Living Aware: How Interconnectedness Affects Perspective

Wild horses on the Mescalero Apache Reservation
Wild Horses on the Mescalero Apache Reservation
by Laura Jean Schneider

Chickasaw author Linda Hogan brings poignancy and perception to her readers through eleven novels and multiple collections of essays, books of poetry, and performance pieces. As evidenced in varied genres in which she writes, Hogan has a range of interests. She works with at-risk youth and animals and speaks at international conferences on topics like science and religion. She’s an NEA Fellowship recipient, a Guggenheim winner, and two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee. In 2007, she was inducted into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame. Her latest book is an essay collection called Dark. Sweet., published last year by Coffee House Press. Hogan, who currently lives in Colorado, was kind enough to respond to my questions on behalf of The Tishman Review. I hope fellow writers will also find her insight, frankness, and emphasis on awareness refreshing and inspiring.

While Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World (W.W. Norton & Co.1995) resonated with me, I was drawn to one sentence in particular: “Here is a lesson: what happens to people and what happens to the land is the same thing.” Please comment.

I am sure this resonated with you because in the years since this book was published, this awareness has come into public knowledge to a certain extent. We are conscious beings and the land is also sentient. We need one another to survive. When we fracture the earth, we injure ourselves, as well.

Studies now show that there are connections beyond what was once part of a system of thought we can only call Western thought. Indigenous peoples have been aware of the connections through millennia of observation in one ecosystem. Now we know that trees are able to call nutrients from beneath the ground toward them, that animals suffer greatly and have emotional lives beyond our own, that we live in participation with the rest of the world. There are forms of knowledge; different kinds of intelligence at work in all things on earth, from the smallest in size to the greatest. Humans have been extremely self-interested until very recently. Now we are becoming more aware of the harm done to the land and how it has had an effect on all our systems, including weather and water.

Your work emphasizes the disconnect between humans and earth, and between humans and their bodies. Do you feel people who make creative work their life work, such as artists and writers, struggle with this to a greater degree? What’s the antidote?

I would hope that my work emphasizes the connection between humans and earth because that is my intent. I write in order to offer something back, to at least give an awareness of the fragility of this world and our need to take care for it. I would like to talk about the embodied human, fully embodied, and the en-souled earth, the spirit of the world, which together create the bridge that brings us together, over which we may pass if we are willing. I don’t think that this is a struggle so much as it is a need for silence. Humans tend to have very noisy minds. To settle down the mind from thinking helps to bring a person in touch with the spirit of the earth and wilderness. Probably because of this, writers and artists who are doing their work, struggle less. Maybe creativity is the antidote you are asking about.

Do you think humans can embody characteristics of their environments and vice versa? How important to you is the environment you write in?

I don’t know if we embody characteristics of an environment so much as we embody the environment and it becomes and holds a part of us, but I probably said that in the earlier response to the first question. My environment is my life. My soul lives outside my body as much as within. (Read essay “The Great Without,” Parabola Magazine) For me, it is completely important, although I would carry this world with me if I were writing in another location. That is how much we are what surround us.

You stated in a past Terrain interview—in response to questions about your own writer’s process—“I’m just open, and something comes to visit and tells me the story and creates it.” Do you feel writing is actually inspired, rather than learned?

No, if I waited for inspiration, I’d never [begin] writing. I sit down and write and then the work comes as I write. Sometimes it begins so terribly written and then out of that will come one good line or sometimes many good pages. But it is important for most students to have a very fine teacher, one who teaches creative process and not necessarily the steps to good writing. If there were steps we could follow, wouldn’t we all be best sellers?

An avid horsewoman myself, I’m curious about your connection with equines. What about horses in particular allows them to help humans heal? You’ve suffered a brain injury in the past. Has horse therapy helped you cope and recover? How does this relationship with horses affect your writing?

I did do equine therapy as one part of my healing, but I had a brain injury in 1998 and still have problems with it. And it was from a horse accident, which I still cannot remember because of the brain injury. Nor do I remember much of what came after for a very long time. I did buy a horse a year later and she was a rescue horse, in terrible shape. I still used either crutches or a walker when I took care of her and we developed a great love for one another. She was the kindest, most grateful horse. Not supposed to run. I was going to re-learn riding. Then as she became well, I saw her running. As it turned out, I did find a very strict helper with horses but finally decided I could take no risks after the damages I’d had.

I am so fortunate to have had many years together with that horse. She healed. I came close to healing in those eleven or twelve years. At the time I also adopted a sister for her, a mustang that would have otherwise been “put down.” I have a poem about her called “Affinity.” It is in Dark. Sweet. New and Selected Poems (Coffee House press, 2014). I still live with her and she is a completely different horse spirit. I love her smell, very much like herbs, like forest. She is strong and powerful and is a Chickasaw horse, but I didn’t know it at the time. We are very close sisters. She loves to just be quiet together. Then about two years ago, I brought home a BLM burro. Talk about a different kind of equine! A burro is nothing like the horse. She is like a dog person and would gladly come in with me if invited. She needs much touch and love and affection. She likes to lean against me or put her head down against my legs while I rub her long ears. It is another kind of relationship. I suppose every relationship with a nonhuman animal is different and fascinating. Each living being has its own personality. Including my cats.

You consider much or all of your creative work, from performances to poetry, a type of activism, and you seem concerned with “accessibility.” How do you define that?

It isn’t what I consider, it is what categories I have been given by readers. I am sometimes amazed at the new fields I fit into. But I do write about political events that are true, about the oil boom in Oklahoma, about James Bay Hydro-Québec, and other stories that are inspired by issues [that] have political emphasis. I suppose that spending my life in this way is a form of activism. It is a form of protest. It is also an empathy with the world and a way of telling other people what is happening in these many places. I can’t help myself, because those are the kinds of works that come to me, seek me out, and I speak for them. I want to do the right kind of work, to make it meaningful.

