Posts Tagged ‘Marsha Lederman’

Coincidences happened that introduced me to the great Ojibway storyteller Richard Wagamese

April 30, 2020

Discovering Richard Wagamese the Poet

I first discovered this great Canadian aboriginal writer on a blog I follow. I looked into the book she quoted from, Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations by Richard Wagamese, and bought it based on this first entry I read in Chapter I: STILLNESS.

I AM MY silence. I am not the busyness of my thoughts or the daily rhythm of my actions. I am not the stuff that constitutes my world. I am not my talk. I am not my actions. I am my silence. I am the consciousness that perceives all these things. When I go to my consciousness, to that great pool of silence that observes the intricacies of my life, I am aware that I am me. I take a little time each day to sit in silence so that I can move outward in balance into the great clamour of living.

These two entries in Chapter II: HARMONY are equally profound. This first one, about the relationship between the soul and the body, reminds me of what the Sufi mystics said about the body and the universe, the microcosm and the macrocosm.

I USED TO believe my body contained my soul. That was fine for a while. But when I started thinking about oneness with Creator, I came to believe that it’s the other way around. My soul contains my body. It is everything that I am. I am never separate from Creator except within my mind. That’s the ultimate truth, and I need to be reminded, to learn again, to learn anew in order to get it. When I do, I know the truth of what my people say: that we are all spirit, we are all energy, joined to everything that is everywhere, all things coming true together.

Interestingly, when the mind forgets this oneness, loses its connection to inner wholeness, the result is what Maharishi calls Pragyāparādha, the mistake of the intellect, which identifies with a changing limited reality instead of our unbounded inner Self. This identification with the world and loss of memory of the Self is the root cause of all of our suffering, the difference between bondage and liberation.

The other entry, about coming under the influence of the muse, reminds me of William Stafford, another poet who would also get up early every morning to write before sunrise. Although similar in theme, but not as profound, his poem, When I Met My Muse, is more lighthearted.

WHEN THE MUSE is full upon you, you move to the chair at your desk as if entranced, and in that ghostly glow against the full dark before sunrise, story becomes a shape-shifter, a presence that cajoles you, tempts you, coaxes words to eke out onto the page, creating worlds and people from the fire deep within you so that this alchemy of creation becomes transcendent, making time lose all its properties. There is just you and the universe and this creative fire moving through your fingers in bold palettes of colour chasing the dark away until you emerge in the sure, calm light of morning and feel like a writer again.

I discovered a similar transcendent experience described by Canadian Realist Painter Sarah McKendry as she paints through the night until sunrise. See my comment and her quote below in the Responses section.

Discovering Richard Wagamese the Storyteller

Richard Wagamese (October 14, 1955 – March 10, 2017) was an internationally renowned, award-winning author, newspaper columnist and reporter who had also worked in radio and television. In this CBC interview, Candy Palmater asks Richard how a library helped him become a writer. As a destitute, homeless teenager, he walked into a building for warmth and noticed it was filled with silence and many books. He didn’t know where he was. A kind librarian brought him some food and showed him how to find what he was interested in. Richard had only a grade 9 education and devoured books on a wide range of topics. He taught himself how to become a writer and would copy sentences by hand of the great authors who moved him just to see what it felt like. He tells Candy the role he played in the making of the film based on his book.

Indian Horse, the novel and the film

I had just watched an emotionally-charged film on Netflix called Indian Horse. I checked and found out that the film was based on the award-winning novel Indian Horse written by this same Ojibway author! Clint Eastwood was the executive producer. It tells the tragic, yet hopeful and redemptive story of the main character, Saul Indian Horse. Events unfold during a dark era in Canadian history, when young native Indians were separated from their families (including Wagamese’s parents), and sent to notorious Catholic Residential Schools where they were forced to not speak their language or practice their culture. The nuns and priests tried to “scrape the Indian out of them” violently molding them into Christians, traumatizing them for life.

Despite this, Saul finds salvation in the unlikeliest of places and the most favorite of Canadian pastimes — hockey. Fascinated by the game, he secretly teaches himself how to play, and develops a unique and rare skill. Saul’s talent leads him away from the misery of the Residential School to a Northern Ontario Indigenous league and eventually to the pros – but the terrors of Saul’s past seem to follow him.

Wagamese suffered from second-generational trauma, abused drugs and alcohol, was homeless and landed in prison many times. He would eventually be diagnosed with PTSD, which gave him a better understanding of his helpless situation, and finally sought treatment.

A wise tribal Elder told him his role in life was to become a storyteller. Writing would become a healing redemptive practice for him. Surprisingly, many of his readers felt seen, understood. His stories helped them too in their healing journey, fulfilling his destiny.

People who knew Wagamese said he was the creator, parent and protector of stories. Host of CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter and chancellor of the University of Victoria, Shelagh Rogers said of her longtime friend, “Richard really believed everybody had a story.” Listen to Shelagh Rogers’ tribute to Richard Wagamese, a great man who passed away unexpectedly and too soon at the age of 61.

The nature of a writer‘s life

As a writer, Richard Wagamese would win many prestigious awards. On November 3, 2015 in Toronto, the Writers Trust of Canada honored him with the 2015 Matt Cohen Award: In Celebration of a Writing Life. In his humble, at times emotional acceptance speech, he beautifully described his early morning rituals followed by sitting for a while in the candle-lit darkness, thinking about what it is that he is about to do, “and you ask for as much guidance and strength from The Creator as possible.” He heads down the hall to a place where he will sit for hours at his computer. “And you sit there and you breathe and you hope and you dream and you close your eyes, and you feel the essence of that gift radiating inside you. And you put your fingers on that keyboard and watch while they emerge out upon the screen.”

