Tag Archives: Sherman Alexie

“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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Never Trust a Writer Who Doesn’t Read

I would make a terrible professional reviewer.

For one thing, I’m too slow. I’d never get paid.

Also, I only read things that interest me, and if I lose that interest, often I won’t finish the book.

(Take, for instance, the painfully beautiful The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. I read the first chapter online, got sucked in, asked for it as an anniversary present and then stopped halfway through, just as it was getting good. Why? Maybe Mabel’s completely justified negative attitude toward nature finally got on my nerves, who knows. Perhaps I’ll pick it back up someday and find out.)

I don’t read deep enough within the confines of a genre to be any sort of expert on anything (except Sub-Roman Britain, I am proud to say, and who the heck even knows what that is?)

I don’t even read new books, or popular ones. My ticket for the bandwagon got lost somewhere with my notice for what exactly is a hashtag. And important books? Calling someone “the most important author under 35 writing with a quill in the second decade of the twenty-first century” is more than enough to make me press the snooze button.

My opinions on the books I read aren’t even that reliable. My first impressions are almost always wrong. Either I’ll love a book and later realize I was delusional, or I’ll slog through something, only to come to the conclusion that it says everything I wish I could and should be embossed in gold and preserved in amber. Maybe I read with my Empathy Switch turned up to eleven, I don’t know. My head and my heart aren’t always connected.

(Another example: back in 2007 I wrote a review for a now-defunct YA blog about Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian that pretty much revealed how much I didn’t get YA at all. I liked the story, but the writing annoyed me. Since then, I’ve reread the book as well as dipped into Alexie’s other work. Suffice to say I was definitely wrong the first time around.)

Even so, I feel compelled to talk about the books I love, as well as the ones I just don’t get. Not because I feel my opinion is important, but because I love books. Never trust a writer who doesn’t read, and how will you know if she reads if she doesn’t talk about books?

So every once in a while I will bring to you a book report of sorts, less of a Kirkus and more of a personal reflection, how I reacted to the story and what it means to me, from a writer’s perspective. Since everything that comes out had to first go in, everything I write is because I absolutely cannot stop myself from reading. Isn’t that the point of books? It’s communication. I’d just like to add a little to the conversation.

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