for your help and encouragement. ❤

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      1. I think what’s exciting about writing fiction is that we don’t have control. In an essay, we usually know what we want to say and the work is finding the right words to say it. But when you fictionalize, you have to let go and see what emerges. The important thing is to do exactly what you’re doing — getting it down on paper (or computer screen). The decisions about structure, etc., can be made later. Just let the story come out, exactly as you are doing. If you find Mavis saying, thinking, doing something unexpected, let her do it!

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        1. It’s funny that you should mention “finding the rights words.” I’m working on a reflection about the contrasts I see between writing from an academic voice and writing from a creative voice. When I write an academic paper, grant, or report, I need to have a title that helps me keep focused on purpose and structure before I begin. Titles like “Rescuing children or homogenizing America?”, or “Tools of the trade for men who care”, remind me to keep focused on what I’m trying to say. But responding to a the word prompt when I was trying to write something creative made it difficult. I muddled through because I was determined to move forward despite writer’s block. But it was hard and disorganized. My language didn’t flow easily. When I wrote to an image, something I often do when I blog, the words were unlocked. I’m still not sure about voice, though. I need to give it more thought and just see what works best as I draft the next pieces 🙂

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  2. There’s also a big difference between blogging — you’re going to write something and post it almost immediately so you’re aiming for clarity and getting it right the first time — and writing for publication when you’ll have time (will NEED time) to delete, reorganize, edit, etc. It’s more than OK to muddle through because those attempts can start the engine and can be discarded after they serve their purpose.

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    1. Thank you for your comments, Karla. I appreciate knowing why your chose Mavis. I think I’m going to change my main character’s name to “Agnes,” my maternal grandmother’s name. As I described in another post about naming, this will give me a chance to heal the past. I do look forward to reading your book someday, but I have a lot of writing to do before I’ll be ready.

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