Tag Archives: why I write

“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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What I Write: Facing the Evil

Dr. Lecter and his patient Will Graham from NBC’s Hannibal

Okay, so I’ve talked a little about why I write. Now…just what the heck do I write?

A handy list of my novels, in various states of completion:

  • at age 12, a blatant Legend of Zelda ripoff
  • at age 14, a less-blatant Star Wars ripoff
  • not long later, a historical fiction about slaves and kings in Fifth-century Wales
  • half novel/half graphic novel about identical triplets and a comic book that takes over the world
  • a hotel that eats people
  • and my current WIP, officially entitled Walls but affectionately known as Julian

That last one…that one’s tough. My novel/graphic novel is very cool, plotty while managing to be intensely character-driven, and if I could just get an artist to turn my script into drawn panels, could actually be something. It’s funny, fast-paced, relatable and accessible. My current WIP…

…is about a guy on Death Row. And the daughter who discovers him, weeks before his execution date. It’s hard to even admit that on a public forum. (And I want to get this thing published?)

When people at work ask what I’m writing (because I try to have pride about being a writer, plus everyone wants to know what I do with my days off, as if it’s any of their business), I simply tell them “young adult fiction.” That’s the category everything falls into, more or less. And it shuts them up enough, even though you’d think, working with kids, writing for kids would be respected. I guess people think Twilight. That’s fine and all, just not my thing.

My thing is apparently dark and evil and unmentionable. A teenager rapes and murders a nine-year-old girl. Sixteen years later, another teenager tries to come to grips with that. What it means about her, what it means about love, what it means about right and wrong. Judgments, personas, and how the past interacts with our lives. Plus graffiti and rock and roll, making your mark on history, your legacy, how you want to be remembered after you’re gone and just how out of our control that is.

Yeah. Try mentioning that in a preschool setting!

My favorite stories have always been about the big things, the dark things, the things that are difficult to explain. Anyone ever read Robert Cormier? For a long time I was obsessed with Neil Gaiman, whose characters always seemed to be in a moral quandary. Lately I’ve been reading Gillian Flynn’s deeply-flawed, unlikable, conflicted characters (she’s like an addiction to something sugary and full of toxins). Recently finished watching Hannibal, ITV’s brilliant Broadchurch, and just started on Breaking Bad. People who do bad things, or try to do good and fail miserably.

Why? Why to we do these things? Why do we hurt the people we love? We commit some terrible acts as a human race, and half the time I understand it while the other half I just sit there, baffled.

Even children. Even little babies, sitting there smacking each other on the head and laughing.

So…what is the most evil thing you can think of, and how can we deconstruct it? Let’s dwell on that for several years of our lives.

I guess it boils down to this, my own personal understanding: everyone is judged. We try not to do it, but a big part of our how our brain works is that it takes unfamiliar experiences and relates them to past experiences. Instant judgement. It’s wrong, it’s necessary for survival, and it results in bullying, social and racial stereotypes, acts of terrorism, and false convictions.

This is Joel Stein, from the latest Time Magazine about getting picked for jury duty:

Judge Richman then asked us each if we were able to avoid making assumptions about the defendant, who was also in the room, based on the enormous tattoo covering his face. I told him I certainly could. But by the 20th time he asked a potential juror, I started to wonder, if, compared with the non-faced tattooed, the face tattooed are more likely to make poor decisions. After all, these are people who walked into a tattoo parlor and said, “I think this design will go well with my face.”

I want to be judged for who I really am, what I do and how I treat others. Everyone does. It just doesn’t happen that way.

So I’m writing a novel about a very bad man because I want to face the evil–inside of him, inside of me. It’s not so different from why my main character decides to visit her dad in prison, how she’s able to go out alone at night and paint her pieces: evil may not shatter when it’s exposed to the light, but it does make it easier to see, and hopefully easier to transform into some better.

Pulitzer Prize-Winning author Robert Olen Butler in his wonderful book, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, gets to the bottom of it:

For those two hours a day when you write, you cannot flinch. You have to go down into that deepest, darkest, most roiling, white-hot space. . . whatever scared the hell out of you down there–and there’s plenty–you have to go down in there; down into the deepest part of it, and you can’t flinch, can’t walk away. That’s the only way to create a work of art–even though you have plenty of defense mechanisms to keep you out of there, and those defense mechanisms are going to work against you mightily.

