How Prewriting Can Invigorate Your Work

by
Teresa Peterson
6.24.24

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 202.

I remember how afraid I once was to write about sensitive and personal experiences, exposing my inner self and perceptions that could hurt others. But through mentoring and encouragement from a Native women writers group, I got over that anxiety and discovered how to fearlessly reach a deeper place in my writing. This change was sparked during a workshop for an essay I was writing to introduce Voices From Pejuhutazizi: Dakota Stories and Storytellers (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2022). The volume, which I wrote with Walter LaBatte Jr., compiles stories told by my uncle, great grandpa, and other ancestors from Pejuhutazizi, a tribal community in southwest Minnesota. But it needed context for the reader to understand why these stories were important to share. In the draft introductory essay I had presented to the group, I included reflections on the value of culture, history, and tradition. But my group members pushed back on my neatly composed answers. “Why are these stories important to you?” they asked. “We need to hear your voice.” I remember feeling frustrated and defensive until writing mentor and author Diane Wilson made a suggestion: “When you answer the question of why, ask it again. Ask why at least five times.” She encouraged me to write my answers as if no one would ever read them. And so, I did.

Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Trying to honestly answer this question, over and over, spurred me to engage in a kind of writing that is raw, wild, and full of emotion. With pen and paper (note, not a computer) I feverishly wrote my answers—perhaps scribbling might be a better description. In a stream of consciousness, I began to explore my heart and gut; I asked myself why I cared so much about my family’s and community’s stories, trying to recall how I felt when I learned them for the first time. For a while, I couldn’t bear to share these writings with my group; they read like a therapy session, with bouts of rageful venting that were like the cries of a six-year-old.

About a month into this process, I noticed that my writing tempered, and I began to have real clarity about why the stories from my uncle, great grandfather, and other ancestors were valuable to me—I got beyond my initial pat answers about history and culture. It wasn’t that the answers in my draft essay were wrong, but the underlying roots of my personal response surfaced from beneath the emotional baggage that had initially obscured the core reasons. One truth I uncovered had to do with the shame and loss I felt for having grown up without hearing or knowing my family stories or those of my people, the Dakota. It felt vulnerable to admit this, and it required me to explore details about my personal bicultural experience of growing up in a place devoid of Dakota people and, thus, our own storytellers and stories.

Through this prewriting exercise, I processed so much, leading to healing and reconciliation with the past that I hadn’t been aware I needed to do—as a person and as a writer. For example, I uncovered a painful memory of what it was like to be at school when Indigenous people like myself came up in lessons: “[T]he ‘Indians’ or ‘Sioux’ mentioned in class or in textbooks always seemed to be the ‘bad guys’—the ones starting trouble and wars. I shrank in my desk and did my best to become invisible,” I wrote in the introduction, “Returning Through Story.” The prewriting process also drew out recollections of bullying by fellow students that had remained unhealed: I am still triggered by memories of classmates who let out war whoops and called me a squaw. Teachers and the adults in my life attempted to console me, or perhaps themselves, by saying that if I would just ignore them, it would go away.” Conversely, feelings of comfort and belongingness when I was with my Dakota relatives rose from my memory bank: “I seemed to have a deeply rooted desire and pull to be in this place with my relatives at Pejuhutazizi. My childhood memories of fun-filled visits connect seasonal experiences to place and land.”  

I used this same prewriting process for developing the conclusion that appears after the stories in Voices From Pejuhutazizi. Rather than asking myself “why” I was sharing the stories, as I did for the introduction, for the conclusion I repeatedly asked myself “how” these stories have changed me; that shaped the final chapter in the book, “A Story of Belonging.”  I described how the stories changed my identity, the impact of the Eurocentric education system on my psyche, and how meaningful it is to know the stories of people you belong to. The personal shame of disconnect I felt throughout my life shifted, and I was able to write the truth: U.S. policies of assimilation and genocide are the cause of that disconnect. I wrote, “As students we did not hear the truth, the whole story, about how our people were swindled from our homelands.” This eroded my sense of self:

For much of my life, I felt that I did not quite belong in the white world and was missing so much of the Dakota way of life. I have wondered what was worse: to be invisible, or to be reminded you don’t belong. ... Some of the narratives in this collection connect the dots and fill the voids and gaps of my story. Some provide insight into why things were and perhaps still are. Some stories give me a compassionate understanding of so many things. Most importantly, these stories are important to me because they tell of who I belong to. I am of the people who dig the yellow medicine and the great-great-granddaughter of Tasinsusbecawin.

I continue to use this prewriting process, including for my new book, Perennial Ceremony: Lessons and Gifts From a Dakota Garden, published this month by the University of Minnesota Press. As with Voices From Pejuhutazizi, prewriting helped me strengthen my introduction, an important section that provides context—the why behind my decision to share the material in the book with readers. It also helped me navigate and process sticky and emotional spaces that come up throughout the book. I would recommend this prewriting method to anyone who is having trouble expressing themselves. Ask yourself why your subject is important to share or how it has changed you, then write out your response using pen and paper. Repeat this process at least five times. I know it takes courage to navigate the emotional rollercoaster that may come of this kind of writing, yet I have discovered that it nurtures a deep connection with the humanity of your readers. By writing through the ragged emotion, you just may uncover some surprising and beautiful truths.

 

Teresa Peterson, Utuhu Cistinna Win, is Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota and a citizen of the Upper Sioux Community. Teresa recently published, Perennial Ceremony: Lessons and Gifts From a Dakota Garden (University of Minnesota Press, 2024). She and her uncle, Super LaBatte, coauthored Voices From Pejuhutazizi: Dakota Stories and Storytellers (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2022), which was selected as the Native American One Read by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community’s Understand Native Minnesota campaign. Teresa is also the author of the children’s book Grasshopper Girl (Black Bears and Blueberries Publishing, 2022), has poetry in the Racism Issue of Yellow Medicine Review, and is a contributor to the anthology Voices Rising: Native Women Writers (Black Bears & Blueberries Publishing, 2021). Her true passion is digging in her garden that overlooks the Mni Sota River Valley and feeding friends and family.

Art: Jeffrey Hamilton