Coming Home? – Writing 101

Carol A. Hand

Let me begin by being honest. This assignment proved to be far more difficult than anticipated. I wanted to use the word prompt to draft the beginning of a novel, but I found myself up against decades-long university programming. I just couldn’t break away from the need to write like a distant observer. The only character I could put myself into was my own.

I’m including my first draft, and my after thoughts. I really would appreciate honest, constructive feedback.

************

Draft “Coming Home?”

Let’s go for a ride. It’s a nice day and I want to show you the house the tribe is building for me,” said Grandfather Thomas.

(I think of him as grandfather. It’s a title of respect for someone who is older than I am. He’s in his late 70s. And in a sense we’re related. We’re both Ojibwe although from different communities. He’s tall, thin, and stately, with silvered hair that’s often covered by a baseball cap. His hearty laughter and ready wit make him seem much younger than his chronological age. But his stooped shoulders and stiff movements make me wonder if he’s in pain although I’ve never heard him complain.)

Grandfather Thomas has always made me feel welcome in this Ojibwe community that is not my own. I wonder if he really understands what it meant when I told him that I was here to conduct a research study. Will it ever be possible for me to remain distant from people like him whom I am learning to care about during my short time here? He eagerly shares his stories and his artwork with me, and all I should really do as a researcher is listen and ask questions. My job is to record his words and write up my observations every evening after our visits when I return to my little efficiency apartment in the neighboring town.

Sure,” I said. “Do you want me to drive? My car’s right over here.”

Yes, I was being polite, but I was also a little hesitant to ride with an elder who is sometimes easily distracted.

We set off, traveling past tribal buildings, past the HUD homes. As we drive, Grandfather Thomas is telling me the history of the people who live in each home. Finally, we come to a fork in the road. The road to the right is paved.

Go left here,” he said.

We travel on the bumpy rutted one-lane dirt road past pine trees, and past birch and aspen trees that are beginning to take on a golden autumn glow.

We’re coming up to the house now. Pull into the driveway.”

His new house is set back from the road, nestled in the woods. I can see a small stream in the backyard. Inside, the house is light and airy. Construction materials are scattered about – and the floors are still uncovered plywood – but it’s easy to see that his new house will be much nicer than the cramped, over-heated apartment he lives in now in the tribal elders’ center.

It is a nice, ordinary ranch house, appropriate for someone in his late 70s. He won’t have to climb too many stairs. But, there aren’t any houses close by and the road will be hard to travel in the winter.

He’s eager and impatient to move, voicing his frustration with the tribal council because it’s taking so long. He wants to move before winter.

As we drive back to town, Grandfather Thomas is quiet. It gives me time to think. Even though the dirt road bears his family name, and even though his ancestors have lived on this reservation land for centuries, I wonder if it really feels like home to him. He’s lived away from this community for almost his entire life. It wasn’t his choice or his family’s decision. When he was just five years old, he was kidnapped as he walked along the village road. The strangers who enticed him into a car in the early 1920s were not the strangers we often imagine taking children. They were missionaries, sanctioned by the federal government to round up Native American children for placement in crowded unhealthy institutions far from their families and communities. There, they would be forced to speak the language and adopt the customs and religions of those who conquered their Indigenous nations long ago. There, they would be taught the skills that would make them productive manual laborers and servants.

Grandfather Thomas was among the lucky. He survived . And he was able to return to the reservation after his wife died ten years ago. I wonder if he felt at home here, though, because he spent so much time away. The community was different than the one he knew as a little boy.

I wonder if he ever felt at home anywhere after he was kidnapped…

It’s a question I can’t ask him. I can only listen to what he chooses to share. Although he never mentions this, the stories he does choose to share continue to affect me profoundly through the years that follow…

************

After Thoughts

I wonder if the words I wrote convey how deeply I loved the people I was privileged to meet. (It’s not something I’m supposed to admit as a researcher.) They gave me the most precious gifts, their trust, friendship, and their stories. I hope that I can honor those gifts by sharing what I learned to raise awareness about the past and present issues people on the margins face.

