The other day I received two very different notes from readers. One, a kind and thoughtful touch from a man who appreciated my candor in revealing the person beneath the veneer of “author;” the other, a heartfelt but vicious attack by a Nez Perce woman who raised the well-known, but never well-answered, issue of whether white people should write about Indians. I know I touched a nerve in her, and she touched a nerve in me.
I struggle with this issue constantly. I believe that imaginative sympathy combined with insight born of research or deep spiritual immersion can produce enough affinity for an author to at least brush against another’s self-understanding. But, at the same time, we each have a sacrosanct knowledge, perhaps personal, perhaps cultural, that is inviolable and unreachable by others.
I do not believe in spiritual appropriation, and we have taken most everything not nailed down from the various Indian peoples of this continent. But we are common creatures of a common species, and our capacity for joy, love, fear, and hope is what binds us together as humans. The challenge is to assert the commonality without trying to steal the uniqueness.
It is risky business, and we do not always get it right. But if we are not willing to take this risk, we cannot be creators. It is only by touching what is common that writers, musicians, painters, dancers, and all other makers are able to communicate beyond themselves. I guess the key is, indeed, personal authenticity, for the authentically human is where we all meet. And getting below the various veneers is the only way to achieve this meeting.
I thank the two readers for writing. The one enriched me, the other saddened me. As Dan said of me in Neither Wolf nor Dog, I’m a bit of a coward because I’m afraid of other people’s anger. It’s true. I take no pleasure in making others angry. It feels like a failure, not like a success, and I try to avoid it if possible.
But such is the writer’s, and creator’s life.
I could go on, but my family is starting to get up. My son in a cast for a broken wrist, my wife with people to meet and places to go, my failed Labrador with dog business (no swimming or fetching, please) to which to attend, and a couple of cats, one of whom appears to have emerged from his nocturnal activities with a broken tail.
I’ll go out to my writing cabin and move forward, hoping that the prose I create will touch some reader a year or two down the road. Hopefully, it will be a good touch. But maybe it will open a wound. I won’t know until it is published and read. Until then, all I’ve got is the gut feeling that something I write is either authentic or artificial. It’s a decent compass, and one I’ve learned to trust.
Keep in touch.