Accessibility. I am not certain where you have come by this word, but in my writing, or with it, I do not want to be academic or scholarly. I want anyone to read the work that comes through me. I tire of the academic language and its way of keeping knowledge in a container that is not for the general population.

I want anyone to read my books and not feel pushed away, not feel as if they aren’t present in the work in some way. I care about working people who can’t go to school. I also want the people in universities to care for the work. I am not a working class writer only. I had the good fortune of living in a time when I could get an education without going into debt for life, although I went to night school, then to community college, and on through a university as an older person, and always a working person. But I remember Meridel Le Sueur saying, “They are teaching me in universities; I must have done something wrong.” She, a union organizer, blacklisted, had her own reasons. But this is a different time, another shift in the world and this shift means we have to hold everyone in our minds and words, that we are in difficult times and we need one another.

Many writers claim their writing is their world. Yet you take a radically different approach in a response from the Terrain interview: “I love my work…but it’s not…the same as being in the world everyday.” As someone who writes extensively about the natural world and its inhabitants, is it difficult to separate your work about the earth from your interactions with it? Or I have completely misread your intention here? 

I don’t remember the entire quote. I do love my work. But I also have to go to work, earn a living, keep myself going. Perhaps, thinking of this now, I meant that entering into the world of my writing is a different world, another place. It is not the ordinary world, but a unique one where anything might come to me from the mystery of the creative, and anything might happen within a novel. The characters do the unexpected, not at all what I might consider them doing. The land changes, the place. Sometimes, I am in another time and have to come out of it into the present. It is an absorbing job, meaning that it takes me in, absorbs me, speaks to me, and through me. I do love to write and there is always too much to take me away from it. But I have to interact in the world daily and no matter what the weather might be doing. I have to shovel, to clean outside, sometimes to repair something on the house, thaw a hose when a sudden freeze arrive[s], water plants when it is hot. I have work to do in the world outside my writing. There are responsibilities that come with being a human, in so many ways.

How did you balance single parenting and writing?

I watch students who have children and wonder the same thing, but I just worked during early morning hours, or any time I could squeeze in to write. I also had a job. I have never been without some kind of work earning a living. And looking back, thinking about it, all I can say is, “It beats me.” But somehow a person finds energy; summons it from an unknown dimension, because we have to. We have the responsibility to our children and also to our work. So, somehow you do both and then that time passes and the next stage of life comes along, and it is just as difficult!

Have you started journaling once more, or have you found some other creative outlet to work through thoughts about life and work and writing?

No, I only write about what the world is doing today. Not in terms of history, except occasionally, but I keep notes for myself. I need all my time for just writing and not for thinking about it all. I usually joke and say that all my neuroses have long been outgrown.

Most recently, you received the 2016 Henry David Thoreau Prize from PEN, and your latest poetry collection, Dark. Sweet. from Coffee House Press, was a finalist for the 2015 Paterson Poetry Prize. What does receiving prestigious awards mean to you as a female Indigenous writer?

It isn’t a prize for one book but for an entire body of work, I believe. It is for writing about nature without writing about it from the perspective of a person’s self in nature. Which I love because I think people writing about themselves in the environment are missing something important. It is still about “Them,” still human-centered. So that feels very good. And I didn’t respond to the Paterson Prize because I’ve had it before and it is a way they have of getting readers. It’s nice to have the prize, but not when you pay your own way to receive it and lose all your own income. So that does not interest me but it is a great idea for a library if they can find writers who have much extra money! But I did receive a Native Arts and Culture Foundation Fellowship and that does mean a great deal to me because they are hard to receive and it helps me know that my work is on the right path. What does receiving these awards mean? I can’t really say. I never thought about it in the terms you’ve stated, as a female Indigenous writer. I’ve always thought of it in terms of just being a writer. It means the writing is doing something right and that is a wonderful thought. It gives this work a meaning I have wanted it to have. But younger writers have to know that the writer doesn’t win the award. The work does. The writer and the work are two different things. If it were about the ego, when it becomes that, it can’t be fulfilling because that is already a bottomless creation.

Your last publication is a collection of new and selected poems, as I mentioned above. What’s in the works now?

Thank you for asking. I am finishing a novel and have another book of poems just about ready. I also have been looking at old essays that haven’t been put into a book yet and am considering those. But I always have at least three other plans ready to go for when one project is done. I am easily enchanted with ideas that come drifting in, then decide to do them. It is such a pleasure to dive into the new work, to come up from the one being finished.

Do you feel there are any other writers or artists doing what you are?

We are all different. We all have our own visions, dreams, realities, so not one is able to do the same thing. On the other hand, I wouldn’t know if I could say exactly what it is I am doing. I am just writing. In that case, all the other writers are doing that, but with different words and results. Some are more excited about story, or holding to one idea, or about character, but that there are others like myself who are process writers and we just kind of follow where the work takes us, then look at it and try to put some order into the pathway. And it seems to me that it is the same as the life process. A door opens and we enter and then look around. We turn a certain corner instead of another to see where it will go, where it takes us. Later we look back and understand how we got to this particular place in our life, in our work, in our way of living with this enchanted world.

Laura Jean Schneider is currently the Craft Talk Assistant Editor and an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She won the inaugural Big Snowy Prize in Fiction in 2014. Her essays about living on a remote working cattle ranch appear regularly in “Ranch Diaries,” her ongoing web series for High Country News.

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