Debra Magpie Earling on Becoming a Writer


debra magpie earling

Thanks to the NEA for this insightful Q&A with one of our great faculty members, Debra Magpie Earling.


NEA: What was your journey to becoming a creative writer?

EARLING: High school dropout. Married to an abusive alcoholic at 17. Divorced at 21. Then moved back in with ex. Had teeth rattled. Told I was stupid. Was knocked down. Bleeding. Knocked down before work. After work. Knocked unconscious. Busgirl. Black eye. Stupid. Waitress.

Lip split. Shot at. Worked as housekeeper with my mother. Beaten again. Heard the endless refrain—you don’t want this life you don’t want this life this life this life from my mother and all the other housekeepers. Go to school. Get outa this. Ex-husband in and out of rehab. Told I was stupid because I was Indian. At 27 ex-husband took his life by jumping off a bridge. Felt sorry for myself. Cried around. Felt sorrier. And then I realized the path to writing wasn’t about suffering at all. It is about joy and celebration. It is about survival. I held on. Clung to the stories my mother told me. Began to understand her stories and the stories of my tribe were significant. They helped me to keep on living. Went to school. Got an education. Learned some more. Came to understand in my bones that Isak Dinesen spoke the truth when she said, “All suffering is bearable if it is seen as part of a story.”

NEA: Any advice for emerging writers?

EARLING: Never give up. Believe. Be fearless. Jump into the muse. Don’t fuss until later. Hear the stories within you and believe they have power. Don’t don’t don’t DON’T EVER be cynical. It’s too easy. It’s TOO easy to be cynical. Keep trusting. Fight bitterness. Just because a work makes you feel something don’t dismiss it as sentimental. Open up your inner eye. Believe in the miraculous and beautiful. Overcome the darkness by lighting the torch to see. Don’t censor yourself. Look at the difficult stories. Be tough. Be courageous. Be sentimental. Be ruthlessly big-hearted. See yourself as part of a larger community that was here before you and hopefully will be here after you leave. Know that you are a steward of stories. Don’t whine. Give back. Buy books. Buy hardback books. Support the arts.