Sherman Alexie Speaks at C.S.U.

I wrote this post last week for Colorado State University’s new MFA blog.

The Colorado State University diversity symposium this fall began their week with keynote speaker (and author, poet, screenwriter, producer, and performer) Sherman Alexie. I was informed by the diversity symposium’s website, that “Alexie uses irony throughout his work in an attempt to dispel myths about the conditions of Native Americans living on reservations…” and that he would be bringing “his unique humor” to CSU that night. I thought, yes, I have read some of Sherman Alexie’s novels, stories, and poems, and yes, he is very funny. How I am looking forward to seeing him speak. But I was not expecting the two hours of straight stand-up comedy to which Alexie treated his audience that night. Bring his unique sense of humor? Boy, did he ever.

As with all good humor, his comedy was serious—seriously funny, and at the same time, earnest as hell. Between stories about growing up on a Spokane reservation and telling us the myth of the man who kept putting his penis in everything, Alexie said to students “Some people might complain that because people laughed this wasn’t serious. But it’s exactly the opposite.” What Alexie gave us was a belly-laugh-aching social critique that addressed the core wounds one might expect a keynote speaker to address in something called a “diversity symposium”, in the most unexpected ways. He never shied away from the controversial. He asked us to face stereotypes about Native Americans (and their storytelling wisdom, among many common assumptions), to look at poverty in all of its grotesque detail, and to question the rhetoric of victimhood and oppression that so often finds a place in events such as that symposium.

And although some of the more controversial statements were launched right after a joke, so that the audience was caught unawares in the midst of our own laughter, in other moments he made a point to screw with us. During a lecture full of digressions, he asserted, “The tangential can be sacred—write that down!” only to continue with a metanarrative satirizing his own authority. “What a wise thing to say. Was he serious, or was he just covering up because he forgot where he was? Or was that part of his storytelling routine…?” There was never a moment the audience was not enthralled by his particular brand of storytelling, an eccentric blend of narratives that eventually led us back to the same urgent questions about the politics of identity.

In the end, addressing yet another serious topic, the idea of doubleness and the negative connotations of the “difficulty of living in two worlds” that is so often applied to minorities, Alexie reminded us that nobody live in just two worlds—in his words, “there are hundreds”. We get too wrapped up in one identity, he says, and the trick is to “surround your adversaries with your identities.” A lesson that he taught by example, because surrounding us with the force of his many wonderful identities was exactly what Alexie did that night.

The Day Job

Throughout May I have been finding it difficult or not so difficult to write depending on how much I was thinking about my day job. Or rather, my hope for a day job, since I’ve been looking for summer employment. Just this week I got a job cleaning houses. How…bittersweet. I’ll have money to support myself, but my writing is at the whim of my work schedule once again. I think everyone should have to do something in the service industry like cleaning houses (waiting tables, painting, whatever). As my boss said on Monday, the world would be a 200% better place if everyone spent at least one summer working in a restaurant. I also like jobs that give me some variety so that I can separate my writing time from my work, although this can move in the opposite direction too — sometimes jobs that differ too much from my writing pull me away from what is most important to me. This particular job gives me intermittent access to the interior lives of strangers, which is fantastic for a fiction writer. You can tell so much about people through the objects in their homes. (The moral here is don’t hire writers to clean for you if you don’t want to appear in their work.)

You think I’m just vacuuming, but in my head I’m writing a story based on that photograph of your parents’ wedding.

Still, it’s always depressing to forfeit the writing-centric lifestyle of an MFA student and composition instructor for random temp work. It’s like having a year-long dream that you are a real writer and a real teacher with something like a steady paycheck and then waking up to find out you’re actually back in the summer between your sophomore and junior year of high school working two menial part-time jobs for cash, only this time you have the added stress of paying bills. I mean, great things happened that summer. Great things will happen this summer. I’d just prefer to spend most of it in my writing/teaching dream.

What brought me back out of my day job malaise was Aine Greany’s “Writer with a Day Job” Exclusive, interviews with 20 writers who have day jobs mostly outside of teaching. Nurses, shoe saleswomen, the former marketing manager of a Fortune 500 Company: all carve out time to write while working other jobs. Some authors wake at 4 a.m. to get it done; others work on weekends; still others write on the subway. Some just work when they can. My favorite interview was with M. A. Harper, who told Greany “Whenever I let something come between me and writing, I don’t beat myself up about it. Discipline is overrated. A writer is not a monk. How can you reflect life if you don’t live one?” Harper also says that she doesn’t seek a balance of time as long as her day job requires as little intellect and creativity as possible, so that she can save that kind of energy for her writing. I have to agree that the day job should not drain too much of one’s mental energy, and that it’s often best if it requires zero intellect; the better to gather ideas while organizing sales displays, etc. It’s also refreshing to hear from at least one writer who is not a daily superhero, because 4 a.m.? Not a chance.

Worth noting: many of the people interviewed quit their day jobs to write full time once they were able, showing that trying to manage two careers is not an ideal situation. But most writers don’t get that lucky, so it’s inspiring to hear from people who have made it work.

Tim Gunn says I have to make it work, too.

Famous writers have held odd jobs, as evidenced by Flavorwire’s 2011 article “Strange Day Jobs of Authors Before They Were Famous” and a string of similar online posts. George Saunders once worked in a slaughterhouse, and Harper Lee sold tickets for an airline before she published To Kill a Mockingbird. Like most writers, I find this information gratifying. It means they were/are real people who needed/need food and shelter too, and they still wrote books, and so there is hope.

As for me, I’ll be listening to This Side of Paradise on my iPod (courtesy of Books Should Be Free) or absorbing my coworkers’ stories about their lives while I mop floors and scrub sinks this summer. This job isn’t totally unsuited to my personality either; I like to clean. So when I come home and want to scrub my own sinks, I’ll have to remember this woman’s wise words…

 …and get to work on my writing.

What kinds of day jobs have you had, or do you have? How do you manage your writing time around them?

This post was also featured on SheWrites, a writing community built to support women. You can join the discussion by commenting on the same post here.

To read more from Aine Greaney on this subject, visit her blog: Writer with a Day Job.

Yes, Social Media is Exactly Like Sex.

This is just because I am currently full of love for Jaclyn Friedman, and feminism, and writing, and the clitoris, and digital activism; and all of these things are related. This video is fairly recent, uploaded about six months ago. What’s even more recent? Her new book: What You Really Really Want. I have not read it, but I’ve heard great reviews. So. Watch, read, discuss, etc. Please.

“How Feminist Digital Activism is Like the Clitoris”