When I’m awarded a fellowship to study with Debra Earling, a writer hero of mine at a conference in the Wallowa Mountains, I accept even though I’ll have to read before the assembled conference. That’s how much I admire Debra and her work. The reading is five to seven minutes on Friday evening before the keynote speaker. If all goes well, I can do seven minutes. Sometimes, even after I’ve prepared and I think I’m okay, I shake and I can’t get my breath.
On a Monday afternoon in early July, I arrive at the Methodist camp south of Wallowa Lake and settle into White, a forestry-service-style cabin under lodge pole pine. It’s named for a minister who lived at the camp, who called it “God’s Country” whenever he spoke of it. Of course. The Eagle Cap Mountains roll out from the lake formed by a glacial moraine. The Snake River Hell’s Canyon Wilderness runs on the east side. It’s stunning country that was Nimi’ipuu ancestral land. Nimi’ipuu or Nez Perce presence hangs over the country. The nearby town of Joseph was renamed for the respected chief, who was still alive when the town changed its name from Silver Lake or Lake City to Joseph in 1880, but although they admired him, he was never allowed to live in his homeland again.
The conference is called “Fishtrap: Writing the West,” a mash up of Nez Perce fishing technology and a historic focus on bringing eastern publishers out to the West and introducing them to western writers like William Kittredge and Wallace Stegner. One of the co-founders was a white historian of the Nez Perce and over the years, the administrators tell us, they maintained relationships with the Nez Perce. Sometimes, like this year, they invite Native authors. The conference has a loyal faculty who come to fly fish and breathe in the beauty of the lake while teaching. There’s a progressive group of artists who live around Joseph; many of the workshop participants are white middle-aged teachers. It’s a conference with smallish workshops and a friendly vibe.
Tuesday late afternoon, several women, including the three Native women in attendance, gather at Terminal Gravity, a brewery in Enterprise, where we’ll meet one woman’s husband. We sit around a table on the balcony, and three white men from the conference, who have the clean look of professionals, walk across the parking lot like they’re wading across a stream to reach us. One, who looks like Ernest Hemingway, clumps up the stairs and asks to buy us a drink.
I remember him from previous conferences. At the end of the week during a panel he will ask how Indians are going to survive under Trump, as pitiful as things are. He earns a response from a Native that challenges him to describe the community that will support white elders when the administration guts nursing home funds. So, while the women reassemble with the fishermen at a larger table, I return to camp to prepare for the reading.
In the past, I’ve tried to memorize my work as performance artists recommend. It hasn’t worked. I tried to recite a short piece at a big art gathering in Seattle. I remember how my husband sighed, frustrated that I left out an essential line. Anxiety blocks me; apparently I can’t pretend to be calm and think freely at the same time. I ask the other fellowship recipients, if they want to practice. Yes, but they can’t say when.
As a writer, it’s not enough to publish beautiful, powerful words. You need to perform your work competently and speak fluently. The days of hermit, reclusive writers, refusing interviews, hiding out to write are generally over. I mean, writers have a responsibility to create a normal life in the midst of the hyper-competitive creative-writing industry. But writers who want to sell their books end up touring, working hard to get venues to read, to speak and teach.
The faculty here, young and old, are promoting new work. I write books for the girl I was. I want girls on and off the Osage reservation to find books that reflect their experience, their families and worldview on the shelves at libraries in Osage County. I want a top tier agent for a chance at national reviews and wide distribution and compensation for some of the time that has gone into this work. It’s possible to write a book that interests agents, but when they meet you, they’re assessing your ability to communicate, your skill, age, and style. Your marketability. I’m not young and attractive, not spunky or hip.
Thursday I work on the text, paring it down. Knowing the work intimately isn’t enough. Sometimes I’m too stiff, have the words mostly memorized and they’re flat. I want to preview the work with friends, who will be in the audience wishing me well.
It’s hard for me to walk to the front of a room to read. I tell myself I don’t have the right clothes; I’m not what the audience expects. My voice is too soft. My mixed ethnicity is unclear, and I’m overweight, which some read as ignorant. I don’t accept all of the self-hate, misogyny, racism and ageism that the world distributes. I feel good about who I am, an Osage woman in her sixties, but the toxins are layered in. When I face my fear and read, as I have again and again, nothing is better than the deepening quiet in a room that tells me a scene is working.
Friday, the fellowship recipients have lunch with the program administrator, and then we go to the White cabin and practice. It’s such a good feeling to listen to strong work, to feel the intent and to support each other. That night our readings are strong. The mock orange on the far side of the Fishtrap stage waves sweetness in the air. My voice doesn’t crack; I tell the story rather than reading it. Afterwards, Emily, Nellie and I stand together, taking pictures beside the podium in front of the Fishtrap quilt. We want to get a drink, but nothing is open.
We sit in the lodge around a large table. Nellie has gone to be with poets in Naomi Shihab Nye’s class. They’re having a party tonight and will have another class tomorrow. Naomi is generous; her work and her countenance are like sunshine at the conference.
A local poet and teacher comes to sit with us, saying how he appreciated me mentioning the Nez Perce elders who were here when I was some years ago. I’m glad you spoke, he says, there are two Nimi’ipuu families in the county, and the local ranchers are nervous about the 320 acres the Nez Perce bought for a Homeland Project near Wallowa.
The man who looks like Hemingway appears. “Well, look where you are,” he says to the poet and pulls a chair up to the table.
“We’ve had all female fellows for a long time,” he says. We were told they selected the top three applicants after a winnowing process. “When you can’t tell if the author is a man or a woman–that’s pretty good,” he says.
“What?” I say, looking from him to the women, the stink rising. We know that agents request to see work more often when a man queries than when the same work is submitted by a female. Hemingway is saying we don’t sound female. I don’t engage with him, because I don’t want to hear anything he has to say.
The morning after the reading, the Wallowa River is still roaring, heavy with snow melt, banging over rocks at a thousand cubic feet per second. The USGS says stream flow is dropping day by day.
I drive north toward home through Joseph, where a new bronze statue of the chief, donated by a member of the Walton family, surveys the tourists and art galleries. The Nimi’ipuu have also recently dedicated a statue of Joseph, created by a Nez Perce sculptor near their casino in Lewiston, Idaho. I learn that this year, 2017, was the second consecutive year that all three fellowships were awarded to women. I cross my fingers for next year.
Ruby Hansen Murray is a writer and photographer, whose work appears in World Literature Today, The Rumpus, As/Us, Apogee, and Yellow Medicine Review. Winner of the 2017 Montana Prize in Creative Nonfiction, she’s a Jack Straw and VONA fellow, awarded residencies at Ragdale, Hedgebrook, Virginia Center for Creative Arts. She received an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2017. She’s a citizen of the Osage Nation with West Indian roots on her mother’s side, living in the Columbia River estuary.