Tonight I got to shake hands with Ursula K. Le Guin!

About a month ago, Sherman Alexie swore at me. Tonight I got to shake hands with another of my literary heroes, Ursula K. Le Guin. It's been a pretty amazing time, and it makes me wonder what's next. Will Margaret Atwood slap me? Will Cormac McCarthy kiss me on the forehead? Will the ghost of William Shakespeare appear in my room and command me to kill one of my uncles? I hope not. I love my uncles, but it would be hard to refuse an order from William Shakespeare. At the very least, I would dither, Hamlet-style. UrsulaKLeGuin1For those of you who are unfamiliar with her work, Ursula K Le Guin is probably most famous for her novels Lathe of Heaven and The Left Hand of Darkness, as well as her Earthsea fantasy series. She's won the Hugo Award twice and the Nebula Award four times (those are the biggest prizes for science fiction authors). She's won the National Book Award. Tonight I learned that the Library of Congress named her a "Living Legend" for her contribution to American literature. Not too shabby.

She's also an Oregonian, or, at least, she has been since she moved her in 1959. I think that qualifies her sufficiently. She came to the Civic Center in Dallas, Oregon, as part of the Literary Arts & Lecture series. This last year she won the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction, and part of the prize if that authors go around and give lectures throughout the state. I could imagine some authors resenting an award that came with an obligatory lecture tour, but if Ms. Le Guin resented it at all, she hid it masterfully.

Ms. Le Guin writes more than just science fiction and fantasy, and she showed off her range tonight by starting with some poetry, beginning with a poem written in sapphic stanzas (a 2500+ year-old form) followed by modern free verse. Then she read us a short story. As much praise as Le Guin has received for her novels, personally, I think her short stories are even more impressive. After the story, she answered questions from the audience. I selfishly asked two, both of which she answered generously, though with a bit less flair than Sherman Alexie. She was funny, sharp, and insightful about the writing process, her tastes, and the industry.

I managed to get a few of her quotes word for word:

  • On archetypes: "It's not like you go looking for them. They come looking for you!"
  • On her writing education: "I read a lot of good books. You learn what's worth imitating."
  • On why she doesn't like complicated thrillers: "I finally learn who done it, and I hardly knew it was done."

After her talk, I made my way to the front and shook her hand before she could get mobbed by people who wanted her to sign their books. She probably thinks I'm a cheapskate, but I would have purchased another copy of Lathe of Heaven just to have her sign it if I'd brought the checkbook or they'd taken credit cards. I fought off the urge to tell her that I do have copies of her books in storage. That would have sounded like a back-handed compliment as much as a desperate defense, anyway. Instead, I just shook her hand. I'm sure she's already forgotten the moment, but I will treasure it and brag about it to anyone who will listen or read a long and frustratingly inconclusive blog post.

Tonight, Sherman Alexie said, "Fuck you!" to me!

Sherman AlexieI totally deserved it. Some background. First of all, getting to hear Sherman Alexie speak is a privilege for anybody because he's a supremely talented speaker. It's a bigger deal for me because he's in my Top Ten. Those aren't the ten writers I enjoy reading the most, though I thoroughly enjoy reading Mr. Alexie's work. Saying he's one of my favorite writers, though true, feels too much like saying, "I'm on Team Sherman!" Bleck. No, my Top Ten are the writers whose work I respect the most because they are masters of their craft. The roster of the Top Ten sometimes changes, but he's been a consistent member since I was 17 and read The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Some of the other writers are dead. Some are alive, but recluses, like Cormac McCarthy, so I don't expect I'll get to hear them speak anytime soon. One member is dead and he was an asshole, so I'm not sure I would even have wanted to hear him speak. I might be paraphrasing, but I think Stephan King said something about how Earnest Hemingway was an asshole, but he was also a motherfucking genius. If Hemingway asked me to go out drinking with him I would demure because I know he would get me drunk, challenge me to a boxing match, impugn my masculinity until I agreed, and then beat the tar out of me. On second thought, I would still say yes and be grateful to have the chance to be beaten up by Hemingway. On third thought, I'd say no because I'd be too creeped-out if a dead guy asked me to go drinking. Nah, I'd still say yes.

