To Be A Writer, Or Not To Be…
Jan 28, 2022
Years ago I was taking a Strategic planning course at the Banff Centre. One of the facilitators was an Anishnaabe artist and academic, whose storytelling I could listen to for hours on end. He was teaching us the facets of strategic planning by having us look at all the parts as a drum and having us create those drums to mirror how we build a strategic plan in our organizations. Once we had completed these raw hide drums, we were all sitting in circles and he asked us how many of us considered ourselves artists. I remember thinking at the time how utterly unhinged I would have to be to raise my hand. I giggled out loud and my cheeks flushed at the thought of it as I rolled my eyes, always being more comfortable with self deprecation than with confronting what I was actually feeling. I had such a narrow view of art that only painting came to mind and my complete inability to mirror the artists work I had enjoyed.
Reflecting on this recently got to me to thinking about how we define ourselves as ‘artists’ and as ‘writers’. So often I think we wait for other people to tell us. For a teacher, institution or an academic to bestow such a designation upon us. For a gatekeeper to dub us worthy. Our own insecurities, fear of rejection and imposter syndrome sabotaging us before we even get started. I struggled for years to actually call myself an artist out loud, thinking it was being kept away by these imaginary beings who defined ‘success’ in dimly lit backrooms. Once I finally did, I was met with the assumption that I did practice the medium of painting or drawing and when I would say beadwork outside of my community I was often met with blank stares and polite smiles as if to say ‘you poor thing’. It became a polite and easy fallback for me to awkwardly end conversations I didn’t really want to have in the first place.
And so it seems I have begun the whole process again with writing. It has been a bit like being hammered over the head with the life is circular not linear teaching. I have had friends exclaim ‘wait, you’re a writer now?’ and that all too familiar spiral of self doubt begins and I try to explain my way out of it instead of just saying yes. It is so much harder but so much easier that way, to just fill up all those holes in vulnerability with more stories. Who am I waiting for to knight me into writerhood? I feel a little nauseous just thinking about it. Maybe one day when I get the nerve to add writer to my socials you will know I have put up the little while flag of surrender to all my own baggage.
Of course, all this isn’t also to say that I do not admire and respect those that have designated their lives to perfecting the craft or really do have that piece of paper, that path just simply wasn’t mine. I am generally just pretty scared the whole time and the process of actually stringing words together and putting them out into the world had been a kind of torment I was unfamiliar with.
Back when I first imagined White Otter and what jumping into being self-employed could look like for me, I imagined a myriad of things. At the time, I thought that tacking ‘Co’ onto the end would act as reminder to me that I wanted it to have different arms that reflected the many different facets of the things I loved. If I was going to take the leap, I wanted to know that I could do things that made me feel not only that I was fulfilled, but also that I was contributing, learning and continuing to grow. I had struggled so much with separating what I did for work vs who I was, and I dreamt maybe there was a different way to embrace my multifaceted self without it having to be defined by either or. I was also trying subconsciously not to follow in my parents’ footsteps of successful serial entrepreneurship and scary things like financial insecurity – but that’s a story for another time.
I had imagined that White Otter could have visual art, writing, design and consulting all sort of complimenting one another. I knew it would take time to figure out what that looked like for me, and I think that also got sabotaged by a prolonged pandemic. It started with beadwork, which I loved so deeply and was a way for me to heal and reclaim a lot of things that had been lost. For a long time, it was only beadwork and the pieces of me that I shared were exclusively art-driven. I started to feel defined by solely that.
So – I share all of this only to say that I am finally beginning to see what I always wanted for White Otter. The art combined with writing and consulting. The embracing of being a multi-faceted individual that enjoys a number of different vehicles of expression. A balance that allows me to create, to continue to do community and capacity building (but with healthier boundaries) and to write.
Again, a few years after my encounter with the drum-making I found myself back at the Banff Centre. I was no longer attending courses as the employee of another Indigenous Nation, but just as myself as a creator of I wasn’t sure what. It was a heavy course that forced a lot of reflection and left me raw with emotion while we talked about relationships and reconciliation. I met a woman there, a writer, whom I formed an almost instant friendship with, but I had learned a long time ago that these intense connections don’t always survive past the timeline of these courses. Luckily this one didn’t share that fate, and after a few coffees and zoom calls, I knew I had met a person that would have a deep impact on my life. Four years later and I can confidently say I likely would still not actually be writing if I hadn’t met this soul and been given the great gift of the spaces she has held for me (and so many others).
After participating in some of her writers’ circles, I decided to submit several pieces I had written for prompts to the first ever Audible Indigenous Writers Circle. It was a 6-month program where several selected writers were paired with published authors and journalists. I was truly gunning for feedback, and automatically assumed that a lot of rejection would help me build character and thick skin if I wanted to pursue writing in any serious manner. I never expected to get in and I thought very seriously about backing out so I didn’t have to confront all the self doubt and my curated buffet of assumptions I guessed other people would make. I forced myself to embrace that you often have to be comfortable being uncomfortable to grow.
I found that sharing my writing has pushed me in ways that I didn’t anticipate. It has been completely and utterly T-E-R-R-I-F-Y-I-N-G, but as often happens, has taught me so much about embracing vulnerability, growing and having courage. Some incredible mentors along the way that have truly gifted me with encouragement and words of wisdom: “At some point, you just have to not give a f*** if other people like the writing or not” and that pain, embarrassment and self doubt can actually be quite funny if you let go of the need to fix it. I’ll get there, I hope.
When I was little, I used to make those bucket lists of things you wish to do before you die. Some had bungee jump or become a ballerina, most had travel. The one thing they all have in common was to write a book. I have always been a storyteller, it just manifested itself in my life in different ways; most notably being told I talk too much, or that I exaggerate to much or daydreaming stories in my head, like Walter Mitty but with love and art. In physical form it manifested through beadwork. Observation is something they have in common, the thread that binds them all. Writing always felt so out of reach to me, like it was reserved for academics or someone who had a more compelling story to tell, but I have since realized it is a lot like art in that it can just written for myself and not solely for the consumption and validation of others approval. It has been freeing in a way I didn’t expect. I wrote for years; in my undergraduates, and then into years of letters, emails, arguments and documents mostly aimed at industry and government that truly sucked the life out of it. I no longer have to worry about justifying my text paragraphs and expressing my ‘asks’ in as few words as possible for politicians to give the time of day.
Last week I found out my story “From This Land” won the Federation of BC Writers literary contest for the creative non-fiction category. It will be my first time ever getting published and my first time truly putting my work out into the world. I truly hope you enjoy it, and if you don’t – that’s totally okay too.
So, though the familiar White Otter florals will be sticking around, they will also be joined by some stories, some renovations and hopefully some larger visual arts projects. I am going to keep trying to show up as the whole me, all the parts that make me happy and make me who I am. I will probably also succeed and fail at trying some new things. I feel a little like I have finally found the team I might not get picked last for.
This is me and I am so happy and grateful you are here.
Pictured above is the actual physical moment in time of me being asked if I considered myself an artist, circa 2013 by a fancy Banff Centre photographer.