BWS 13.01.16: Cherie Dimaline

Cherie Dimaline headshot

Cherie Dimaline’s first award-winning book, Red Rooms, was published in 2007. Her 2013 novel, The Girl Who Grew a Galaxy, was shortlisted for the Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature. Cherie won a 2014 Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts (Emerging Artist of the Year), and in Spring, 2015, the Toronto Public Library appointed her as its first Writer in Residence – Aboriginal Experience. Her new collection of short fiction, A Gentle Habit, was released in December, 2015.

Cherie stops by the BWS blog this week with a guest post. Enjoy!

Growing the Galaxy, Swimming for Shore

“I’ve always considered writing the most hateful kind of work. I suspect it’s a bit like fucking, which is only fun for amateurs. Old whores don’t do much giggling.”

-Hunter S. Thompson

Hey kids, want a job that pays nothing and demands all? One that allows you to continually exercise the muscles that both hold you tense in anticipation and release for the crashing let-down? Oh boy, do I have the job for you.

As a writer, you can master the art of coupon-cutting and insomnia. You’ll also hone your sense of hearing to pick up the shuffle of the postman from a mile away around the time grant letters go out. You’ll be a better actor, pretending your insides aren’t melting into a pool of gooey self-hatred when the rejection forms come in. And with the royalty cheques for successful books, you’ll appreciate the finer things in life, like food court Chinese food. Or heat.

Now, I’m not saying we no longer live in a world where you can parlay your pen into international celebrity and into the beds of gorgeous fans. But I might be saying those groupies will be the kind that are okay with jumping under your 150-thread count sheets at the Thunder Bay Best Western (no offence, Thunder Bay).

The good news is you can still make a living as a writer. The bad news is that it won’t be at writing. It’ll be as a consultant, or banker or at one of those off-shoots of literature that makes you feel like somehow, if even by a fingernail, you are still living the dream; a copyeditor or perhaps the manager of a suburban Indigo where the books smell like maple syrup-scented candles.

So then, why? Why in the hell would any sane person write? Why would they struggle to scribble in-between annual reports at their cubicle, spend Friday nights hunched over a laptop, back curved like a question mark? Why would anyone waste their university years when they could learn a perfectly good trade, like finance strategist or surgical nurse, instead of learning about the metaphor and story arc?

For the same reason Harry chose Hogwarts, I suppose. For the same reason the Pevensie kids went through the door at the back of the professor’s wardrobe to find a lion and a witch. For the same reason, even though you just knew shit was going to end badly in The Beach because you read Lord of the Flies, you were still happy when they found the island and finally reached shore. Because once you have glimpsed real honest-to-god magic in the world, how could you give it up, at any cost?

When I was young (really not that long ago, I swear), it never occurred to me that there were two distinct parts to the whole writer thing or that, as much as the one compulsory segment of actual writing would sustain me, the competitive other side known as “the business” would push me down in the mud repeatedly, like in front of a crowd.

My first book of short stories, Red Rooms, was one of those small miracles that writes itself, gets accepted by the first publisher that sees it and ends up on reading lists and curricula. Awesome, right? Except, I thought maybe that was normal and that’s how things would be from then on–just spit ‘em out and watch ‘em go–and that maybe this even meant that the next one would make money, like rent-paying kind of money. Then I spent 3 years sweating over a novel called The Girl Who Grew a Galaxy. And spent just as many years getting rejection notices with helpful notes like, “Oh, this isn’t where I imagined the story going. Not really for us”, and “Some people are good at short stories and maybe aren’t meant to write novels”.

How did I take it? Well, let’s just say that for a season there I had a really tragic theme song to my life, one that made Adele uplifting. I moped; I questioned my existence and the existence of a literate god; I even tried to write popular fiction, of the sort I imagined was meant for such a cruel world as this, with vampires and crushes and special girls with super powers. I hit bottom when a proposal I wrote for a Harlequin romance was returned with no encouraging note at all.

So I did what any self-respecting writer would do: I called my mother long distance and whined. I imagined her sitting at her kitchen table with a mug of tea and a sympathetic look, nodding throughout my tirade against the artless heathens, the commercialization of our storytelling tradition and the “chosen few” for over an hour. I told her I was done. That I could no longer write because well, why bother. Finally, while I paused long enough to find the right word to describe the sacrifice of culture-bearers (“martyr”, I decided) she said, “But what does any of this have to do with writing?”

I stopped. Had my mother reached early dementia? What did she mean, “What does any of this have to do with writing?” I was just calmly explaining all about writing!

“No, but what does publishing or sales or marketing have to do with writing? Aren’t those all different things? I mean, you can still write, just don’t publish.”

She was right, of course. But we all knew that’s where this story was going. You don’t introduce the mother figure unless a life lesson is about to be imparted.

What did any of this have to do with writing? I’d been writing since I could formulate words. I wrote on my desks (sorry Ms. Cochimilio), on the covers of my notebooks, on the bottoms of my shoes. Eventually I graduated to teenage journals and the more adult “backs of annual budget projections”. I wrote because I had to, I wrote because I could, I wrote because I couldn’t stop worrying about the loose board at the back of the wardrobe once I knew what was behind there. What did publishing and sales and jerks who couldn’t see the potential of a little girl growing an entire galaxy have to do with writing? Absolutely nothing, really.

Clearly my mother is (1) a kind of quiet genius, and (2) the kind of mother who doesn’t mind her kids coming back to live with her in abject poverty.

Writer Leanne Simpson once talked about how important it is to protect the part of you that creates, how vital it is to honour that place where story comes from. For me, that means separating the writer from the author, if you catch my meaning. It means living fully in that first segment–where creation is the rule–before striding into the latter where it may be the exception. I need to not think about sales, contracts and book jacket photos (shudder) and just write. Because even if you know it may end badly, while you’re writing that book, you just have to swim for shore.

Cherie Dimaline visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 13, 2016 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC) – along with Anthony De Sa, C. Fong Hsiung, Kurt Zubatiuk and a special guest talk by Lana Pesch, “Trailervision: Tips and Trends About Book Trailers”.

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