On Writing an “Indian Child Welfare” Novel & Other Grand Adventures

I hiked into the Grand Canyon.  I must’ve been in my late twenties, maybe early thirties.  It started out as a walk to look over the rim.  I had camped the night before in a tent at one of the sites and woke early (probably about 5am).  I was there with a friend and she was still asleep.  As the sun rose out of the east, I decided to follow the paved roads toward the rim of the Grand Canyon.

dawn on the S rim of the Grand Canyon

It was nice to be out so early in the morning.  No one was around.  It felt like the entire world was mine alone.  I strolled on the sidewalk lining the edge of the Grand Canyon mesmerized by the depth of the canyon and the streaming sunlight slowing filling it’s center.  It was beautiful, magical, and most of all peaceful.

Then I happened upon an entrance.  I didn’t expect to find an invitation that day.

“You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” ― Jodi Picoult

Similarly, I find stories as I stroll through my everyday.  I’m always vigilant and, after being trained by the Institute of American Indian Arts and the University of Oklahoma, I see every moment as a beginning, middle, and end (a story).

I’ve said this before.  I write what I live, and create fiction by moving experiences around, compounding memories, and enhancing the “feeling” of a moment with embellishments.  But embellishments can be made into entertainment when delivered as a book-sized package.

I have three writing projects at the moment.  Those of you who follow my blog likely know about two of those projects.  The development of my novel, Uncle Called Him Spider, has been highlighted on this blog, and you can go back and find the collapse and expansion of those words in posts such as Gossip: Weapon of the Weak.  It’s in full first draft mode.  I’ve revised a little but I’ve put it on hold.  In fact, the reason I put it on hold lead me to another novel, or a novel-in-stories:  Unsettled Between.

“A short story I have written long ago would barge into my house in the middle of the night, shake me awake and shout, ‘Hey, this is no time for sleeping! You can’t forget me, there’s still more to write!’ Impelled by that voice, I would find myself writing a novel.” ― Haruki Murakami

Unsettled Between began a decade ago.  It’s ten years in the making.  I wrote one of it’s first stories, Our Dance, with the help of instructors and classes at the Institute of American Indian Arts–this was around 2008.  It was then published in 2010 with American Short Fiction.  Then I developed another of it’s stories, Time Like Masks, while completing my Master’s Degree at the University of Oklahoma.  It was picked up by South Dakota Review in 2011.  Now, those stories are two of twelve in my novel, Unsettled Between.  I’m proud to say it’s rep’d by Allie Levick of Writers House.

This brings me to the third project.  This one is very recent.  I’m calling it my “Indian Child Welfare” novel, as I develop the story-line to completion.  As I had with Uncle Called Him Spider, I’ll be brainstorming different components of the novel here on my blog.  So be sure to click the “follow” button (not to sound too much like a YouTube video).  I’m not going to give away much detail on this story.  I tend to hold off on full disclosure until the novel has reached fruition.  But as you read posts you’ll be able to piece together what I’m struggling with, as far as what I need to capture, and where the novel is headed.

“You write about experiences partly to understand what they mean, partly not to lose them to time. To oblivion. But there’s always the danger of the opposite happening. Losing the memory of the experience itself to the memory of writing about it.” ― Sigrid Nunez

But I will say this:  I’ve outlined 25 chapters and have developed a full synopsis of the novel at this point.  I’ve worked out details that drive the action.  But I’ve not written the first draft.  That’s my next step.  So be sure to come back and check in.  You’ll find my frustrations and triumphs listed here.  Often my brainstorming sessions show up at odd and unpredictable times.  I’ll also add:  The world of child welfare is not what you think.  I’ve worked for over ten years with at-risk populations and you might believe heroism has a certain purist quality to it, but I’ll dispel that for you.  I have a cast of characters in this “Indian Child Welfare” novel that’ll both affirm and disrupt your belief in how people carry themselves in this field.  When I say you’ll be shocked, it’s not about the obvious things. I don’t dabble in the obvious.  I advocate to “bare witness” to the unseen.  No more secrets.

Grand Canyon National Park: Cedar Ridge Ranger-led Hike 9924

So back to my trek into the Grand Canyon.  I hiked halfway down that day.  I passed people hiking back up (exhaustion on their faces) and people riding donkeys (scary).   It was beautiful watching the morning light grow into full afternoon.  At the halfway point, there was a watering station.  I filled my water bottle, sat next to other hikers in the shade, and contemplated on how easy it was to climb down.

I realized that around four hours had passed and I needed to get back to camp.  I hadn’t told my companion that I was leaving.  She was still asleep.  I didn’t want to wake her.  Besides, I thought I was going on a light walk to the rim and back.  Surely, I’d have returned before she woke.  Then I ended up halfway down into the Grand Canyon. Needless to say, I drank as much water as my stomach could hold, refilled my water bottle, and started the trek back up.

Three steps into climb and I thought, “Oh shit, what did I get myself into?”  My legs suddenly grew tight and each step became work.  I had used a different set of muscles to cruise down the edges of the canyon.  Now I had to use larger muscles to climb up.  Long story short, six hours later I finally pulled myself out of the canyon and back to the rim.  If not for a kind and generous young man, who walked a good portion of the hike alongside me, maybe it would’ve take me longer.  He was ten years younger and already a good conversationalist.  Somehow I made it back to the rim and, by the time I made it back to camp, the sun was starting to set in the west.

Grand Canyon National Park: Ranger Guided Hike To Cedar Ridge -

I apologized profusely to my companion, but she was kind about it all and made her own adventures that day.  She, an artist herself, knew the flights of fancy we creative types tend to have.  To this day, I can find myself on peculiar adventures at a moment’s notice.  And like novel writing, we stumble upon an entrance and dare ourselves to take the invitation.  When we think we’ve completed the journey, we look up and find our challenge is only halfway complete.  So here’s to the next few steps.

(Images were borrowed from flickr, pxhere, and wikipedia)

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