Today I’m happy to present the second installment in my Mother/Writer series: a profile of Louise Erdrich, award-winning novelist, poet, children’s book author, independent bookstore owner, and mother of seven (!).
Once best known as a leading voice in the second wave of the Native American Renaissance, Louise Erdrich is now hailed as one of the great writers of our time. Winner of the National Book Award, the Pushcart Prize, and the O. Henry Award, Erdrich is often compared to Faulkner for her use of multiple narratives and the creation of the fictional North Dakota reservation and elaborate family tree that lie at the center of many of her Native American stories. What’s more remarkable, to me at least, is that Erdrich raised up her writing career alongside her seven children.
Born in 1954 in Little Falls, Minnesota, Karen Louise Erdrich was the eldest of seven children, the daughter of a half French-American and half Ojibwe mother and a German-American father. Erdrich grew up in a house of stories: her father was a storyteller who paid her a nickel for every story she wrote and her mother wove small books for her and her siblings in which she wrote stories about “lonely girls with hidden talents.” Both of Erdrich’s parents remain tremendous influences on her. She recently noted, “My parents’ marriage is a gift to everyone around them — 60 years of making their kids laugh.” Erdrich’s Ojibwe heritage is another central part of her identity, writing, and activism. Her parents both taught at a North Dakota boarding school established by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and her grandfather was the tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. She has said, “People in [Native American] families make everything into a story . . . People just sit and the stories start coming, one after another. I suppose that when you grow up constantly hearing the stories rise, break, and fall, it gets into you somehow.”
Erdrich graduated from Dartmouth in 1976 as a member of its first coed class. She describes herself while there as thin-skinned, “awkward and suspicious.” She met her future husband at Dartmouth, the anthropologist and author Michael Dorris who was directing the college’s new Native American Studies program. After college, Erdrich took on a series of odd jobs back home that she credits with adding depth and authenticity to her writing. In 1978, she pursued an MFA at Johns Hopkins and began sending her work to publishers, receiving her fair share of rejection letters. Her lack of success was short-lived, though; in response to the first short story she had published in a glossy magazine, she received two letters: one from an angry priest and the other from Philip Roth! After completing her MFA in 1979, she published a prize-winning short story that would eventually become the first chapter of her novel, Love Medicine, the first in her Native American series and winner of the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award.
Her relationship with Michael Dorris evolved from mentorship to collaboration to romance. After finishing her MFA, Erdrich returned to Dartmouth as writer-in-residence. While there and afterward, she and Dorris began exchanging their work. Only after they started collaborating on short stories did their relationship become romantic and, in 1981, they were married. Erdrich and Dorris once said that they always wrote collaboratively, but they only published one novel, The Crown of Columbus, and one work of non-fiction under both of their names. Erdrich later reversed their earlier claim: “I would have loved for Michael to have had his own life as a writer and not covet my life as a writer. But he couldn’t help himself. So in agreeing to write The Crown of Columbus I really made a deal, at least in my thoughts, that if we wrote this one book together, then we could openly work separately – as we always did in truth, of course.” The couple had separated - both as husband and wife and as writing partners – before Dorris’s suicide in 1997.
After the success of her novel, Love Medicine, Erdrich published three more novels in her Native American series, largely to critical acclaim. She then wrote The Blue Jay’s Dance, her memoir of early motherhood. Drawing upon her own experience as a mother of six – she and Dorris raised three biological daughters and three adopted children; she had another daughter in 2000 after his death – Erdrich chronicles her pregnancy and first year with her daughters. She intends the book as a sort of love letter to her girls, writing in the introduction: “I finished this book for our daughters because I hope these pages will claim for them and for others, too, what it is to be a parent – an experience shattering, ridiculous, earthbound, deeply warm, rich, profound.” For her, that experience meant months of cradling a baby in one hand while writing with the other. Much as she does in her novels, Erdrich offers a composite portrait in her memoir, offering memories and experiences from each of her first three forays into motherhood as though they were one. The Blue Jay’s Dance is also a behind-the-scenes look at Erdrich’s life as a writer while her children were babies. A Los Angeles Times reviewer praised the way Erdrich examines the balance between the work of parenting and one’s vocation, noting ”this book is really about working and having children, staying alert and…focused through the first year of a child’s life.”
Indeed, Erdrich knows a thing or two about balancing her work and being a mother. The relationship between parents and children is a major theme in much of her writing and motherhood has shaped her work fundamentally. According to her,
By having children, I’ve both sabotaged and saved myself as a writer. I hate to pigeonhole myself as a writer, but being a female and a mother and a Native American are important aspects of my work, and even more than being mixed blood or Native, it’s difficult to be a mother and a writer…it’s not because of hormones or pregnancies. It’s because you’re always fighting sentiment. You’re fighting sentimentality all of the time because being a mother alerts you in such a primal way. You are alerted to any danger to your child, and by extension you become afraid of anybody getting hurt. This becomes the most powerful thing to you; it’s instinctual. Either you end up writing about terrible things happening to children—as if you could ward them off simply by writing about them—or you tie things up in easily opened packages, or you pull your punches as a writer. All deadfalls to watch for.
Being a mother/writer has also presented practical obstacles for Erdrich. She has said that having kids “makes it difficult to get out of the house” and that “the lowest points” in her life are “the times just before a book tour, when I have to leave my children.” But ultimately, for Erdrich, the rewards are far greater than the challenges:
If you value your relationships with your children, you can’t write about them. You have to make up other, less convincing children. There is also one’s inclination to be charming instead of presenting a grittier truth about the world. But then, having children has also made me this particular writer. Without my children, I’d have written with less fervor; I wouldn’t understand life in the same way.
Erdrich lives a quiet life in a lake-bordered neighborhood in Minneapolis, where she lives with her youngest daughter a few blocks from Birchbark Books, the independent bookstore she owns and whose shelves feature her handwritten book recommendations. She continues to write prodigiously: her 2009 novel The Plague of Doves was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and her most recent novel (and my favorite of her works of fiction), The Round House, won the National Book Award last year. Because of her love of the short story, her novels often feature multiple narrators, all of whom have the chance to tell their own stories – and she, hers, through them. According to Erdrich, “I did write poetry, but I do that very rarely now. It just doesn’t come. The short story comes more naturally.” She writes longhand and then, once she believes she has enough material, “she arranges the pieces of paper on the floor and moves them around to make connections. If they do, she begins to put the disparate pieces together and starts re-writing it as a novel.”
Of her success, Erdrich notes, “It didn’t occur to me that my books would be widely read at all, and that enabled me to write anything I wanted to. And even once I realized that they were being read, I still wrote as if I were writing in secret. That’s how one has to write anyway—in secret.” Count me among the many readers who are grateful that Louise Erdrich hasn’t kept her writing – or her insights on writing as a mother – secret.
Thank you to my friend Stacia for introducing me to The Blue Jay’s Dance, the perfect gift for any mother/writer or mother/writer-to-be.
Image: Louise Erdrich by Paul Emmel via Wikimedia Commons.