Anyway, back to a member of the Top Ten who is less likely to beat me up (I'm still wary of you, Margaret Atwood!). I've heard Mr. Alexie speak before at the Portland Arts and Lectures series, but I didn't ask a question. I told myself that I was letting the high school students have that opportunity, but really I was too star struck. Tonight, I girded my loins and jumped for the mic when the time came.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven CoverThen, like a douche, I tried to make a joke about how I was still reeling from the news that this is the 20th anniversary of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, a book I read when I was 17. I wanted to explain that the book was hugely important to me because it was one of the first things I'd read that taught me that good writing can punch you in the gut. Up until then, I'd read classics without the ability to put myself into another time and place and fully feel how impactful they were to the audiences of their day. I also read a lot of fantasy and sci-fi that were wonderful, but which were largely vacations from my life, not books that openly challenged me. (That's not a knock on fantasy or sci-fi. I just hadn't yet found books like 1984 or The Year of the Flood that pack a wallop.) Somebody put The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven into my hands when I got to college (some friend in the dorm, not one of my profs. It was too new to be canonized yet) and I found that short fiction and poetry, especially the poetry, could knock the wind out of me. I thought Mr. Alexie might take particular pleasure in the knowledge that his writing delivered a beat-down to a suburban white kid, but he'd also appreciate that it carried his images into my classroom, into my own writing, and into crevices in my brain where they have resided for twenty years and show no signs of vacating.

Of course, by pointing out that the twentieth anniversary made me feel old, I couldn't help but imply that Mr. Alexie is even older. So, before I could try to shoehorn all that praise into a short preamble to my real question, he said, "Fuck you!"

Now, this was great for a couple reasons. For one thing, I'd brought a group of my high school students. They absolutely loved watching a great writer tell one of their teachers off. On the bus on the way home, they kept asking, "Can we tell people what he said to you in school tomorrow?"

I shrugged. "You'd be quoting, so I guess it's fine as long as you put it in context and cite your source. Always cite your sources."

20140220_170715The other reason why this was so great was because it was Sherman Alexie and he was saying it to me. A couple weeks ago, as a fluke, I had my name drawn out of a hat and had a chance to go meet a couple of the Portland Trailblazers. It wasn't just a handshake/signature affair. We got to participate in a mock practice. Their great new center, Robin Lopez, who is listed at seven feet tall but struck me as more like eight, was kind enough to swat one of my attempted layups into the stands. That's what this felt like. Having Sherman Alexie tell me, "Fuck you!" was like having an NBA player swat my weak shot into the stands.

It didn't register at first. I'm not particularly prurient when it comes to language. Words are tools. They have no moral weight. When the right tool for the job is a four letter one, then it should be used. When any word, no matter how innocuous it might seem out of context, is employed to hurt someone, it becomes a "bad word." Even then, sometimes a bad word is also the right word. This casual attitude about so-called "swear words" is a bit dangerous for a school teacher. After listening to Mr. Alexie speak, I almost said that the revelation about the book's age made me "feel fuckin' old," and that would have been a bad slip-up in front of my kids. (They would have loved it, but I probably would have gotten hell from a parent or two.) When Mr. Alexie said, "Fuck you!" I not only wasn't offended; I was relieved. Standing up in front of a room full of people might be de rigueur for him, but there were a lot more grown-ups in that room than I am used to, and he made me feel like we were just two guys talking. Sure, he's the literary equivalent of an NBA seven footer and I'm the literary equivalent of ...well, I have one novel published, so I guess I'm the literary equivalent of the fan who jumps out of his recliner to shout at the TV sometimes. Still, he was talking with me, and that was very cool.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian CoverAfter that, I stumbled my way through my question. He used to stutter, so that's probably why he was patient with me. I asked him about how difficult it was to edit the beginning of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, a description of poverty and its psychological effects that is so carefully crafted and effective that I think every politician and policy-maker should have to read it to even be considered for office.

"Where do you teach?" he asked.

Now that really freaked me out. After all, this was a guy who had just said, "Fuck you!" and if he didn't like my question and had decided to light me up, I was about to give him a huge opening.

I told him. "Wow," he said. "They have some good teachers at Central High School." This is true. I'd ridden on the bus with some teachers who are better than I am. But I got the impression he was talking about me, and I will accept that praise (uncomfortably, as always).