What I’ve sketched out here isn’t poorly written, but it seems to lacks substance. As I reflect on this beginning, I keep hearing my university graduate advisor asking me “What do you mean by this term?” In this case, the term is “home.” How can I portray what home is and means with tactile details that give it substance? How do I describe it in ways that touch the deep human longing we all feel for a sense of connection and belonging? This beginning doesn’t do that for me.

It may meet Hemingway’s advice to begin with one true statement. I think that’s about all it has. It’s missing heart. I want people to feel what it’s like for a child who is kidnapped to lose his home. To feel what it does to the meaning of home for families that lose children to horrifically abusive institutions generation after generation as they watch helplessly. To feel what it does to communities when they are unable to fulfill their most sacred duty – protecting and nurturing children to assure cultural survival – because the children that are supposed to protect have been violently ripped from their care generation after generation.

I want to write something that reaches people so they understand the history of the colonialism and its legacy today. I want them to care. I don’t want to blame anyone for the past. It’s done. Blaming those who carried out these policies in the past does nothing to heal trauma for descendants of the victims or the perpetrators. And it does nothing to end the collective abuse of children today both here and abroad.

As someone who grew up between cultures, I became a boundary-spanner and an ethnographer to survive. Writing a good ethnography is like telling a story. It requires the art of translation, the ability to bring others inside of experiences or a world or a culture that are unfamiliar. I don’t think this first draft does that…

************

I would like to be able to answer the voice of my advisor that still echoes in my thoughts. What does the word “home” mean? It’s more than a place. It’s more than being surrounded by a group of people who accept us for who we really are, with all of our faults and gifts. Can I remember times in my life when I felt “home”? Maybe the years I lived without electricity surrounded by forest on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation, but it’s something I still need to think about.

ldf winter

Photo: Winter on Amik Lake – sometime in the early 1990s

This exercise has been so valuable. It’s made me think even though I don’t have any answers today. I do look forward to  hearing your thoughts.

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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31 thoughts on “Coming Home? – Writing 101”

  1. I think you’re on the right start and I like the beginning. But I suspect you didn’t ask just to be showered with praise, eh. And so, I was expecting something more to happen at the house, detail of it and its surroundings, how it compares to other places he lived, more detail in general and or perhaps why the tribal council is taking so long, surely there’s a villain there. My heart took an upbeat when I read he was kidnapped and I would have liked to read more on that.

    For what this is worth, Carol. Understand though, I’m not a successful writer, so take this with the proverbial grain of salt.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I appreciate your comments and feedback more than I can say, Peter.

      I’m curious to know what “home” means to you. I think the diverse meanings of “home” are at the heart of what I ultimately want to convey in whatever format this work finally takes.

      (I’m sure you realize that I don’t judge my friends or others on the socially-constructed notions of success and popularity. I value honesty, integrity, and passion for social justice, all among your many strengths :-).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Only when I tried to answer did I realize how tough the question was, what home means to me. I can’t seem to think outside the box here, so from a fundamental aspect it’s simply where I take my refuge. But really, it’s more than that. It’s a sacred place. It must be secure, emanate warmth and welcoming to myself and visitors alike. It’s where I like to be whenever I can, my preferred place in the world. On another level, home can be a place I like to visit. The desert isolation of Big Bend National Park in Texas, being such a place; where it’s been too long since. And home is in my thoughts, there in silent contemplation no matter my location. However, rarely do I feel at home contemplating while sitting in traffic on the crowded freeway home in the evening, which of course makes physical home all the more inviting. And finally, home is the final destination, the end journey where life meets death. That sounds a little melodramatic, I know. But it is what it is.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Carol, I had a problem with traditional academic research until I found ‘auto ethnographic’ research. It does give space for sharing your experiences, beliefs and journey. There’s also practice based research. Maybe that way the objectivity of conventional academic work won’t constrain you? It may feel like your blog then, and that may make it easier?

