Mentor of the Month: Sherman Alexie: Grounders

In the introduction to the anniversary edition of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which I do not have in front of me and therefore all ‘quote-y’ type things are from my questionable memory, Alexie talks about the headiness of being labeled one of the great lyrical voices of his generation. He comments that whenever someone criticized him for months afterward that the thought would float in his head: “Don’t you know you’re talking to one of the great lyrical voices of my generation?”

Apparently his wife did something like ask him to put the dishes away and he did answer with that. She snorted and told him to put the dishes away anyway.

I wish I had critical acclaim that I could use in conversation like that, but I’m left with my dreams of grandeur. I can’t put the dishes away, I’m working on the Great American Novel. Laundry? Nope, gotta write the rough draft of my Nobel acceptance speech.

To which my husband, knee-high in homework grading, snorts and says do it anyway. Not in some Neanderthal way, just in the “You can’t ignore real life” kinda way. Plus there’s a couple children that will die if I don’t feed them, maybe.

It’s called being grounded. Stable. Many people assume that great writing/art/whatever comes from being wild and spontaneous and floating high in the clouds. Some of it absolutely does. You have to be able to let your mind wander and go exploring and do all kinds of interesting things, or you won’t have anything to create ‘about.’ You know?

But let’s say you go to that mountain top and you float around and you find that brilliant something-or-other that you were looking for. Mountaintops are not good for composing. There’s wind. Snow. No where to plug in your laptop.

Eventually, you have to come home. A home that is cluttered, piled high with stinky dishes, and rigged with trip hazards is no more conducive to creation than the mountain top. Where the hell is my laptop, anyway, right?

Am I saying that your place should be spotless? Hell no. Come visit me sometime. But your chaos needs to have some order. If you’re lucky, you have someone to help you control that chaos. You have to have a grounded place that works for you and that includes people too. Someone to tell you–“Um, maybe you should straighten XYZ.”

But laundry?

Write naked.

Owen’s Prompts

At the end of the school year last year, Owen brought home the writing journal that he kept for his second grade class. I didn’t know that he kept a writing journal, so I was interested to read his work.

And how pleasantly surprised I was! He totally cut loose as far as story goes. There were no limits. He responded to prompts with verve and attitude. I think this is something that we all should do as writers. He wasn’t writing for publication, or even a grade, and his ideas were fun and fascinating (though maybe a little violent….).

A sample or two (with corrections for spelling, etc. from Mom):

1. “If I was a giant I would eat kids alive. I would also destroy buildings I touch. that would be cool. I would actually be green. I also want to step on people.”

2. “The rusty key fit in the lock and a dead man fell out. ‘This is a mystery’ I said to my friends. We went to the next door in the house. It was locked, so we used the rusty key. It fit! We saw a light in there….”

3. “The silly dragon had two dogs that breathe fire. Weird. He also has a rat that flies. He also has lots of stuff.”

Not too shabby for a then-seven year old. Mixing up genres. Introducing interesting characters and plotlines. Shifting POVs. All in all, I think a nice start to the writing gig.


Whoa. This is post #300. That sounds like a really big number to me. In honor of this momentous occasion (Momentous for me–I’m sure there’re many bloggers out there going: “Well, you don’t write too much do you?) I think that today I’ll talk about a piece of legislation that is 300 years old and very important to writers.


Three hundred-ish years ago, Queen Anne signed The Copyright Act of 1709, which went into effect in 1710, essentially the first copyright stating that a work belonged to the author.

Prior to that, authors sold their works directly to booksellers, who then claimed ownership and publication rights. (Imagine a world where the author is paid only an initial lump sum and that’s it.) As a large example of the rules prior to this statute, think of Shakespeare, the Bard His Own Self.

Yeah, he didn’t own those plays.

His company did. The plays were written for the King’s Men and with the King’s Men they stayed. So when the First Folio came out it was put together by Shakespeare’s company buddies to honor their friend–but it wasn’t necessarily to benefit his heirs, or even themselves, with royalty rights.

Queen Anne’s Statute changed how people thought of authorship. It went from the distribution groups to the creator. It’s remained that way since, and has gotten larger. Today you get kicked out of college for plagiarism, but Shakespeare could have lifted whatever he wanted and been called Legendary. (Not that I think everyone should go out and plagiarize, it’s just an illustration.)

Today the question of authorship has been brought up repeatedly as the medium in which writing and how it’s distributed changes. For example, this blog. Do I own the material or does Blogger? If I post someting on Facebook, does that belong to me or Facebook? Is it published since it’s available for public consumption?

With the available technology and the level of collaboration that can be accomplished, who owns what and where in a big project? Where do the international laws come into play?

I have no idea what the answers to any of these questions are. I fully welcome any thoughts! In the meantime, I’ll just rest on the satisfaction that I’ve written 300 blog entries so far. Whether I own them or not….

**And somewhat along those lines, courtesy of Nathan Bransford:

Mentor of the Month: Sherman Alexie: Genre Mix-Ups as a Way to Expand Your Audience

In War Dances, Sherman Alexie won prestige by mixing up poetry and short stories and a whole host of other writerly things. He’s written for teens and adults. He’s written poetry, short stories, novels, and he’s mixed up subject matters in those (an Indian serial killer for one!).

He did follow the advice many agents and editors give and waited before switching it up. He started with poetry and short stories–which is not to difficult a jump, especially since his poetry reads like his fiction: lyrical, brief, and with some really startling comment at the end that makes everything click into place. It was directed toward adults. So, to start, he established his audience and captivated critics. (Most of us will never hit this first step.)

