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Something to Fall Back On

by Deb Dawson
MSUM honored Deb Dawson with a Distinguished Alumni Award in Arts and Humanities.
MSUM honored Deb Dawson with a Distinguished Alumni Award in Arts and Humanities.

I’m a fourth-generation Fargo, North Dakota native whose left and right brain have battled each other for control as long as I can remember, my writer-side urging me toward a garret in Paris, a New York loft, or at least a basement apartment in Minneapolis where I could indulge in the angst necessary to become a writer. I did not voice this dream, however, and I wrote nothing in college other than the required papers, a single short story, and joyless, formless poems. Though pleased I had changed my major from theater and dance to English, my father impressed upon me the need to have something to fall back on—education being the most practical as it would allow me, in his view, to have summers off with my children. And it did, for a few years.

Later, while working with my dad in the crop insurance business, I saw a notice of a Saturday writing workshop taught by Al Davis. I went. I think we worked on a first line type of thing because I still remember mine: “I tripped over the bodies of my first two husbands as I walked down the aisle toward my third.” Or something like that.

A year later I saw that Al was teaching an evening writing class at MSUM, but I procrastinated about signing up until the day before. I called, and he told me the class was full, but I should show up anyhow. They split it into two classes, and I ended up in the graduate class with Lin Enger as my instructor. A semester later I decided to work toward my MFA. I wrote a novel for my thesis, and later, our adoptions spurred me to write a memoir. Both are unpublished.

Of those I worked with at MSUM, I thank Lin Enger who mentored me and gave me a love for the process and craft of writing, Al Davis for his ongoing faith in my work and for being a great friend, for poet Dave Mason who tuned my ear, Sandy Pearce who taught me to write a proper paper with citations, Sheila Coghill for her intelligence and the depth of reading and writing she encouraged, Thom Tammaro for his compassion and Ted Larson, who taught me the process and art of filmmaking which I never expected would become such a big part of the way I tell stories. Greg Carlson, who was an MFA film student and is now a professor at Concordia, helped me with projects back then and later worked with me on our documentary, African Soul, American Heart. And I must credit my fellow students for their careful reading and useful comments. Some, like Liz Severn and Karen Stensrud, have remained friends.

The memoir has languished since I began working in Africa five years ago, but as I speak here tonight, it’s on an editor’s desk in New York City. I never let go of that line from my first writer’s workshop. The memoir begins, “I was my first husband’s second wife, my second husband’s third wife, and my third husband’s fourth.”

I’m most thankful for husband #3, Norm Robinson, who helped me raise my sons, and who I somehow convinced to adopt two teenage Russian girls when all the other kids were on their own. Without him holding down the fort, supporting me financially and emotionally and with his many talents, I wouldn’t be doing the work I’m doing today.

I’m no saint. I’m willful and sometimes the only way I see is my way, so I’m lucky to have my family and a great board of directors and wonderful students, staff, and friends in South Sudan and Kenya. People in this community and beyond have helped us financially and in other ways. Some have traveled with me to this remote area of the world. And even then, in the middle of nowhere with these special travelers suffering from the heat, adjusting to a new and limited diet, and sometimes a little bit scared, I’ve been known to impose my expectations. Yet when one volunteer snapped, “You’re hard on people,” my feelings were hurt.

Life moves rapidly for me and that movement nudges me daily to stay on task because the futures of these orphaned girls are at stake. It’s an honor to receive this award, but know that I have simply been putting one foot in front of the other on Frost’s less traveled road, and for me, that has made all the difference.

About the Author

Deb DawsonDeb Dawson

Deb Dawson is a writer, photographer, filmmaker, businesswoman, teacher, humanitarian, and philanthropist. She holds a B.S. Ed. in Education and English, and an MFA in Creative Writing. Her role as mother to biological, step, and internationally adopted children led her to write When Love is Not Enough, a memoir about the way mothers and daughters forge relationships in the face of tremendous obstacles.


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