Terese Mailhot: How I Write

"What I wrote was deeply triggering for me, but I couldn't arrive at the place I am now if I didn't see on the page what happened to me."
By Allison Futterman | Published: July 11, 2018


Subscribe today to The Writer magazine for tips, industry news, reviews, and more.

Terese Mailhot

Terese Mailhot. Photo by Isaiah Mailhot

Before it was even published, Terese Mailhot’s debut memoir Heart Berries made several appearances on impressive lists of the most anticipated books of 2018. The New York Public Library, the Huffington Post, “The Rumpus,” Esquire, Entertainment Weekly, and others praised Mailhot’s writing for its rawness and stunningly beautiful prose.

Mailhot has emerged as a leading voice in modern Native American writing. She received her MFA in fiction from the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), which is the first MFA program in the United States to focus on Indigenous writers. She originally tackled difficult subject matter (abuse, mental health issues, poverty, relationships) as fiction before transitioning to nonfiction with Heart Berries.

Evolution to memoir

Writing it as fiction allowed me to tell the truth and to hide behind the veil of a confident protagonist. It was a way to tell the truth in a way I couldn’t do personally. I had to write it first with the pretense that it was me doing something artistic. But any time you put your hand to the page, you are really telling something about yourself. It led me to the truth.

Lyrical prose

The work naturally lent itself to that style. It’s easier for me to articulate the sense and idea of something like trauma that way than to explicitly detail my account of it. It’s easier to articulate through lyricism and one striking image as opposed to illustrating the details of the trauma.

Writing raw and revealing work

I didn’t know it would be that raw. Artistically, I wanted to protect myself and guard myself, and be as withholding as I needed to be. What I wrote was deeply triggering for me, but I couldn’t arrive at the place I am now if I didn’t see on the page what happened to me. A lot of the book is like articulating a testimony.

Putting together the collection

I knew I wanted to start with an assertion of how I wanted to be read as a human being. I’m not interested in anyone’s ideas of what Indians are or what our plight is. I knew if I didn’t start the book with that assertion, the book might be reduced to Indian plight. But I had no idea the end of the book would arrive so hopeful, in a way that felt like transcendence.

Taking risks

To me, taking risks is the point of working. What is the point if we’re not doing what we believe we’re called to do? I had to take risks in form and structure in undergrad and grad school, and now I now feel good making space for others to wield their narrative power.

Writing routine

I believe in ritual. I enjoy having coffee and sitting down to write in the morning. But it depends on my mental state. Based on mental health, I know if I need the routine of writing and will write every day for a few hours. But if I need to do self-care, I might not write for a month or two. But I still journal. People with mental health issues should understand that it’s OK not to be diligent [about writing] when they need to take care of themselves.

Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.