He moved from stories to novels, again not a gigantic leap, except for one of his major novels is Indian Killer. Moving from the sorta-autobiographical fiction of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven to John the Indian Killer is not only a brilliant artistic move, it’s also a brilliant commercial move. After all, James Patterson sells plenty of books about serial killers and there’s an audience out there who wouldn’t mind mixing it up a little. Add in the elements of race, self-loathing, and the gorgeous writing that Alexie executes (no pun intended) and there’s no way Indian Killer wouldn’t grab him loads more attention.

Okay, now he’s written for adults, gotten their attention. Next? Teens are the wave of the future. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, now the selection for Pueblo’s (Colorado) All Pueblo Reads, was created. It fills one of those gaps for teens: adolescent boys. The books openly displays all the awkwardness boys go through and adds racial and class elements that kids are aware of but don’t alway have the vocabulary for. Then it went and won the National Book Award and became required reading.

Now Alexie’s audience is not only adult, it’s hit that magical below-twenty crowd and their teachers.

Am I saying that by following this formula of mixing up genres that we’ll all be bestselling authors? Hell no. We’ve got to be good at this writing gig first. Like I said, most of us will be lucky if we manage to reach our initial audience, let alone expand it.

And I don’t think Alexie himself thought coldly at his desk: Now I have X, I’ll go after Y. I think he wrote what he thought would be interesting or necessary to himself first, and the rest just kind of followed.

Do you think that mixing up the genres can expand your audience? Or do you think that if you dance around too much you’ll never have a consistant audience? How much do you mix up genres?

Going for something new, nerves

Nervous this morning.

I’ll be talking with my school advisor today about what I need to do to go for an MFA in writing. Mostly I’m worried because this last decade has been a crazy one. Children were born, marriages made and dissolved and made again. There was a bout with depression that directly impacted my health. Not to mention the general unfocused-ness that made it difficult for me to pick a major in school and stick with it.

So my transcripts, while the grades are generally good, reveal a certain level of inconsistancy (enrolled, withdrawn, re-enrolled, etc./changed in major) that I don’t feel is really indicative of my determination as a writer, or my interest in teaching at the college level. I’m not certain how to combat that in an application package. My advisor, being the sharp cookie that she is, will point that out at some point today. Not looking forward to it.

Anyway, fingers crossed. The biggest part of any MFA application is the writing sample anyway right?

Books on Writing: Yes and No

Writing books are an interesting niche market. Writers, by their nature, are readers and reading about writing seems really close to actually writing itself–after all, we’re working on improving our craft, right?

Yes and no.

Yes–books on writing teach us different ways to approach this writing gig. After all, it’s easy to say “Just Write.” It’s like a Nike slogan. “Just Do It.” But the actual writing can sometimes be difficult. You run into snags with characters. Sometimes you just don’t have the ability to build tension the way that you want to. Then there are those moments where you think that you’re the only one who has had these struggles.

For direct problems like these, writing books can show you how other authors have pulled off those pesky character/plot problems. Books on grammar can show you how to construct a sentence if there’s something wonky in your structure. Plus, there’s loads of encouragement out there for writers who think that they’re all alone, and Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird are probably two of the top books for that: both grant permission to fuck up and experiment while telling you to learn the basics.

No–There are other books out there that are not as useful, and I would argue can even be damaging. Generally speaking, if there is some sort of graph, plus worksheets, plus a ‘plan to get you to write your book in 24 hours’, I think that you can safely burn these and not lose anything. Any book that tells you there is just one way to write a book was probably written by someone who has only written ‘writing’ books.

Good writing does have its rules, but following strict guidlines, with no flexibility, is like trying to follow a diet to the T right off the bat–it generally doesn’t happen and all you’re left with is a bunch of fat-free, wordless pages and frustration.

I would also make the observation that sometimes writers think reading writing books equals writing. This is just not so. If you’re looking for inspiration, fine. If you’re looking for a piece to the puzzle of the story you’re working on, fine. But all of these writing books should only be read in conjunction with writing. Always, always be working on a piece of writing while you read the books on writing. That’s the only way they’ll actually be able to help you. It’s the way they’re designed to work.

What writing books have you read that were useful? Have you come across any that you thought were damaging or just written by writers wanting to write about writing? (Say that three times really fast!)

Mentor of the Month: Sherman Alexie: From Jenny’s Major Writer’s Class

Sherman Alexie. I’ve written about him before, briefly, when War Dances won the PEN/Faulkner Award. His book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian won the National Book Award. Plus, Ali named her dog, Sherman, after him (even though the dog is a girl).

All of these are wonderful compliments to a writer: awards, acclaim, and dog-name honorariums. But what I consider one of the highest forms of Compliment to a Writer is being taught in a college classroom.

This may sound a little high-brow academic, but I think that if a teacher is so moved by a writer’s words that they would choose to teach said writer, it means that they are willing to dedicate an awful lot of time and effort. After all, the teacher will be grading students writing about the writer’s writing, listening to presentations on the writer’s writing, reading the writer his/herself over again, taking notes on the writer’s writing, etc. That’s an insane amount of work to put into an author that you just feel lukewarm about.

Now I’m attending a class on the studying the major, contemporary Native American Writers. Alexie is head of the class in that department. I am relieved, as a student, that the class is focused on these works. Alexie is great because he’s a Stephen King fan, writes with language that is easily accessible yet still musical, and he has a sense of humor about himself. There’s also enough meat in the stories to justify hours of conversation about his characters and settings and ideas.

More on his writing itself a little later, but for now a question:
Would you like your work to be taught in a college classroom? Do you think that your work falls into that academic category at all? (While keeping in mind that Stephen King and JK Rowling are also taught in various classrooms across the country.)