Debra Magpie Earling, a noted Native American writer and director of the creative writing program at the University of Montana, will present her much-lauded work, "Perma Red," at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 20, at the Billings Public Library and at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 21, as part of a panel of indigenous writers at the Yellowstone Art Museum. She appears with three other indigenous writers: Diane Glancy, author of "The Servitude of Love"; David Alexander Robertson, author of "Will I See?"; and Wayne Arthurson, author of "The Traitors of Camp 133."
Here is what Earling had to say about writing:
As a writer, do you feel that you look at the world differently than the way non-writers see it?
I look at the world through a distilled lens, the lens of preoccupation and fascination.
All those lucky people who live in the moment. I cannot escape this lens. I am constantly aware of the power of an image, the musicality of a line, the profundity of a moment, but only so I can capture it in words, stop it in time. Images tap in my head like music and I am constantly distracted. I am grateful for writing but feel it removes me from experiencing true joy. I'm a troll casting for that certain wonder that will ignite the page. Look out for pesky writers. We're ruthless in our pursuits.
What are the major influences in your writing? Beauty and sorrow. Love everlasting.
How do you balance teaching and serving as director of creative writing at UM and your own writing?
This has been a particularly difficult time. I am not good at balancing teaching and writing. I've lost many novels over the years because teaching requires the same intensity and attention that my own writing does. I am not complaining. I love the work. Each student's work becomes my own. I agonize and fret over student stories and try to inhabit their visions. But this new job, serving as the director of such a long and distinguished creative writing program, is deeply humbling and immensely satisfying. If financial times were better, the position would have fed a deep well of writing. I witness firsthand my students' struggles to write, understand so clearly what they have sacrificed to come to UM, and all of that immense hope and sacrifice fuels my own inspiration. I want to be of service to them. These students are the spirit of the future — and the future is beautiful.
What are you working on at present?
Ah, such a fun story, a novel about witches and the old Ursuline boarding school. But the story that really calls to me is the novel "The Lost Journals of Sacagawea." I am gripped by the power of Sacagawea's story. Her life haunts me and I want to finish the novel as soon as I can. I feel the urgency. A call. Oh time. I wish I had more. Don't we all?
What do you develop first as a writer, the plot or the characters?
I keep shooting for the plot but get hung up on the characters. They tend to have their own plot, their own direction. They irk me sometimes. Damn them!
Bless them! Get on with the story, I tell them. But this sounds crazy. Wonderfully loony. And true.
How important is it to read other people's work?
I am saddened to think that America's reading public is decreasing in numbers. Less people are reading books, and less people are buying books. This trend has to change if we are going to prosper as a nation, and if we are going to give our young people (and all people) new inspiration. I try to read as much as I can, from great works of fiction and nonfiction to everything in between. We understand each other through books. We embrace other cultures and other ways of being through reading because we can recognize close up and personal that we are all the same in our humanity. Reading allows us to inhabit different worlds. What an incredible gift. Oh, to curl up with a good book, a cup of tea, and a long winter's night. Oh, to read to a child. If you're troubled by the world, and who isn't these days? READ. You will be transported into a quiet haven, a cocoon of wonder. Go buy a book now.
What advice would you give to an emerging writer who is trying to get published?
First of all, READ. Read everything about the subject you wish to write about. Comb your work over and over to eliminate tired language and cliches. Sign up to read at an open mic with only five or ten minutes to read. Suddenly, you'll discover a lot to cut, and then keep the cuts. Be patient. Believe in yourself but be willing to sacrifice scenes you love to serve the work as a whole. Be fearless. And most of all, have a wonderful time writing. Writing should be your big love, not a burden.