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.





Skin That’s Thick and Thin: Some Advice for Writers

One cliché bit of advice doled out to writers (and actors, artists, politicians, and various other people who elect professions where they face a lot of criticism) is that they should grow a thick skin. Like rhinos, perhaps. rhinoOr crustaceans of some kind. The assumption is that this will make us more successful. That might be true. Perhaps due to our society’s conflation of financial success and happiness, there’s also an underlying implication that this thick skin will lead to happiness. Or to better art. I am unpersuaded.Skeptical Hippo


This week, I hung out with a friend who had a particular verbal tick. In the midst of conversation, he'd say, "I don't care about that." This struck me as a harsh way to segue from one subject to another, or to make a point. This tick can be partly explained by the fact that English is his third language; a native speaker, learning English as a child with less strongly formed opinions, might have learned some gentler way to say, “I disagree,” or “Well, I’m not sure that’s relevant to the point at hand.” This friend simply and boldly asserted that he didn’t care. He even doubled-down, voicing his admiration for a particular writer who had achieved great success by promoting unpopular theories due to his complete disregard for the opinions of critics or academics who disagreed with him.

I shared my current dilemma. My novel comes out in a little over a month, and I can’t help but hope that readers enjoy it. I attributed this to a personality flaw. “I’m a people-pleaser,” I told my friend, as though making a confession to a habit of cannibalism or necrophilia. My confessor encouraged me to go and sin no more, to grow a thick skin, to not give a -well, he didn’t use the word “care” that time- let’s just say he advised me not to donate any carnal acts to critics.

On the surface, this seems like good advice. Why should a writer allow himself/herself to be cut to the core by the rantings of some Greenwich Village hipster he’ll never meet, the invective of a mommy-blogger who was too distracted by her children to read the book carefully, the ad hominem insults of a sixteen-year-old who likes to post nasty reviews on Amazon just to see if he can get a reaction?

Why? Because those three people are readers! The guy from the village walks down to Washington Square Park, finds an empty bench, and he reads!Reader at Washington Square Park The stay-at-home mom carves out the few precious minutes when both her kids are napping, and she reads! The kid on Amazon… okay, he’s really a 35 year-old troll who lives in his mom’s basement, and he doesn’t really read novels, but his life is sad and he deserves some sympathy. Though the writer may never meet them, the guy in Washington Square Park and the woman sitting on her toilet next to the baby monitor… They are the reason he writes. Their opinions matter, not just because they are human beings with intrinsic worth, but because they read the book. If the writer doesn’t care about that, he should stick to journaling.

But this is an over-simplification as well. I never want to achieve “universal acclaim.” First of all, if everyone knows that a book is good, they file it away as a “classic,” a book everyone has heard of and no one is excited to read. Second, if the world of literary criticism ever becomes so homogeneous in its thinking that there are no contrarian voices, the whole pursuit becomes something I’d prefer to avoid. I hope for some bad reviews. By all the gods, I’d love to have a few high profile bad reviews. But only because they would drive more people to the book. I want the majority of readers to enjoy it. At least 51%. There. I’ve confessed. I want it to be (gasp) popular.

Having a thin skin may actually help in that department. Thin skin may be fragile, but it’s also sensitive. It feels effectively. Absorbing that information allows the writer to more accurately predict what might be pleasing to the reader. Consider, who would you rather curl up next to on a thick rug in front of a roaring fire, a beautiful woman/man with very sensitive skin, or the aforementioned rhinoceros? I would hypothesize rhino chargingthat the human is more likely to be able to satisfy your sexual desires, but I don’t know what you’re into.

Still, despite Stephen King’s assertion, writing isn’t seduction. A desire to be sensitive  to reader’s tastes can lead to trend-chasing, a bad habit that has bred a thousand Twilight knock-offs which should have stayed hidden away in fan-fiction forums. Trend-chasers are about as seductive as the kid in middle school who asked every single girl to the dance and found out they were all planning on washing their hair that night. A writer has to have some small measure of self-respect.

