“The Reservation of My Mind”

One of my favorite series on writing is The Atlantic’s By Heart series, where writers talk about passages that have influenced them in some way, usually related to writing. It’s comforting to see people who have found some measure of success doing what I’m doing talk about their journey and process in terms I can understand. It makes me feel not so alone, which is good. Writing, a very solitary activity, can sometimes make me feel like the sole survivor of the apocalypse.

(Already I’ve mentioned this series and had the pleasant and shocking privilege to thank the author myself, Craig Nova, who somehow found my little scribble and commented on it. Sometimes I love this Internet thing.)

Today I read about Sherman Alexie, whose selected quote single-handedly changed the course of his life. (Talk about power.) When Alexie was growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, Indians weren’t writers, so he didn’t even consider the possibility of becoming one. He was going to be a high school English teacher who coached basketball, end of story. However, one brush with an anthology of Native poetry, specifically a line by Adrian C. Louis, opened his eyes to the potential he could have if only he let himself realize it: “Oh, Uncle Adrian, I’m in the reservation of my mind.”

A major theme of this blog has been overcoming a great deal of fear that’s been standing in the way of achieving my dream of publishing a novel. As I chip away at this block, pouring words on it every day for the past year, I’ve started to understand what’s driving me. Maybe I shouldn’t be so shocked to realize that it’s the same thing that’s been standing in my way.

Alexie understands this better than I do, so I’ll let him explain:

The line also it calls to mind the way we tend to revisit our prisons. And we always go back. This is not only true for reservation Indians, of course. I have white friends who grew up very comfortably, but who hate their families, and yet they go back everything thanksgiving and Christmas. Every year, they’re ruined until February. I’m always telling them, “You know, you don’t have to go. You can come to my house.” Why are they addicted to being demeaned and devalued by the people who are supposed to love them? So you can see the broader applicability: I’m in the suburb of my mind. I’m in the farm town of my mind. I’m in the childhood bedroom of my mind.

I think every writer stands in the doorway of their prison. Half in, half out. The very act of storytelling is a return to the prison of what torments us and keeps us captive, and writers are repeat offenders. You go through this whole journey with your prison, revisiting it in your mind. Hopefully, you get to a point when you realize there was beauty in your prison, too. Maybe, when you get to that point, “I’m on the reservation of my mind” can also be a beautiful thing. It’s on the res, after all, where I learned to tell stories.

You know, for many years, I felt very insecure about being a writer—it wasn’t Indian enough. And then, one day, I was on stage and it occurred to me: Wait. I travel the world telling stories. How Indian is that? I’m doing the traditional thing—I’m doing the oldest thing known to humans! Before fire and the wheel, we had stories. Why did I ever let Indians who managed casinos make me feel bad about storytelling?

So there is power in this. I get to pick and choose what the prison means to me, float in between the prison bars, return in my mind when and how I want to. We’re all cursed to haunt and revisit the people and places that confine us. But when you can pick and choose the terms of that confinement, you, and not your prison, hold the power.

What is my prison? The fear that I’m not good enough. Not smart enough, not funny enough, not pretty enough, not nice enough and not happy enough. Nothing I ever do is enough. And through spilling my guts on paper, I start to see shadows of why. Maybe I’ll never figure it out completely (or maybe I will and that will be the signal that my time here is up), but it’s satisfying to get hints of it, in what I read and what I write. It’s satisfying to realize I’m not all that unusual, that my dreams and hopes and fears are shared by millions of others who aren’t as different from me as I thought.

Because that’s the thing about prisons. They make you feel alone. Kind of like writing. . . . (How Sisyphean is that?)

As a final note, if you want a more elegant description of the craziness that is the inside-out writing process (that I tried to describe here and at least some of you liked), then read author Andre Dubus III’s lovely explanation of what it means to dream a novel, also from the By Heart series.

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6 Comments

Filed under fiction, writing

6 responses to ““The Reservation of My Mind”

  1. Thanks for introducing me to the By Heart series. I’m definitely going to go wallow in that for a while. 🙂

  2. I love the resources your links provide. I have similar feelings of never being good enough which leads to a vicious perfectionist streak – the very qualities that make me a great editor are also the ones that keep me from writing wild. I’m working on it, but you’re right – it helps to know other writers have similar struggles.

    • So funny you should say that…just today a friend told me maybe I should become an editor, and I thought, you know, you’re right. I’m really good at pointing out mistakes! Especially my own.

      What you say is true. That editing side can very easily drown out the “wild writing” side. A writer needs both, just at different parts of the process.

  3. Thank you, Jordan, for posting this. Sherman Alexie is one of my favorite writers. (God, I have so many favorite writers.) I’ve read his “Lone Ranger and Tonto fist fight in heaven” several times. The movie “Smoke Signals” was made from it. And his “Reservation Blues” ain’t so bad itself. I sure have my prison. Only in the last few months have I been able to return to it and feel comfortable. What came out of that was “Jesus Junction” as you know. My whole life I seem to have struggled to become the writer I am today. Often with no encouragement from anyone. I always wondered what it would be like to have a mentored who thought I had great potential. For every step forward it seems like I have taken two steps back. All I have known is that I had no choice. I had to write. Or as I referred to it. I had to bard. To listen to the stars and to tell the stories they whispered to me.

    And your picture at the top with the quote “If you want to achieve greatness stop asking for permission” also hits home. Seems like I have been asking permission, begging for permission to join all the other writers out there who create wonderful stuff. We writers (and other artists as well) have so much to overcome just to born our gift and let it blossom and shine its light upon the world.

    It seems we travel alone and when we find a kindred spirit it blows us away. Again thank you for this post and for the blog you so diligently work on. It’s a blessing. Keep it up.

    • Thank you for this very personal expression. I know exactly what you mean. It’s sad that we don’t often get the encouragement we need to make it in this difficult endeavor–and it’s not like we choose it either, it chooses us. Just a little encouragement helps keep those nagging inner voices at bay, the ones that tell us we’re crap and it’s all pointless. I think about if Alexie hadn’t been given that book of poetry by his professor. That one moment was able to supply the drive he needed to make something of himself. It’s awesome to think we all have that power, hard to recognize when to use it.

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