Then he answered my question. His answer was generous, too generous for me to recount completely. He said that he'd edited that particular portion of the book probably 50 times. Then he demonstrated how one finds that sweet spot where a story manages to hit home without being preachy. You read that correctly. He demonstrated. On the spot. He told a story about the time his family got their first toilet. They didn't have indoor plumbing before, and, when they got it, it was magical. He had us all laughing as he talked about the mythic men from Sears who carried it in, and how the family drew straw to see who would get to use it first. He was the first Alexie to use the first Alexie toilet. Once he had us all feeling amused and included, he showed how the story can pivot in a natural way, grab us by the guts, and twist. He told us about how, when he was little, he was so scared that his dad would disappear on another bender that, when his dad would go into that bathroom to sit on that toilet, Sherman Jr. would go down the hall and sit by the door, knocking, just to make sure his dad was still home.

Bam! That's how it's done.

After demonstrating, he reminded us all that a lot of the editing process comes from reading. That was a good reminder for this English teacher. I always tell students how important it is to read often in order to become a better writer, but I forget to tell them that they need to read in order to become better editors, to analyze their own work and measure it by what has been successful in the writing they enjoy. I will make a point to share that with the students in my creative writing class tomorrow, though I know I won't do so half as well as Mr. Alexie did tonight.

To sum up, iIn just one evening, Mr. Alexie made me a better editor, a better writer, and a better teacher (and probably a better father, a better liberal, and a better white person, if I'm totally honest). To him, that's probably just like every other fucking day, but, to me, it was one helluva night.

War Dances CoverBut I didn't get to tell him how much I loved War Dances.





A Strange Sunday of Marathons and Existential Dread

[originally published here in October of 2010] Today has been a strange day. Strange in that it does not cohere, does not congeal into a narrative the way we like our days to behave. Most days are well behaved. Our routine makes them so. We wake, we dress, we look at the clock four times more than is necessary to see that we are not running late. Those of you lucky enough to have hair are unlucky enough to have to brush it. Then we commute, we work, we commute again. A spouse or parent or child thoughtfully asks us for the story of our day and we tell the abridged version prematurely. Then the next third or half of the day begins. Perhaps you, like my wife, change clothes again. Or maybe, like me, you loosen your tie, un-tuck your shirt, and affect a style that is the mullet of the middle aged professional: We work hard, and we play hard, it says. Only we don't, most of us. We watch our news or cartoons or game shows according to our predetermined age and demographic. At some point we eat, maybe with family at a dinette table, maybe on the couch, maybe standing in the kitchen as close to the microwave and sink full of dirty dishes as possible. At some point we realize that the story of our day needs a climax, and if it isn't provided by a favorite prime time show we check the internet for some email that isn't spam or call a distant friend or look for someone closer to kiss goodnight. And then the story resolves into sleep, with perhaps that epilogue of a bad dream or an anxious waking to double check the alarm clock before it wakes us and calls for our attention four more times the next morning. That is the plot of the day. That is a day that has behaved.

But today has been unruly. First of all, it had the temerity to start on a Sunday. That makes me immediately uncomfortable because I stopped going to church over a year ago and haven't figured out a defined routine for professed agnostics. I usually try to avoid this discomfort by writing until three or four in the morning (my worship, confession, and communion hour, I suppose), then sleeping as late as my wife and son will allow. But today was the Portland Marathon, and we had friends and family running, so we woke early, dressed for the predictable Portland rain (it didn't disappoint), an drove an hour and a half before I usually wake up. We made it in time to cheer on one of my best friends. When I shouted his name he was so focused, and I was so bundled in a coat, a sweatshirt, and a stocking cap, that he looked at me with utter incomprehension that verged on anger. It was a look that said, “Who the f*&% is this idiot?” He quickly recovered and apologized for not recognizing me while still on the run, which was above and beyond the call of duty, but that look was unsettling and fit the tone of the day.

We cheered on our other friend, then met up with my brother-in-law and nephews to cheer for my sister-in-law. The enormity of these runners’ accomplishment was both impressive and humbling. Not only can I not do what they were doing, but I honestly don’t believe I ever could. Sure, my body is capable of training for it, and I have the time and means, but I don’t have the necessary willpower to adopt that kind of discipline. It’s just not in me. Realizing that is a bit depressing. Stupid Sunday.