After writing a handful of novels, I finally decided this was the one to publish not just because I’d honed my craft to a point I could be proud of, but because this book was my bravest one yet. I was able to put the disapproval of my grandmother out of my mind on some previous projects, but this time I was finally able to risk the disapproval of my parents, my dearest friends, even my wife, because I was nine-and-a-half months pregnant with a story that just had to come out. As I wrote it, I caught myself thinking, “Oh, that line is going to piss-off Christians,” and “Oooo, Muslims won’t like this chapter very much,” and “Some atheists won’t appreciate that crack,” and “Dammit. There go the Orthodox Jews.” I didn’t set off to offend religious people. Most of my favorite people are adherents of one religion or another. The book will only offend the kind of believers who lack a sense of humor. Luckily for me, they aren’t known for their habit of searching out opinions that disagree with their own. Scary Westboro BaptistBut they are the scariest kind of believers! Their bad reviews sometimes take the form of bullets. I was aware of that. I couldn’t let it stop me, though. I was processing the loss of my own faith, and I had to turn that pain into something positive, even fun, for myself. Then I discovered that the story I needed to tell myself was a good one, one that others might enjoy.

I couldn’t back down from the story, but I couldn’t ignore my audience either. If I was going to make it available for them, it had to be more than a story for my own benefit. I had to revise and edit. Those phases are the least popular among writers precisely because they exist to serve the reader’s needs, not the writer’s pleasure. I can’t overstate their importance, though. Not only did a willingness to revise, to truly “see again,” deepen my own experience of the story, it made the novel into something I’m far more proud of. And editing? Editing doesn’t build pride; it prevents shame. Now I’m neck deep in online writer’s groups where we share marketing ideas, and I am constantly amazed by the number of writers who post ungrammatical, misspelled, incorrectly punctuated comments online. Sure, these might be informal forums, but we’re writers, for Valhalla’s sake! Every typo is an offense to potential readers. I paid good money to hire an editor to save me from any of those mistakes in my book. You can bet I’m going to try to communicate that level of quality to potential readers in every online post.

So, if this novel is any kind of model, writing should have some measure of swagger. It should be hard at its core but soft on the outside. It should be confident but also sensitive. On second thought, I guess Stephen King was right about seduction.

In my life, my need to please others has led to my most embarrassing moments (made all the more excruciating by the fact that I’m so sensitive to embarrassment), my most ill-conceived blunders (desperate, impulsive attempts to win favor), and my most shameful acts (failed efforts to make people like me at the expense of others). However, the same impulse has led to my greatest successes. When I wanted the approval of the right people and went about acquiring it in the right way, I not only found my greatest joys but brought the most joy to others. Furthermore, my need to please demands that I look for the good in people, give them the benefit of the doubt at every turn, and though this has burned me quite a few times, it’s also proven to be a good bet; most people, it turns out, are worth pleasing.

My paper-thin skin may be sliced to ribbons shortly after the book hits shelves. I certainly won’t participate in a public melt down like some have. I plan to take the best advice I’ve heard about book reviews: Say Nothing. If it’s bad, Say Nothing. Maybe have a good cry or a stiff drink. If it’s good, Tweet it, Facebook it, send everyone to it, but on the page itself, Say Nothing. Here’s what I’d like to say to a reviewer, though: “Thank you for reading the book. If you didn’t like it, I’m sorry I failed you. Truly sorry. If you liked it, that makes the whole process of revision and editing and publishing worthwhile. But, either way, I care about you, and I’m grateful for you.”

So here’s my current advice for writer, such as it is: Don’t grow thicker skin. Instead, change your clothes.

1) First, put on your best suit of armor. IRON MAN 3Climb into an M-1 Abrams Tank. Drive it into a nuclear submarine. Write like you are invincible. (Warning: People in suits of armor in tanks in submarines are lonely. And cold.)


2) Change into your shortest skirt. Revise for the reader. But rememberPretty Woman what you learned from the movie Pretty Woman: Don’t kiss on the mouth. Some things are off limits.




3) Put on a tuxedo. Adjust your cufflinks. Button the top button. Check your fly. Straighten your bow tie. Edit to protect yourself from shame.


4) Strip down to a swami’s loincloth and sit cross-legged under a tree for swamia while. Publish after a great deal of consideration.



5) Then, acknowledge that you’re basically naked. Run as fast as you can toward a garden of sweet, juicy blackberries and long thorns. Be willing to hurt.


That willingness to suffer shows more courage and more respect for the Runway Model Skin Apathyreader than any runway high-fashion name-brand rhino-skin apathy.