Montgomery Fellow: Erdrich

On June 6, 2011 by Grad Forum

The Montgomery Fellowship brings individuals of outstanding caliber within their respective fields to Dartmouth to engage with and educate students.  The Montgomery Fellow of the spring 2011 term, writer Louise Erdrich, recently sat down with Dartmouth graduate students to discuss the writing process.

There is a tendency to think of works of literature as fixed entities, immovable and static, but this is not always the case. Louise Erdrich, the Montgomery Fellow for the Spring 2011 term at Dartmouth, doesn’t view her work as ever truly being “finished”.

The acclaimed writer and Dartmouth alumnus—she gave the 2009 Commencement address—explained that she often revisits her work long after it has been published, continually reworking and editing a piece. In fact, she mentioned that if she didn’t have a deadline, she’d probably never stop tinkering with her work. While these rewrites might surface in future editions of a published work, in some cases she is the only one to ever see them.

Like so many writers, Erdrich struggled at times to make a livelihood out of writing. At the luncheon, she admitted to keeping some of the numerous rejection letters she received from publishers in her early career, excluding many that were impersonalized form letters devoid of even a signature.

“I only kept the ones touched by a human hand,” says Erdrich.

Having written in virtually every genre, from fiction and poetry to memoir and short stories, Erdrich spoke of her own writing process. By “keeping the door open” while writing, Erdrich allows each medium to inform the other while remaining open to her surroundings at all times. In a recent interview with Dartmouth Now, Erdrich spoke of the importance of observation for a writer, regardless of genre.

“I tell aspiring writers to keep diaries or journals descriptive of their surroundings, events, people, and stories they hear,” said Erdrich. “These things are difficult to remember later on.”

Erdrich added that, to jog her memory, she frequently refers back to these journals while she is writing. Filled with prose and pictures, the journals serve as a way for her to gain inspiration from previous experiences.

One of Erdrich’s daughters, Aza, is a current undergraduate student at Dartmouth.  Aza also attended the luncheon, and in her presence Erdrich spoke of the valuable feedback and fulfillment she gets from sharing her writing with her children. According to Erdrich, her daughters share their thoughts honestly and openly with her—and don’t mince words if they feel something isn’t working.

Laughing, Aza replied,“Everything she writes is great!”.

Read more about the Montgomery Endowment at Dartmouth.

by Erin O’Flaherty
photo by Erin O’Flaherty

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