    All the best to your new project

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Nicci. I appreciate your thoughtful comments. Ultimately, I’m thinking that I want to move away from writing in any academic format. I really do want to try to disguise identities in fictionalized places and people but it’s so difficult for me to figure out how to do this, hence my first attempt to tell a story through dialogue and observations in a somewhat non-linear flow.

      That being said, I’m curious how you define “home.” (I guess ever the academic, eh?) As I just said to Peter in my reply to his comments, I think the variety of cultural meanings of “home” is at the center of this work. I’d love to hear your perspective 🙂

      Like

  3. I think the story is interesting but there does need to be more heart. Perhaps you good start with the story of this terrible time in history when native american children were legally kidnapped and then introduce Grandfather and his return home. I an event you write beautifully and about a subject that not many know about. I look forward to reading more of your posts and will be following you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I like this a lot. I do think the heart comes in when you tell about the kidnapping. So my first impulse is to introduce the most dramatic material sooner, to grab the reader’s emotions. After you write “Grandfather Thomas has always made me feel welcome in this Ojibwe community that is not my own” you might continue with something like “and in some ways is not his own either.” and follow that with what you’ve written further down: “Even though the dirt road bears his family name, and even though his ancestors have lived on this reservation land for centuries, I wonder if it really feels like home to him. He’s lived away from this community for almost his entire life. It wasn’t his choice or his family’s decision. When he was just five years old, he was kidnapped as he walked along the village road. The strangers who enticed him into a car in the early 1920s were not the strangers we often imagine taking children. They were missionaries, sanctioned by the federal government to round up Native American children for placement in crowded unhealthy institutions far from their families and communities. There, they would be forced to speak the language and adopt the customs and religions of those who conquered their Indigenous nations long ago. There, they would be taught the skills that would make them productive manual laborers and servants.

    Grandfather Thomas was among the lucky. He survived . And he was able to return to the reservation after his wife died ten years ago. I wonder if he felt at home here, though, because he spent so much time away. The community was different than the one he knew as a little boy.

    I wonder if he ever felt at home anywhere after he was kidnapped…”

    Then allow yourself to write about your own notions of “home” in almost essay form. Maybe work in how your efficiency apartment isn’t home but it’s where you’re staying while conducting this research project.

    You and Grandfather Thomas drive, as you’ve written. And you think about your role, not supposed to love the people you study. But maybe how can you help but love someone you call Grandfather?

    You see the house being built for him. He wants to move in before winter.

    I think it’s a very strong start. Please keep going.

    Only one other thing which may not make a difference at all and may be the fault of a Eurocentric perspective. In the first sentence, when you write “Grandfather Thomas,” it sounds like it’s going to be a children’s book. Possibly you could use his full name in the first sentence and then continue “I call him Grandfather Thomas because…” and subsequently always refer to him as Grandfather Thomas.

    Write on!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful and detailed feedback, Diane. I love your suggestions for reorganizing the flow. I wonder if it would make more sense to use the Ojibwe word fir grandfather as his title (mishoomis). That would add an element of cultural difference from the very beginning.

      Again, thank you for your helpful and detailed suggestions, as well as your encouragement 🙂

      Like

  5. Carol: are the comments in parentheses meant to be part of the story, or just explanation for the blog? You must decide at the outset of a story what voice you will be using: first-person, third-person, etc. If writing in the third person (typical of most fiction) and you find this hard at first, try writing it in first person for the draft; you can change it to third person later.
    Also, look for details that relate to one another. i.e. Is there something in the narrator’s life that corresponds with Grandfather Thomas’s life? How can you make that connection without being too obvious? Try to think like a poet using metaphors. For example, is there something iconic on Grandfather’s landscape that he resonates with, that is a metaphor for his experience? Maybe it’s the old residential school he has to drive past on the way to his new house every day. Maybe it’s something as simple as an old tree—the one place of refuge he found to hide beneath during the awful school years. Make this connection early in the story and keep coming back to it at moments of stress or sudden insight in the character’s life. Look to yourself and your own experience for examples of this.
    Remember that one of the most important aspects of storytelling is knowing when to hold back information and when to give it; this creates anticipation in readers.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for these very helpful suggestions, Art. Trying to write fictionalized accounts is new to me. It feels clumsy and I don’t know where to start, how to format, or how to structure the flow.