We came home after lunch with the family. On the way up we’d listened to NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and on the way back we listened to The Bugle, two of my favorite podcasts which tap into my preferred vein of humor: irreverence at the current state of the world. These are the kinds of shows that I tell my students about only if they are knowledgeable about current events. Still, while the shows lighten my mood, in the context of the realization about my own lack of willpower they made me feel guilty about my cynicism. I can’t even train to run a marathon. What right do I have to laugh at the world?

When we got home I took a long nap. Apparently I can be exhausted just by watching a marathon. When I awoke I took care of some household business, and then we put my son to bed. We’re past the climax of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but my son interrupted tonight’s reading of the story’s denouement to ask about one of the character’s deaths, and where people go when they die. This was a tricky moment for two parents, one of whom is a Christian and one an agnostic. I tried to explain that our bodies are buried, but some people think we go to heaven, and some people think we just cease to be. I told him that I’m just not sure, and asked him what he believed. This dichotomy was complicated by the fact that the character, Cedric, returns as a kind of ghost. My son announced first that he wants to go to “Jesus-land”, which I told him was great, because it sounded like an amusement park. He wondered if, because we would both be old when we die, I would be his age. I told him that could be, or maybe we could choose our ages and he’d be older than me. He preferred the idea that we’d both be kids of the same age, so we could play together, and I said I liked that idea a lot. My wife told him that she was particularly excited about the chance that he’d get to meet her grandfather, who passed away before my son was born and who was, truly, a wonderful man. Then my son changed his mind. “Maybe I’ll be a ghost. I would come back to my home and my video games. And I’d play pranks!” My wife and I had a good laugh at his delivery of these lines; he used a drooping voice that hit its lowest notes on “home” and “video games”.

But then he became more serious. “But what if there really is nothing?”

“Well then,” I said, “it would be like sleeping with no dreams. Very peaceful.”

“Like a nap that goes on for a thousand years and forever?”

“Whatever happens after we die, it goes on forever, but maybe we go to heaven and maybe we sleep. I don’t know.”

“I hope it’s Jesus-land,” he said.

“I hope so, too,” I told him.

When my wife went to sleep, I decided to go for a run. Partly, this was because I was inspired by my runner friends. Partly it was because a colleague, Tom, has encouraged me to compete with him to see who can run the most miles, and I’m more motivated by a fear of embarrassment than by anything else. I loaded a new audio book onto my ipod and headed out. The Circle K is two and a half miles from my house, so I took my credit card and ID and planned to buy one of those tiny orange juices that come in the barely translucent, cheap plastic containers with the orange milk jug lids. I thought I’d down one of those halfway through a five mile run and be healthy. Instead, I found that they don’t sell those (they might not even make them anymore, for all I know), and Kool-Aid in squeeze bottles hardly sounded like the healthy drink I was hoping for. I bought a kiwi-strawberry Snapple. I misread the label and only when I was at the counter did I realize it’s a “juice drink”, which means it could be roughly anything. Back on the road and listening to my book, War Dances by Sherman Alexie (excellent so far), I got to a story where the protagonist finds a dead cockroach in the bottom of a carry-on bag and wonders if, in its last minutes, it felt existential dread. I realized that was precisely what my son had been expressing.

“But what if there really is nothing?” he’d asked.

So I took out my iPod touch and started writing this while walking in the dark. This is less dangerous than it sounds, though I did walk off the sidewalk once and stuck a foot into some very wet grass. It also served to remind me that, though some writers might also be runners, I will always be one and not the other, as I instantly chose my preferred hobby over my reluctant obligation.

So here I am, walking through the darkness on a silent road at 11 at night, thinking about the plot of our days and existential dread. Tomorrow I will be teaching my Creative Writing students about plot. I’ll tell them about rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. But I think I’ll also point out that these things are like grammar. We need grammar to make sense of our writing just as we need plot to make sense of the stories of our lives, but the most interesting writing plays with grammar, upends it in carefully selected ways. Our lives have plots within plots, but they do not behave as Aristotle said stories should. Perhaps we do not come to a marvelous conclusion about existential dread and how to cope with it, or how to protect our children from it. Perhaps we write in the darkness. Perhaps we stumble into the street and get run over before there’s been any climax to our stories. And then maybe we go to Jesus-land.