I went to hear Sherman Alexie speak this week,* and it messed me up.
During his talk, he acted out a scene in which his dad gets drunk and tells his seven-year-old self and all his gathered young friends about how women. . . NO, can't write that here on the blog.
Okay, he talked about giving President Clinton grief for his "my grandmother was Cherokee" attempt at empathy, and then, later, he describes Clinton embracing him with "Big-Mac breath," leaning in to whisper in his ear "Alexie, you're----" NO, can't write that either.
Maybe, maybe, I could tell you about his description of President Obama's inauguration on TV, in which he noted the huddle of emaciated, hippie vegan white women with ugly shoes swaying arm in arm with the Aretha-sized, fur-coat-wearing, Baptist-churched and well-heeled black women, one of whom had a fox head dangling off her wrap---which kept hitting a vegan woman in the head. Okay, I got through that one. But it was way funnier when he told it.
Alexie is as profane, achingly hilarious, and fearless in his public presentations as he is in his fiction. As a huge fan of his, I listened with alternate awe, discomfort, and glee. I bought a book of his poetry, FACE, which I hope to feature tomorrow for Poetry Friday. I had to drag myself away from his autograph line, which was at least a hundred people long, by doing the mental math (100 people x 1 minute each = 100 minutes/over an hour-and-a-half wait.)
But when I attempted to get back to my own work the next day----THUD. I realized how badly he'd worked me over. I'm not fearless. I'm not profane. (Sometimes, I'm funny. I give myself that.) But all I could write in my notebook was: nothing I write really matters. Why should people care? BLAH.
Has this ever happened to you? Not jealousy, but a realization of your limitations as a writer?
I got over it, first by realizing that writers have different roles. Some are here to blurt out the truth. To overwhelm you with a barrage of jabs to your prejudices and fears. Others tread on little cat feet. They are stealthy. The potions they administer flow through your veins slowly and when you wake up a little more beautiful than you were the day before, you never trace it to their subterfuge. Either is good. Change happens.
The other thing that helped is that I went back and re-read his poem, "Water," published in his collection, One Stick Song. It ends with the phrase "two parts heartbreak and one part hope." I realized that is exactly what fiction is. I dove back in to my revisions, looking for both the heartbreak and the hope, but more willing to allow the heartbreak in. Thank you, Mr. Alexie.
*Mr. Alexie was accepting the Mason Award at the Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University.