      I am appreciative of your advice to make connections between the narrator and the focal character, and the importance of finding a central metaphor – the place or thing that symbolizes “home.” In Grandfather Thomas’ situation it’s “coming home,” for others, it’s preserving home (I think?).

      And thanks for the advice to create anticipation.

      Like

  6. Hi Carol,

    I remember having a similar discussion about home with foreign students. Me, I guess I define it by sensation or connectedness. At the moment, home is a place of sea, sun, guineafowl and family. But in Obz, it was vibrant streets, students, bars, clubs, noise and laughter. Home is the place where I live, I guess, rather than a foreign land. And it can be transient, but there are aspects you take with you, like colour or beauty. Mostly though, I think home is the family, life and community around me.

    Sent from my iPhone

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m in no way a writer so I cannot comment on that aspect but I do like Peter’s points above. So as far as “home” for me…here goes. Home is where you are most comfortable, where you feel you can turn it into something you love with your things and start to create memories there with your family. It is my sanctuary and sometimes, I can feel put out if people show up unannounced and intrude upon my solitude. It is a place that I require a positive vibe from visitors or the visit may be cut short as I cannot have the negativity in my sanctuary, my home. There are those who exude this and I try to steer clear. Peace, Love, and Comfort are “home”.

    I look forward to your followup drafts, Carol.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I’m no writer, so I could not help in any constructive way. What you wrote here however, got my attention. I wanted to find out more about this man and the people.

    For what it’s worth.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. >>> “How can I portray what home is and means with tactile details that give it substance?”

    One way would be to include anecdotes and/or analogies which are relatable to a larger group. For example, reading this draft made me think about my personal experiences in parochial school where I resisted the dogma being taught to me and – as a consequence – suffered a decline in self-esteem as the backlash against my non-conformity mounted.

    From a stylistic viewpoint, the use of indented paragraphs and italicized quotes could be reconsidered – consult your instructor or book on elemental style.

    The subject matter of the story is very compelling. I liked it a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Robert. I love the fact that you made connections between your own experiences and those of Grandfather Thomas. Let me think about how to interweave analogies. I’ve already begun thinking of edits based on helpful feedback.

      I also appreciate the details about style. As I mentioned to Art, I don’t want to read fiction while I work on this. (I read like an empath and absorb other people’s voices, language, expressions. Although those qualities make me a good interviewer, they get in the way when I’m trying to write, especially something like this that is so outside of my comfort zone.)

      Finally, thank you for your kind words and encouragement. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Hi Carol, I know exactly what you mean by university programming. It has taken me over a decade to dare to write anything and put it out to an audience, purely because everything I had written, for many years, had had to be evidenced, tested and evaluated. It takes a long time to break free from academic restraints, and to realise that what you write and how you write it is entirely up to you.
    For me, your writing came alive when you were delving into Grandfather Thomas’s early life and describing what had happened to him. He’d been on a journey, and that journey will have helped to shape the way he lived his whole life, and the way he perceived it.
    I hope you tell us more about Grandfather Thomas 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for your wonderful comments, Ruth. You’ve elegantly summarized the constraints of academic writing. I also appreciate your specific feedback about the part that came alive.

