Award-winning and prolific writer, Louise Erdrich remarked that, “When we are young, the words are scattered all around us. As they are assembled by experience, so also are we, sentence by sentence, until the story takes shape.” In this simple statement, Erdrich spoke to the heart of being a writer and the writing process. Louise Erdrich is an acclaimed, award-winning author and poet, having written over 14 novels. She was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2009) for The Plague of Doves, and the National Book Award for Fiction (2012) for Round House.
Born June 7, 1954 in Little Falls, Minnesota, Louise Erdrich was the eldest of seven children. Her father was of German ancestry and her mother was from Anishanaabe (Chippewa and Ojibwa), the Turtle Mountain Chippewa. Erdrich’s maternal grandfather was a tribal chief, and her homestead is one of the oldest structures on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. Erdrich is influenced both by her indigenous heritage and her life experiences.
Erdrich grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota where both her parents taught at the Bureau of Indian Affairs school. As a young child, her parents supported her writing. Her father paid her a nickel for each piece of writing, and her mother designed book covers for Louise’s books. Louise began writing a journal when she was young, and she continues this practice. Erdrich comes from a long line of storytellers and that has been a major influence on her writing. Living near her large extended family continues to provide Erdrich with the support, connection, and experiences that fuel and feed her as a writer. This connection with family finds its way into each of her books, including The Painted Drum,
“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won't either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.”
Erdrich’s writing is influenced by her heritage and life experiences. Her work and drive reflect the experience of being a woman and mixed indigenous seeking both identity and voice through writing. She was one of the first women to attend Dartmouth, earning a Master of Arts degree in 1972. In 1979 she earned a Master of Arts in writing from Johns Hopkins. The poetry from her thesis was later published as Jacklight. At that time she also began writing, Tracks. She worked at Boston’s The Circle, the Boston Indian Council’s newspaper. As a mixed indigenous woman coming of age as a writer in the 1970s, Louise Erdrich was breaking ground and becoming a voice for women and spokesperson for indigenous rights and identity.
Louise Erdrich met Michael Dorris when she was invited to Dartmouth to read her work. They corresponded while he was in New Zealand, and she took a writer-in-residence position at Dartmouth, returning there in 1981. Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris were married in October, 1981. Dorris, who was half Modoc, was also a mixed indigenous person, sharing many of the struggles that Erdrich writes about in her novels. The couple collaborated on, as they described it, “every word of every piece” either of them wrote. To earn extra money, they wrote romantic novels together under the name, Milou North. Dorris had three adopted children when they married, and Erdrich adopted the children. Together, Erdrich and Dorris had three children. Their oldest child was killed in a car accident in 1991 causing the family great sorrow and strain on their marriage. After 15 years of marriage, the two separated and later divorced. In 1997, after suffering depression for many years, Dorris committed suicide.
Despite the loss and grief, Erdrich seems to be both inspired and fueled by the experiences and relationships that fill her life.
From The Painted Drum,
“You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.”
After her divorce and the death of Dorris, Erdrich returned to the reservation where she wrote The Antelope Wife and a number of other novels each of which explore more deeply, the search for voice and identity. In The Antelope Wife, Erdrich wrote:
“We have these earthly bodies. We don't know what they want. Half the time, we pretend they are under our mental thumb, but that is the illusion of the healthy and the protected. Of sedate lovers. For the body has emotions it conceives and carries through without concern for anyone or anything else. Love is one of those, I guess. Going back to something very old knit into the brain as we were growing. Hopeless. Scorching. Ordinary.”
Bill Moyers interviewed Louise Erdrich shortly after she received the NationalBook Award in 2012. During that interview when asked by what she thought about being compared to writers like William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Her simple response, “It’s gotta be Erdrich. I just can’t do anything else.”
For writers who strive to get their work written and published, Louise Erdrich may seem like an unrealistic model given her prolific and very successful career. While her style, prose, and poetry is beautiful, rich, raw and grounded in earthly and sorrowful realism, her ideas about the writing life are so wildly simple and profound that it makes me laugh. Louise Erdrich does what many cannot seem to do; she writes. As she puts it, “first one small word next to one small word.” When asked the question so often, Erdrich wrote advice to herself about writing, as any good journalist would do. What was the advice she gave to herself?
“Advice to myself: “Leave the dishes, let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator....leave the black crumbs at the bottom of the toaster, and don’ t patch the cracked cup, don’t patch anything. Don’t mend, don’t even sew on a button. Buy safety pins. Let the wind have its way, and then the dust that invades the dead, foaming up gray rolls under the couch. Talk to them, tell them they’re welcome.Don’t keep all the puzzles or the dolls tiny shoes. Don’t worry who uses whose tooth brush or if anything matches at all, except...pursue the authentic, go after it with all your heart. That place you don’t even think about cleaning out, that closet stuffed with savage momentous. Don’t sort the paper clips, ....don’t answer the telephone, ever, or weep over anything that breaks. Paint molds will grow within those sealed cartons within the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life, and talk to the dead who drift in through the screened windows. Who collect patiently on the tops of food jars and books. Recycle the mail, don’t read it. Don’t read anything except what destroys the insulation between yourself and your experience”.
Writers write. Writers also raise children, love and lose their loves, suffer and heal, struggle with finances, politics, or something. All of writers have obstacles to finding their voice or finishing their novels or publishing their poetry. However, in the words of Louise Erdrich,
“I suppose one develops a number of personas and hides them away, then they pop up during writing. The exertion of control comes later. I take great pleasure in writing when I get a real voice going and I’m able to follow the voice and the character. It’s like being in a trance state. Once that had happened a few times, I knew I needed to write for the rest of my life...I just keep going.”