I love this part of his speech: “And you wait for that time when you know that that perfect sentence has just occurred. And there‘s a gladdening in your spirit when that happens, and you seek to write another one, just like it, to follow it across the page. And in my experience, that‘s the nature of a writer‘s life. That immaculate sense of solitude, when there‘s just you and the language and the air and the universe and that gift that The Creator downloaded you with free-of-charge…. “

Richard Wagamese 2015 Matt Cohen Award speech

And in my experience, that‘s the nature of a writer‘s life. That immaculate sense of solitude, when there‘s just you and the language and the air and the universe and that gift that The Creator downloaded you with free-of-charge.

Writing for the story’s sake and not your own

In this talk at the University of British Columbia (Nov 27, 2013) on his book tour for Indian Horse, author Wagamese gives some valuable advice for young writers. His years of experience honing his craft as a journalist and a writer for radio and television prepared him to become a successful novelist and poet. “In that way of writing you learn how to be sharp, simple and concise, and learn how to trim the fat from every sentence, and you learn how to say exactly what you mean and to mean what you say.” He emphasized “that conciseness and that brevity that results in perfect clarity really served this novel well.”

He goes on to explain that it wasn’t necessary to be overly dramatic or poetic in his prose. “You harness that, you reign that back in and you learn to work for the story itself. And if there’s any aspiring or perspiring writers in the room, that’s the biggest advice I can give you, that if you work for the story’s sake all the time it will spare you the anxiety and the inner debate about how much you should write or in what way you should write it because you’re writing for the story’s sake and not your own. And again that particular rule served me well in the writing of Indian Horse.”

In a July 4, 2014 Globe and Mail article, we learn where he got that advice from: Q: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? A: Norval Morrisseau once told me to “work for the story’s sake” and that is the best advice I’ve ever received. When I work for the story’s sake I leave my ego at the door and the energy of the story emerges without my interference. It’s why Indian Horse and Medicine Walk ring so resonant with people – because me and my ego are not in the way of the story pouring outward.

Embrace everything and write what you don’t know

A year later (Nov 18, 2014), Richard Wagamese was invited to read from the MacEwan Book of the Year 2013/14, Indian Horse. It included an on-stage interview with author Richard Van Camp. He read from Indian Horse, answered good questions from the audience, and concluded with a reading from his new book Medicine Walk, a story about a reconciliation between an absent father and his son, something Wagamese had been grappling with in his own life. MacEwan University posted this inspiring event on YouTube.

He offered good advice to hopeful writers and shared his process, how when he goes on long walks, he connects with the land, and thinks about ideas that get triggered. He says them out loud to himself as he develops a story until it’s clearer to him, then returns home to type it up on his computer, offline to avoid distractions. He told them to be open to anything as it could trigger a story. They should open themselves up to and embrace everything as it would impact their writing and keep their readers engaged.

He also touched on the notion that “some courses and programs tell you to write what you know.” I found his take on that advice revealing: “But it’s come to me over the course of the last few books, that if I write what I don’t know, then the process of me discovering the answers to what I don’t know makes the journey of following the story in the book stronger for the reader, because we both get to find the answer together.” (These great writers said the exact same thing.)

But it’s come to me over the course of the last few books, that if I write what I don’t know, then the process of me discovering the answers to what I don’t know makes the journey of following the story in the book stronger for the reader, because we both get to find the answer together.

This final question was very interesting, one that he “was not often asked.” He gave a surprising and impressive answer. He shared how his 16 months of yoga and meditation practice, along with a change in diet had improved his life physically, emotionally, and spiritually. On all these levels, yoga was “informing my sense of myself.” It brought a peace and a quietness within the process “that I’ve been waiting for all my life.” Answering her question specifically he explained, “and so when I turn to the act of writing, I bring that same sense of holism into the process of writing.” He then described the kind of improvements he experienced in his skill as a writer, attributing them to that influence, which, he concluded, created “a big leap forward” that showed up in his new book, Medicine Walk. (A good question that elicited a great answer!)

Learning to become a better person

In her informative and heartfelt obituary (March 24, 2017, updated May 16, 2018): Ojibway author Richard Wagamese found salvation in stories, Globe and Mail journalist Marsha Lederman wrote that “his last book, Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations, came out of Mr. Wagamese’s daily Facebook posts. They had a devoted following and Douglas and McIntyre head Howard White proposed publishing them as a collection. On March 7, Embers was nominated for a BC Book Award. Two nights later, Mr. Wagamese went to sleep and didn’t wake up.”

The book actually did win the 2017 Bill Duthie Booksellers’ Choice Award. This is the conclusion to her article: In one of Mr. Wagamese’s final Facebook meditations, posted in November, he wrote about starting his day with candlelight, tea and meditation, and what the years had taught him. “Actions born of contemplation are wiser than those made in quiet desperation. If all that’s true, and I feel it is, then I have grown some in these 61 years. I have learned and become a better person. And from that maybe it’s the years ahead that will be the richest of my life. A quiet man moving forward, gladly beyond all expectation.”

Two new posthumously published books by Richard Wagamese

CBC Books posted news of two new posthumously published books by Richard Wagamese: the unfinished novel Starlight (Mar 01, 2018) and One Drum (Nov 06, 2019). This latest book review also includes 3 earlier CBC Radio interviews, 2 of which are referenced in this blog post. You can Read an excerpt from Richard Wagamese’s final book, One Drum.

Newly added: Insights from Richard Wagamese’s Meditations.


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