February 11, 2016 by RJ
I am pretty sure I will never be asked to write a book about Sherman Alexie.
It isn’t that I wouldn’t want to write a book about him, or that I have nothing to say about “despair, poverty, violence, and alcoholism lightened by wit and humor.”
He made me laugh once. Surely, I could get a book out of that.
Not to mention the yellow face controversy last fall.
And maybe if we swabbed our spit we’d find out we were cousins. Worth a movie maybe, but not a book: “Separated by a thousand years / Two writers / One language.”
My feeling about Alexie was that if I wasn’t going to write a book about him, or if we weren’t going to have sex, why consider him at all?
I guess you could say he gets under my skin.
“The problem with mid-career poets and writers,” I once wrote inside a bathroom stall in a Truck’n America bathroom in Fredericksburg. “Number One: the battle between irony and careerism.”
I added more numbers for other Interstate-95 crappers to add their opinions.
This was in response to Alexie’s “top ten list for writers,” first published in 2010 and which shows up in my news feed every time a new MFA semester begins. It was odd because Alexie, who has written more books than there are miles in a marathon, seems to eschew the internet and yet he created the sort of listical the internet devours.
Near the top, he chastens writers who Google themselves. Well, sorry Sherman, but the rest of us don’t have admin assistants and agents and book marketing departments to do this for us. Just because you may have consultants doing it for you doesn’t mean you’re not Googling yourself.
spinach teethAnd what’s wrong with having a glance in the mirror from time to time? It’s not always about vanity. It can be that you’re worried some spinach is caught in your teeth, or that you’re interested in what the college administrator who might hire you will be finding. Isn’t it kind of like checking your credit rating a few times a year?
What if you were a user and had some trubs keeping up with your publishing record? Every time I Google myself I find some forgotten poem from the Eighties and Nineties that a print journal finally got around to uploading. That was how I learned I’d been anthologized in 1994 and how my first published story was about a guy who made sausages (sorry I so totally forgot about you, Walter).
It’s like reading old newspapers for minor things you might have missed, like a box score from September 11, 2001.
Here’s another gem: “Read 1,000 pages for every page you write.” By my math, that comes out to Alexie having read 50 million pages.
Wasn’t it Teddy Roosevelt who said, “You go into a poem with the words you have, not necessarily the words you want.” I say, make your hay when the sun is shining and read when it’s raining and forget about the numbers.
To be truthful, a lot of Alexie’s top ten advice is just about decency, and good manners. Well, okay, we should all be good literary citizens and support literary magazines, and write thank you notes to authors and also understand that authors are not just authors but people too and all people are fallible, including smart asses.
goon squadHe says, “In fiction, research is overrated.” I don’t agree or disagree with this, except that a writer has two things in her five gallon bucket of tools—imagination and experience. If you’re weak with one it helps to be strong in the other. And if you can’t experience what you can’t imagine, research is all you got so be like Jennifer Egan and make the most of it.
Near as I can tell, Alexie has written two dozen books about being Native American. Maybe if he were writing about Darfur he’d have to crack open his Webster.
Alexie also addresses the writing process. He says, “Don’t have any writing ceremonies. They’re just a way to stop you from writing.” I suppose Sherman practices Yoga on a couch rather than a yoga mat. Awesome doing those salutations while March Madness flickers on the sports channel.
But this doesn’t jibe well with what he says about blogs, how “every word in your blog is a word not in your book.” I mean, isn’t a blog just a book without ceremony? Why avoid writing ceremonies if reading is a ceremony?
For every blog post that should have been a book there are probably ten books that should have been blog posts.
Alexie, who once admitted to Bill Moyers, that his art was all about some kind of memoir, probably has a thing or two to say about whether or not a personal investment in the art is transferrable. I think 60 years of excellent confessional and personal poetry have settled that question. But personal investment that comes from experience is one thing, personal investment that is merely what Jack Spicer calls “personal rhetoric” is another.
That is why I blog. I want to make a space for my personal rhetoric to live so that it doesn’t have to live in my art.
As for the words in this essay, well, so much for the idea of writing a book about Sherman Alexie.
BARRETT WARNER is the author of Why Is It So Hard to Kill You? (2016, Somondoco) and My Friend Ken Harvey (2014, Publishing Genius).