Understanding these things is understanding ourselves. Just like that baby who sits there hitting another baby and thinks it’s the funniest thing in the world, all of us have the capacity to hurt others. We all do it. Some of us enjoy it, most of us bury it in guilt and various defense mechanisms. I want to face the evil, give it a name, and hopefully come out a better person.

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That Fear Thing: In Which I Refuse to Let It Beat Me

Photo by Dan Henry, published Monday, August 26th, 2013

I may have mentioned once or twice that I’m afraid of certain things. Ordering take-out, for instance, and social misunderstandings. In another era, I’d probably end up a shut-in like Emily Dickinson, only crappy at poetry because I wouldn’t have the internet. (Without the internet, I’d probably end up like Polonius“Neither a borrower nor a lender be! You’re welcome.”)

Well, there’s nothing like a little actual, life-threatening experience to put things into perspective.

Two weekends ago, they convinced me to go whitewater rafting on the Ocoee River in Tennessee. They, as in everyone I love. Knowing I’d be too swayed by my family’s influence to be talked out of it, my husband spent the days leading up to our trip fabricating fantastic statistics designed to scare the crap outta me. “Did you know that three out of four injuries incurred on the river result in hospital visits? Did you know more people die whitewater rafting than from shark attacks?”

Didn’t help matters much that my brother’s girlfriend went rafting on the exact same stretch of river two weeks prior, and within five minutes of putting in, watched her friend’s leg SNAP IN HALF on a particularly notorious rapid known as Grumpy’s. Same river, same rafting company. The massive, sunburned River Leader reluctantly recalled the event, how he strapped his paddle to her leg and hauled her up the bank to the waiting ambulance.

Well, Grumpy’s was not our undoing. Our undoing was a class-five rapid called Broken Nose. There’s an amusing story behind the name, made less amusing in light of our experience.

To say I was terrified would not be an exaggeration. There’s this awful drive up the river that must be endured, padded out in life jackets and helmets on a moldy bus, past every rapid we would have to go down. It was nine a.m., August 24th, the first trip of the day. Every so often the River Leader would lean over and exclaim at some rock or stick and its level relative to yesterday. Whether this was good or bad I could not determine; to me, everything seemed like an ill omen.

I almost chickened out. Waiting in line, carrying our raft down the slippery ramp past Misty, one of the waterfall-like dams used to control the flow of the river, just about undid me. I remember Niagara Falls as a kid: lots of water, bright rain slickers, lots of water and lots of noise. Did I mention lots of water? If someone had suggested getting in a raft affectionately called “The Dinosaur” and going for a spin, my four-year-old self would have told you “No way, dude.”

But in we went, into the shockingly cold water, straining against the might of Misty. “Our raft is the oldest in the fleet,” our guide told us–a rookie herself, in her first season in charge of other people’s lives. “It can’t handle some of these bigger rapids, so we’ll be taking the easier lines and avoiding the big water.” Her tongue ring flashed every other syllable, and I strained to hear. “The other guides call me Hazard. That’s cos I like to steer clear of all those dangerous spots.”

Reassuring, at the time. Though now I’m not so sure that’s why they called her Hazard.

#

The Dinosaur glided over the water, the paddling much easier than I thought it would be. We went ten minutes without dying. We only got stuck only a few times. Most of the time we hit the rapids backwards or sideways, spinning down the river like a leaf. I think it was by design. I hope it was by design. My husband knew we were in trouble way before me. Like any good fool, I trusted our guide implicitly.

We had something known as Big Water: all the rapids were classed up. The Class 4 river had become a Class 5. Class 6, of course, being illegal to send inexperienced rafters down, even if they do shell out money for it.

We got stuck at the top of a three-level drop. I couldn’t see anything over the edge. Our guide gave her orders, “paddle one, paddle two, two back,” while she steered. We listened best we could. Eventually, the raft nudged off the rock, and we dipped over the falls sideways.

And stayed there.

I never thought you could get stuck in a rapid. They call it surfing. The continuous fall of the water, combined with the backward suck of the current under the rocks, creates a unique situation in which you literally ride the rapid, never going anywhere.

Under the relentless fall of the water, we instinctively climbed to the higher side of the raft. “Paddle!” came the vague but unneeded command. We paddled, like chipping away at a glacier. Every foot we would gain, every time I thought we might pull ourselves out of it, the circulation would suck us back, the water would swamp us, and I’d choke and sputter. Soon, it became more important to time our breaths than to paddle. Paddling got us nowhere; we had to keep breathing.

