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How to Scream Inside Your Heart


Once upon a time, I took an acting job as a scream queen at a Halloween haunted house. 

Glammed-up in a sequined gown I found in my grandma’s dress-up trunk, and, posing for optimal effect from the inside of a cage—the sort of cage reserved for grizzly bears or Hannibal Lector—I rattled the bars, wailed and screamed as if in great peril, for the benefit of haunted house goers as they shuttled past my cage. Anne Darrow—King Kong’s girlfriend—couldn’t hold a candle to me.

I flailed my arms out from the bars of the cage pleading to be saved. But no matter how desperate my screams, how convincing my pleas for help, no one lifted a finger to rescue me, but instead either laughed or recoiled as if my plight amused or disgusted them.

This is the truest analogy I know in which to describe my writing process during these last six months of “corn-teen” and social isolation. Only without the cocktail dress. Without the blood-red lipstick. Without the starlet blonde wig. 

A question came up during the Q&A following the Eliza So Fellowship virtual reading: how’s the writing going? And my mind went blank. If that isn’t an appropriate response best described as “inertia,” I don’t know what is.

I applied for the Eliza So Fellowship at the end of January, 2020, pre-Corona. The fellowship’s generous offering of a month-long writing retreat by the Clark Fork River within walking distance to downtown Missoula’s bookstores, coffee shops and bars seemed like paradise. And I didn’t waste any time applying. The fellowship was scheduled for mid-July, and even though I had three different “gigs,” on the calendar leading right up to the Eliza So Fellowship—Chuckanut Writers’ Conference, University of Alaska’s MFA program, and the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference—I still felt eager at the prospect of having even more travel and time away, of writing in Missoula, where I hoped to explore, visit friends, go to comedy and stand-up events, and finish my book project. 

But then, seemingly overnight, everything changed.

By the end of February people were canceling their flights and hotels for AWP. I was among them. By the end of March, most of my scheduled trips to guest visit at universities were canceled. My household prepared to hunker down. My partner left his day job. We bought a ridiculous amount of toilet paper. We bought bleach and wipes and everything else that we were supposed to buy. We re-learned how to wash our hands. We stayed indoors, we isolated, and we watched Tiger King

I wrote and published an essay. I wrote and published an op-ed about “corn-teen.” I started new writing projects. I finished old writing projects. I wrote Facebook posts, and I tweeted. But I was avoiding my book projects.

By the end of April, the Eliza So finalists were announced and I made the list! However, due to Corona the Missoula residency wouldn’t be feasible. Like so many other on-site events it had become clear all plans for June and July were going to be postponed, parlayed to virtual reality, or canceled. I still wished to be on the finalist’s list, even if Missoula was off the table. 

The fellowship application had asked for thirty pages of a book in progress, and I had submitted sample chapters of a satiric short story collection titled, The Urban NDN Women’s Guide to Dating. These stories and characters have been following me around the last several years, and represent an amalgamation of Native women I’ve known throughout my life—they represent an amalgamation of my alter egos, as well. I was eager to share my work with the judges, and hoped that by having my work honored in this way, I’d feel incentivized to complete it. 

I pored through an archive of family letters. I wrote about my experience familiarizing myself with various family members. I wrote things that resembled poems. I wrote things that resembled memoir. “Meta, She Wrote,” I’d titled one piece. But again, I avoided working on my book project. 

In June I learned my proposal was selected! It was wonderful to receive validation of my efforts and vision. To have a Native woman writer, the judge, sign off on that vision. It’s confirming in the best way. To “be gotten.” So now that my work was encouraged, now was the time for me to feel “incentivized,” right? 

But, how does one push on in the middle of a pandemic? My experience of the last several months has been one of distraction and anxiety. And even more pressing, how to optimize my appearance for Zoom panels. 

Can I blame this lack of flow on the pandemic? Or as a writer friend calls it, “the pandy?” Is this an excuse? Much like writer’s block is not actually a thing? Even in the best of circumstances, writing a book can be difficult and overwhelming, but to add the horror of our daily news cycle? How could I write “upbeat?” How could I write “perky?” Is it possible to write comedy in the middle of a haunted house? When the hollow-eyed carnie punches my ticket and the woman in the cage won’t stop screaming?

But, how does one push on in the middle of a pandemic? My experience of the last several months has been one of distraction and anxiety. And even more pressing, how to optimize my appearance for Zoom panels. 

While I still couldn’t sit long enough to finish my proposed book project, I did manage to pull together a working draft. And even though it felt unfinished, and shy of twenty to thirty-thousand words, I sent it to a contest. Then I sent it to several agents. One agent was willing to consider my work. I also received a query from a university press editor. I felt encouraged. Along with the fellowship, I had more incentive to finish my book. But honestly, it still feels … well, stuck.

The pandemic has not brought the dolphins back to Venice, or the bison to Wall Street. At least not in my neighborhood. Since the future is uncertain, especially so now, it is difficult to envision a future, for both my book, and for my life in general. A friend once gave me a book called Embracing Uncertainty while I was going through a difficult time. And while it did offer solace I can’t say it held solutions for overcoming pandemic fatigue. 

In a recent interview for the Central Wisconsin Book Festival I was asked how I’d been keeping busy during the pandemic. And I referred to a Tweet I wrote which best summed it up: Got Out of Bed Today: An inspiring and triumphant Native American memoir about hope and redemption. Buy it and the sequels, I Want Some Coffee, and Gonna Take a Shower. Critics are raving, millions of copies sold! 

This summer the news reported that an amusement park outside of Tokyo had requested that the people riding the roller coaster scream inside their hearts. 

I’m trying. And for the time being, my plan is to try a little bit harder every day. Because ultimately, I am rooting for my characters. The alter egos and amalgamations who’ve been following me around the last few years. Maybe they’ll be wiser, and more compassionate, having taken pause during this pandemic, this “intermission.” Even now, I’m imagining a storyline about Covid and how my Native American characters might respond to it, what commentaries they would make. Native people are not strangers to life threatening contagions, historically, or presently.

But for now, and it goes without saying, that I’m rooting for all of us. Which is probably one of the very best things I can do. What each one of us can do. 

headshot of Tiffany Midge
Tiffany Midge (Guest Blogger)

Tiffany Midge is a citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and was raised by wolves in the Pacific Northwest. Her most recent book, Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s (Bison Books), was a finalist for a Washington State Book Award.