      Posting this draft was an act of courage, really, but taking risks to learn new things makes me feel intensely alive. I’m eager to begin editing but it will have to wait. I’m hoping that tomorrow’s prompt will give me that opportunity.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s one of the reasons I started blogging – to write using a different approach and medium. It seems to have freed me from the academic boundaries whilst, at the same time, I am able to make use of the database in my mind in a new way. ☺

        Liked by 1 person

  11. I live near the Potawatomi. They consider the whole United States as home. They are angry still with the way they have been treated by our government. They are grateful to have a portion of the land they roamed but it isn’t like it was before the English came. They were a tribe that stayed mainly in Michigan and Wisconsin. But in their stories they talk about a time before the French even came when all tribes kinda got along. They had tribes they traded with and hunted with. They are keepers of the fire. I live near the forest Potawatomi. I know many here and I can say this, they believe home is where you family is located. Home is where you hunt, fish, and do your pow wows (Rituals). It is where you worship. It is where your joy is located. It isn’t anything physical. It is a spiritual place where your friends are, where you preside, where you enjoy being. Knowing their ways, you can really expand on that. They have many stories. Sit around the fire with them at any time and they will tell you them all. Use the stories to connect with your book and modern life. They love nature. They believe the whole planet is our home and needs to be honored and respected. They have taught me so much. I really do live by their code more than any other.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Carol, this piece is fascinating to me. I think you’ve done more with it than you think. Here are my suggestions for taking it to the next level–infusing it with the an emotional core.
    There are two moments where you touch on Grandfather Thomas’ emotions–a short paragraph where you tell us he’s frustrated with the slow pace of building and eager to move in, and then you say he’s silent on the return journey. First, rather than telling us this, show us his body language–his hands, his eyes. Let the reader feel his frustration. His silence on the ride back implies to me that he too is perhaps not only eager to embrace this new idea of “home,” but also scared about it for the very reasons you so eloquently describe. This should be his home, but he feels like a stranger in his birthland. You worry that you can’t ask him all the questions you wish to, but sometimes you have to embrace that ambiguity and be honest with the reader. I see a clear connection between your own world, with a foot in two cultures, and his. No harm to let the reader know that you recognize and empathize with his feelings of ambiguity and fear.
    I really hope this is helpful. Bottom line, I would love to hear more of how this story evolves. And personally, I would ask those questions. Grandfather Thomas has a perspective on a very significant part of American culture that needs to be heard.
    Best of luck, Melissa

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for such thoughtful comments, Melissa. Your insights and feedback are incredibly helpful! I’m in the process of editing this and will certainly include some of the changes you’ve suggested. I did write the “beginning” of the story (I think) and decided to write it in the third person by fictionalizing the researcher. Me, but not really me… It gives me the freedom to say and do things I’m not able to do as a researcher stuck with merely reporting what I see and hear…

      Liked by 1 person

  13. “How can I portray what home is and means with tactile details that give it substance? How do I describe it in ways that touch the deep human longing we all feel for a sense of connection and belonging? This beginning doesn’t do that for me.”

    I don’t really think you can do all this in the first draft of a novel. I got really good advice about 20 years ago that you should count on doing 12 drafts of a novel. I always use the first draft to complete the structure of the entire novel. I use subsequent drafts to develop characters, dialogue, emotional tone and in the final drafts syntax and diction.

    We have a Maori writer in New Zealand named Patricia Grace who uses a similar approach. You might be interested in checking out some of her books to see how she does it. My favorite is “Baby No-Eyes.”

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I always come in late. I read the second one post first, about Mavis beginning the research. That was totally engaging, more so than this one. Just relax and write. Let your imagination run free. Follow whatever prompts or instructions you’re given, but relax. This isn’t a research paper, you don’t have to prove anything. And, like Stuart said, you may have many versions. With writing fiction, it’s more about the journey, the process. Letting your mind roam free, reveling in the power and magic of words and imagination meeting, struggling, creating. So, if you spend this initial time just writing from your heart, the stories you want to tell will come through. You have a natural, innate writing talent and the more your write the easier it’ll be and the story will develop. Just enjoy yourself.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Ha, I read this piece but needed more time to think about it. Now going back, I am amazed at all the helpful comments that were posted. I would like to thank these commentors for such specific help with the very things I also struggle with. I really felt heart coming through especially in your “After thoughts” I’m looking forward to following your journey here. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for such thoughtful words 🙂 They are incredible comments, aren’t they? I am so grateful to have these friends in my life, willing to share their expertise in kind and helpful ways. And I’m grateful to know it helps others as well.

      Liked by 1 person

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