The other rafters, lined up along the shore just past the rapids, watched, wide-eyed. Several of the guides stood on the nearest ledge–not even thirty feet away–with worried expressions. You don’t want to see experienced rafters worried about anything concerning you. You want them to laugh and say you’re just a melodramatic rookie, it’s fine. This happens all the time.

They threw us ropes. We held on–what else could we do? We stuffed ourselves down inside the raft, my husband and I pressed together, and held on. I know my dad was there, my brother too, his girlfriend and our guide, but it was just the river, in my ears and down my throat, my husband, tangled in my legs, and the rope, biting into my hands.

I don’t know how long it lasted.

Somehow, they got the timing just right: they yanked the nose of raft just enough to dislodge us momentarily from the suck of the water, just enough to throw me backwards, into Broken Nose. Someone grabbed me, then let go, and I was gone.

Photo by Dan Henry, published Monday, August 26th, 2013

The only apt description is like a cork. I bobbed, against the bottom of the raft. From videos I’d watched to prepare myself for the unlikely, I knew that the seconds after popping up were critical, the few seconds that I could find the raft and get back in before being shot downstream.

I did not want to get back in that raft.

So downstream I shot, floating feet-first as I’d been instructed. This was so different from being stuck. This was free. I had no time to be afraid. I was alive.

“Swim! Swim your little heart out!”

If someone hadn’t said that, I probably would have floated right past the rafts.

Someone stuck out their paddle. I swam with feeble strokes that somehow got me there, grabbed hold, and was pulled as dead weight into the raft. I flopped onto onto my back, coughing up half the Ocoee; my rescuers tried not to stare. The whole thing probably lasted thirty seconds.

Back in Broken Nose, the situation had not changed. I sunk down so I couldn’t see and funneled the last of my strength into not crying. If someone had even suggested the mere possibility of quitting, you can bet your life I would have. Had it been an option, I would have hopped out right then and walked all the way back to Atlanta, leaving a trail of soggy water-shoe footprints.

But they didn’t. However long later, after my family had to abandon the raft one by one and we regrouped downstream, I climbed back into my raft, gave my husband a weak smile, and away we went. It wasn’t long before we started cracking jokes about stopping at every Total Wine on the way home. And, I’m happy to report, I had fun. Every drop sent my heart into my throat, but I’d survived worse. I could do this.

#

“I’m sure you’re not happy this happened,” our guide told us at the end, unable to meet our eyes, “but I am. I had to experience something like that sooner or later, so I could learn something from it and try to keep it from happening again. Just sucks that it had to be you.”

Poor girl. None of us felt the desire to tip her. I still feel bad about that.

Most of my family blame her, but I don’t. Things happen. Mistakes are made. Part of the training for becoming a river guide involves swimming the same rapids you later send unsuspecting tourists down in rafts–so you know what it’s like to be afraid, but also so you know how to overcome it. The river is fear-inspiring. And yet, every year, thousands of people are drawn to its unrelenting roar.

That weekend, two women died on that stretch of the Ocoee, one of them in the same manner that almost got me. Except, where I shot like a cork under the raft and down the river, she stayed under until it killed her. We heard the ambulances before we’d even finished our run, screaming up the river toward Misty. The moment I found out what happened, I felt like I was fluttering between those two eventualities: existing and not existing. The line between them is thin and dotted and not always straight.

#

So here is where I bring it back around to writing:

Writing is not like whitewater rafting. It will not kill you. It will most likely not become a story you have to repeat for everyone you know, two weeks straight. Most of the time, no one will even care.

But writing is like whitewater rafting in that, when you get it right, it will take the things that scare the pants off you and transform them into something more. Just as the raft glides over the surface of certain death, writing that hits at the tender places of the heart makes difficult things easier, breaks them into manageable pieces. Great stories help us deal with unexplainable loss, or fear, or longing. As well as joy. It does this for both the reader and the writer. The real world can be too hot to handle. Turning it into fiction gives it meaning and makes us understand.

Some people say it’s merely human nature to look for patterns, to find meaning in the chaos. Maybe. But chaos isn’t a very nice place to be, and I would much rather spend my time looking for answers than accepting that we are all just corks, bobbing aimlessly down a river. I refuse to accept that.

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