Writing For The Sake Of Story:

Notes On A Fiction Workshop By Richard Wagamese

By Jorge Antonio Vallejos

Photo by Jorge Antonio Vallejos

In October 2012, Richard Wagamese, an Ojibway who is a member of the Sturgeon Clan, gave a talk about fiction writing at the 5th Indigenous Writers Gathering at First Nations House University of Toronto. 

With 11 books to his name, Wagamese, a survivor of the 60s Scoop, addiction, incarceration, and homelessness, shared stories about his life, culture, and craft.  Having only a grade 9 education Wagamese became an award winning journalist and author.  In this one talk Wagamese taught me more than many of my university professors. 

To Be A Writer You Must Be A Reader 

  • “What I did do was immerse myself in the culture of books.”
  • Libraries: “These places were mine.”
  • One book opened a doorway to another.
  • “I drowned in an ocean of words and images.”
  • Read book reviews.
  • Read two to three hours a day.
  • Don’t limit yourself to your own cultural niche.  Read everything.
  • Looking for appropriation of culture takes you away from the story.
  • Look at how the story is being told.
  • Reading adds elements and substance to your craft.

Study Speech/Dialogue

  • “Dialogue is speech.”
  • “Language is so magical.”
  • “The way we talk to each other is literature.”
  • Keep your ears open.  Listen in on conversations.
  • Notebook carrying: “I scribbled what I thought they said.”
  • Record conversations.
  • Looks up words on un-busy days and uses them in sentences.

Wagamese’s Writing Process

  • Yoga + meditation in the morning.
  • Smudges and drinks tea.
  • “I open up the channel that lives in all of us and I start to work.”
  • Faces a blank screen every morning.
  • “I work for the story’s sake.”
  • Writes 3 to 4 hours every morning—7 publishable pages.
  • “I breathe through my fingers.”
  • “I’m writing there trying to find my own answers…trying to find my own views.”
  • 1 draft writer.
  • Wrote first book in 5 months.
  • “Hit that bar and go over it!”
  • “The final period completes the whole voyage.”


  • “We were born on the breath of creation; we carry that breath within us.”
  • Our nature is to be storytellers
  • Feel the land: “The land will inform you.”
  • “We reach out because we want to be connected.”


  • “I was afraid to look like a stupid Indian.”
  • “I had a hard time looking up because I was ashamed and afraid.”
  • Find Another Indian To Hassle
  • “I have faith now.  And that faith is a byproduct of courage.”
  • The way you get into the fabric of a story comes from within you.

What You Need To Be A Writer

  • Dedication
  • Love of language
  • Courage
  • Belief


  • “There’s a story calling you.  There’s a story in you that wants to be told.”
  • Challenge yourself.
  • “If you’re gonna live as a writer you have to live and die by the agreement you make with yourself.”
  • Commit to yourself, your work, excellence.
  • “You have to work dang hard!”
  • Story lives in everything: music, theatre, dance, photos.
  • Find your political peace.
  • Hang your ego on the hook of the door of your writing space. 
  • Mean what you say.
  • Say what you mean.

Richard Wagamese has two works of fiction forthcoming in 2013.

Click here for notes on a talk by Cherokee writer Daniel Heath Justice: “Declaring and Talking Back The Power of Words”.


About Black Coffee Poet

Black Coffee Poet is a mixed race poet, essayist, and journalist who focuses on Social Justice, Indigenous Rights, STOPPING Violence Against Women, Film, and Literature.
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