Thursday, September 24, 2009

Worked Over and Messed Up

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 here either.

Maybe, maybe, I can 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.


  1. Messed up is good. It allows us the opportunity to rearrange our thinking.

    Heartbreak and hope...a two-sided mirror, no?Thanks so much, Sara, for posting this reminder.

  2. Sherman spoke at the SCBWI summer conference, and I had the same reaction. He was jarringly moving, and told us how we should write powerful books for kids with their own hard stories. I was humbled because I write silly stories. But, I realized kids (and esp. kids with hard stories) need silly books, too. Then I felt better. :)

  3. "Has this ever happened to you?"

    Haaahaha haaaaa...
    Um, Sara?
    You ARE funny.

    That has happened to me approximately 1,572 times.
    Thank heavens for the one part hope.

  4. Jealous. So jealous you heard him speak.

    As a reader, I can say that even your short blog posts really matter. Your books, even more so. I know you're not fishing for compliments: I'm just sayin' anyway...

    I'm doing some writing myself now, though, and I get this. I really do. It's all new to me (writing that's not for a blog post, that is), and NOW I get what writers mean about how easy it is to beat oneself up and self-deprecate. But a good friend reminded me recently: Just write, write, write. Keep writing. Don't judge at first. Just get. it. out.

    Jules, 7-Imp

  5. I'm kind of in love with Sherman Alexie.
    D. knows. So, it's all good.
    But, I'm scared of seeing him in public; reading him makes me cry. Can you imagine if I broke down weeping because he messed me up?

    I have SO, SO, SO, SO, so felt that ...not envy, but that stomach-dropping, "Oh. Crap. I don't matter," feeling before. I don't know if I can ever be as comfortable in my skin as S.A., but he's been perhaps beaten into his, and it's a different fit. And maybe that's not what I'm here for, either.

    I'm hoping to find that heartbreak and that hope. And that fearlessness, and that optimism and that love.

    Gosh, I love that guy.

    Thank you so much for sharing your visit with him. I'm not jealous or anything (much).

  6. Sara, This is beautifully said. Sherman is probably one of the most dynamic speakers in literature today. I would bear at least two things in mind though.

    He's been at this a very long time. It's entirely possible that when he was starting out 1,000 speaches ago he was not quite as eloquent and confident as he is now. It's entirely possible that after your 20th book you will be as accomplished a speaker/writer. You'd never be like him but you could be as good on your own terms if you worked at it as hard as he does.

    Also, I suspect that the man he is in public for our entertainment is not the man who sits down at the computer every day to write. What makes you think he doesn't entertain all the same doubts you do? Maybe even more as he has the weight of expectation on his shoulders.

    The only answer for any of us is to write the most authentically Sara or Sherman or Rosanne story we have. Not a very satisfying answer, but for me anyway, it's what keeps me at the page day after day.

  7. Hmm. I think there is more than one way to be brave. The topics you tackle in your middle grade fiction are important - and those require courage, too, even if it's of a different tone than Alexie's.

  8. Sara,

    I love Sherman Alexie. I wish I had been with you. He is so smart--and so funny--and such a talented writer. I've heard him speak via television and the Internet--never in person. He's was great on The Colbert Report.

    It takes all kinds of writers to build a world of literature. I wish I could write children's fiction and picture books like CHARLOTTE'S WEB and THE GIVER and TUCK EVERLASTING and The Ramona stories and MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS... I wish I could write poetry like David McCord and Lilian Moore and Karla Kuskin and Myra Cohn Livingston and Barbara Juster Esbensen...
    I decided some time ago that I had to develop my own writing own unique voice to the best of my ability. You have most definitely done that.

    Let me add: I'm always impressed by the depth and insight of the original poems you post at your blog.

  9. Funny, I had the same sinking feeling last night after reading an essay by Wells Tower. Every sentence so exquisitely crafted, and like Alexie, redolent with dark humor too.

    Today I felt much better cause I decided to buy his book to savor and learn from.

    Thanks for sharing. We've all been there.

  10. Every day and all the time.

    Thank you for saying what I feel in such a way that I know what I feel even better than before.

    There are so many writers that I read and feel consumed with jealousy....but then I try to remind myself that somewhere out there is a child waiting for my story and if I can touch just one, well, that will be a start.

  11. This is when I wish Blogger allowed me to reply to each comment individually like LJ does. So much collective wisdom here. Thank you. Can all of you come over and talk about this some more? I'll make brownies.

  12. Sara-
    Some painters use pastel colors, others use bold, color and design. So, Sherman Alexie is the bold/bright kind of writer and yours, by contrast, tends toward the other palette. So what? Any palette can produce stunning art!



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