Natalie Goldberg tells us in her book Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life that we all ask for permission from someone to be able to write.
Todd Williams did that for me and it changed my life. Well, maybe more accurately, Todd was the catalyst that led to the events that changed my life.
It was my freshman year of college and I was at our Tribal University. I had started on a science track to become a zoologist. I’d quit my job as a veterinary technician in Goshen, Indiana and moved 755 miles to my reservation to enroll in college courses. The end result was that I’d graduate with my zoology degree and the world would be mine.
Now, I guess I should also say right here that I’d always wanted to be a writer, but everyone around me had shamed me out of it, so I went a career choice something I knew would be “accepted”.
When I got to the university, I’d taken my entrance exams and they had placed me in Basic English! I was appalled — didn’t they know WHO I was? (Aahh, the ego of a young writer!) So, I went to Todd Williams’ class, and it was anything but basic.
We didn’t go over the boring act of studying sentence structure or what made good writing. Oh no, this man was on top of things. His reading list was filled with literature that thrilled and excited me. He gave us snippets of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Walt Whitman’s essays, and writing by the Beat Poets, and all this literature that I’d only skimmed the surface of on my own.
And when we weren’t reading, we were writing. Todd didn’t tell us how to write, or what to write — he gave us a topic and let us go. And go I did! I was completely in my element When I got my papers back, I’d find he had written all these great comments.
I enjoyed the class and I enjoyed Todd’s teaching. He was exuberant and he loved this literature — and passed that love onto us. He was also funny, like deadpan funny, which is always a plus with me.
As time went on, Todd and I started talking about literature and how he loved the Beat Poets. I couldn’t believe it — I LOVED the Beat Poets too. As we talked more, we found out we had a lot in common. Both of us came from back east and we knew all the pretentiousness that came with that and how the feeling from that area is that you have to “do what you are told” even if it is at the cost of your own hopes, dreams and desires. We both loved writing about as much as we loved breathing. I had finally found someone who wanted to talk about writing as much as I did.
I was flourishing at school. I felt like anything was possible! All my classes were going well, I had outstanding grades, and everything was falling into place. On a whim, I decided I was going to apply a vet tech school I had seen on T.V. and dreamed of attending. So I filled out an application to Bel-Ray Institute for Veterinary Technicians. I took a breath and sent it off. Even if this didn’t work, I’d just continue down the path I was on, and everything would be fine.
In the meantime, I started writing for the school newspaper, with my own weekly column called “Who’s Who?” I profiled people on campus and teachers. We were a small, homey university with such a strong family vibe, I wanted to let everyone know about everyone else. My column was a hit and I gained my first bit of notoriety around campus, even if it was small. It was a great feeling. For the first time in my life I was being completely and unconditionally encouraged and praised for my writing!
One day Todd stopped me after class and said he wanted to talk to me about my paper. Internally, I panicked. Oh no, was I not doing a good job anymore? Were my grades in trouble? I told him I would come see him after my next class.
As I was heading to his office after class, I saw him outside so I approached him. He asked me to take little walk with him. As we walked he told me that he had been asked by the English department if I would transfer to a regular English class. He asked me if that was something I wanted to do. I really didn’t. I told him I enjoyed his class and wanted to stay in it, and unless it was going to affect my academic record somewhere down the road, I wanted to stay where I was.
He said that made him very happy because I was an important contributor and he really loved to read my writing. He told me that he didn’t know why I was put in his class, since the strength of my writing was strong enough to be in a regular English class, if not an advanced English class. He said I was a talented writer and could go far.
Without thinking, I blurted out “Do you think I could make my living as a writer?”
He got quiet for a moment and I tried to quell my fear. He looked back at me and said, “That is a big question. Let me get back to you on that. I have to go right now, but I promise you I will answer you tomorrow.”
We parted ways and I put it in the back of my mind… thinking, if the answer is no, then it will still be okay, I will go on and be a zoologist.
The next afternoon, we met on a sunny spot by the basketball courts. People meandered around and some kids played basketball behind us. I waited for him to start.
“You asked me yesterday if I thought you could make your living as writer.” I kept my head down and nodded, too afraid of the news, either way.
“Mary, you are a talented writer with a strong voice, and yes, I know you can make it as a writer, if that is what you want to do.”
A huge smile broke out on my face — I don’t think I could have heard any better words. I immediately launched into how I was going to change my major and so on and so forth. He stopped me and said, “Mary, we have talked about this before. Remember, having a degree doesn’t make you a writer. Remember the Beat Poets; they didn’t have degrees. There are a lot of things that make a great writer, and it’s not necessarily a piece of paper.”
I knew what he was saying, but I still wasn’t ready to step THAT much out of the box I’d been trained for 23 years to stay in. I was so incredibly happy. I couldn’t believe that the one thing I’d wanted my whole life had been confirmed.
So, from that moment on, I was a writer. I went from telling people “I want to be a writer” to “I am a writer.” Later when I would read Natalie Goldberg’s words, I knew that the man who gave me permission to be a writer was Todd Williams. I took his permission, and ran with it.
I changed my major from zoology to English/creative writing. The next semester I became editor of our campus newspaper, doubling its readership. I got my first poem published in the college anthology, and was published repeatedly after that. I was brought in by schools to be a writer in residence. I couldn’t believe it — all the things I’d dreamt of were coming true.
Being at the Tribal College was the best thing for me. I broke out of my box, I got away from the patriarchal oppression that I’d fallen under my formative years, I took control of my life and my destiny and I created this amazing life that I get to wake up to everyday.
Three days after Todd and I had that discussion, I got a phone call from Bel Ray institute. I was accepted into the program and they really wanted me to move to Colorado and enroll for classes right away. They told me they would help with financial aid if need be. I told them I was so honored that they wanted me, but I had changed my life path, and maybe one day I’d reapply— but for now, I was going to pursue the path I was on. At this time too, I’d been dating a nice guy, a guy who would eventually become my husband and the father of my child.
Life is truly amazing when you jump into it headfirst and believe that anything is possible. Anything and everything can happen to you. It has for me and it continues to happen.
I eventually transferred colleges, and Todd moved with his wife and family to New Mexico. I’ve lost touch with him, but I think of him often. I miss him dearly. He was a great mentor, friend and advisor. I occasionally speak with his wife, so hopefully she will tell him to get on the computer and read this.
Todd, thank you for supporting my dream and believing in me, and encouraging me. Thank you for giving me “permission”. When my books finally get published, look inside for your name — it will be there.