Tag Archives: Greatness

“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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Update on That Asking Permission Thing

Photo by Les Jones

Remember that time I told you I was going to start being more assertive, take risks, and stop being afraid of things that interfere with achieving Greatness?

Yeah, well, here’s the thing. I’m a wimp.

There’s this pretty infamous abandoned gas station in our county that I pass by all the time. Back at the end of the last century, the owner, somehow suspecting he was about to be robbed, staked himself out overnight to ambush the burglars. When they broke in, he attacked them with a shotgun, killing one as they fled the scene.

I can’t remember exactly how it ended up but I’m pretty sure the owner was convicted of some type of murder, and the convenience store has been closed for years. It’s prominently placed at the top of a hill next to a crossroads, quite spooky, roped-off and overgrown. Every time I drive past I can’t help but think about misguided intentions, so when I needed a building for my stencil graffiti artist main character to vandalize, I knew exactly which one.

Well, last night was a dark night, and I was in the area. Before I wrote the scene in question I sat in the parking lot of the abandoned strip mall across the street and took copious notes. (Our county sounds like it’s all abandoned but I promise you it’s actually quite nice.) But the most important part happens in the dark, at night, when I’d never stopped for longer than the length of a red light.

So. Greatness. That was my goal.

I turned at the light and it was extremely dark. So dark I didn’t see the car until I was about to turn into the strip mall. My headlights bounced off the reflective lettering: County Sheriff. Lights completely dead. I didn’t even put on my turn signal, just kept right on going.

Which is so dumb because when I turned around in a subdivision and drove back toward the gas station, he was gone. And I was too chicken to turn into the parking lot and sit–very legally might I add–for five minutes trying to absorb sensory information. I wasn’t even planning on getting out of the car. What were they going to do, arrest me for imaginary application of graffiti?

So there you go. Too wimpy to not break the law for the sake of my art. If this story ever gets published, my main character will be too embarrassed to be seen with me in public.

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Ancient Ruins and Conducting “Research”

This shoe:

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broke the law last week. But only a little one:

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Nevertheless, it is a criminal, a repeat offender even. This is not the first time it has gone places it’s not supposed to go in the name of “research.”

(Dinas Emrys, an Iron Age hillfort and Norman tower outside of Beddgelert, Wales and protected by the National Trust. Taken by me, 2006. Click for closer inspection.)

This time, “research” dictated a trip to Lanierland, a defunct music park in rural North Georgia that in its heyday hosted such acts as Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Waylon Jennings, and most infamously, Kris Kristofferson, whose band inspired a riot because of some unsavory language. It closed in 2006.

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While this was the shoe’s first visit, I had been there once before. In 2005, one year before the park’s demise, I accidentally attended what should have been my high school graduation.

Look me up in the local papers. They’ll tell you I graduated from South Forsyth High that year, but only because the photographer the school hired to take senior pictures delivered mine along with everyone else’s to the editor doing the graduation piece. My family bought a full set; how was he to know I never attended a day of my senior year? In actuality I graduated from a little correspondence school, for no reason other than I didn’t want to keep explaining myself to people asking about all that “college stuff” I hadn’t yet figured out. (As if I was the only teenager in the history of the world with no clue what she wanted to do with her life.)

Despite all this, the universe decided if I was going to pretend to get my diploma from South Forsyth High I had better be there for graduation–even if it was only just in passing. Because that very Saturday morning I really was passing by–creeping, actually, because of all the cars parked alongside the road and the people milling about them. Some I recognized, in blue caps and gowns, clutching shiny new diplomas, hundreds of kids who probably thought I’d either died or gotten pregnant if they even remembered me at all. I couldn’t get away fast enough.

But last week, it was empty.

Normally I don’t like breaking laws (neither does my shoe). However, as I mentioned recently, if I’m seeking greatness, I can’t always ask for permission.

(Though I don’t rule out asking forgiveness! Every two seconds I expected a police cruiser to pull in the driveway, because in my worst-case-scenario brain, they install alarm systems on derelict ruins. Surely they wouldn’t arrest a cute little girl with a camera and an Accelerated Reader t-shirt her baby brother gave her, would they?)

Greatness involves taking risks. Greatness involves putting yourself out there, setting yourself up for possible failure, all the while working toward possible success. I’ve been afraid of things my entire life. Stupid things. If I’m ever going to accomplish anything of worth, I need to start getting over myself.

(This is a promise: someday I’ll finish the Wales story, just as someday I’ll finish the Lanierland story. I can’t be risking my life like this for nothing!)

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Why the Past is Prologue

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Me in Venetian bookstore Acqua Alta, which has bathtubs and gondolas full of books. Taken by a friend, 2006

Even though I published my first post on Sunday, What’s Past is Prologue was created, WordPress records inform me, June of 2008–something I only vaguely recall. The one draft languishing in a forgotten stream of ones and zeros proudly declares:

Forget everything else. It’s all in the past, it’s superfluous, it’s a dagnabbit prologue, and how many people read those anyway? We’re talking here, we’re talking now, and we’re talking serious.

It’s time to get down to business.

For the past I-don’t-know-how-many years, I’ve been a struggling writer of fiction. And while I have felt my craft grow and strengthen and blossom like a bunch of bleedin’ petunias

Not even a period. How’s that for commitment?

The thing is, even though I’ve written my entire life, most of what I have to show for it was created while still a teenager, or in the few months of my early twenties that weren’t complicated. Oh, I’ve actively written: several drafts of most of a novel, several drafts of most of another novel, about a million drafts of that first serious attempt at a novel, never-to-be-abandoned, a couple collaborations with writer friends, half-finished stories, my proscribed million words of utter crap–but what have I to show for it?

I posted it yesterday.

Part of the problem is I’m afraid of failure. Have been all my life: I’d sooner run away from home than bring my parents a B on my report card. It translates to my creative endeavors. If I never finish something, no one can reject it, right? If I spend eternity tinkering and rewriting, there can be no confirmation that I suck.

I know I don’t suck. But no one else can tell me that, because how would they know? High school English teachers loved me, I had a couple stories published in a local independent book store anthology. (Had a book signing and everything–didn’t I think I was special). But now I’m 26, newly married and a preschool teacher, spinning stories in my head I wouldn’t dare tell a toddler but have no one else to tell. If I finish something, maybe that can start changing.

This is my attempt to finish something.

The things I don’t want to lose are my passion for the written word and my love of stories. Life is going to kill them, if I don’t get my act together. So this blog is the sum of all I’ve experienced in life, posted here for the world to see, even if that world is a few scattered Internet People blowing in from who knows where. (Still not sure how this whole networking thing works, another reason for the blog. By the way, hi Internet People! Thanks for reading!)

Someone posted this on Absolute Write yesterday, and it hit me hard. I used to post on that forum all the time, but then the posting became more important than the writing, so I quit. When I regain enough confidence maybe I’ll try again, but until then, the quote:

Never mistake activity for achievement. -John Wooden

I looked him up. He’s considered the coach of the 20th century. Surely he knew a thing or two about success and failure.

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“Greatness” by Eddie Colla

This sassy girl (created by Eddie Colla) inspires me in so many ways. She embodies the attitude I am trying to channel into my WIP and inspires me to get off my butt and write it. She is my main character, Andy, a teenage girl who makes beautiful things with a spray can without asking anyone’s permission. Someday, I want to grow up to be just like her.

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August 20, 2013 · 8:27 pm