Wednesday, January 11, 2006
I was once asked to give a talk about storytelling to a convention of high school media students with Native-American writer Sherman Alexie. The problem was no one told Sherman, so he spoke the entire time. That worked out perfectly for me because I got a great story out of it.
Sherman doesn’t believe in formalized story structure, he believes that it is a Hollywood construct. He began his presentation by saying that there was no such thing as three-act structure and such thing as a happy ending. He said that life doesn’t work out that neatly. He then went on to say that he could not teach them to write, but he could tell them how he became a writer. He said that when he was a kid on the reservation he was sick most of the time, so he spent most of his time reading. He read every book in the reservation library and when he was done he started over and reread them. Most of the people he interacted with were doctors and health care professionals so he wanted to be a pediatrician when he grew up.
When he was old enough he enrolled in school and began taking premed anatomy classes. In premed anatomy students must work with actual corpses. The first day this was to happen the cadaver was unveiled and Sherman fainted. He thought that maybe he should be drop the class. His teacher convinced him to stay. So another day while he was working on a body it farted and Sherman fainted. He decided again that he should quit, but was again persuaded to stay. But he again fainted while working on a body and actually decided to drop the class.
He then had a hole in his schedule and didn’t know what to do or what the future held for him. He saw that there was a poetry class and he had always liked poetry so he signed up for the class.
Sherman said that he had never read poetry by an Indian before. He didn’t even know Indians wrote poetry – he had only read poems by dead white people. His teacher showed Sherman wonderful poems written by people who shared his background. This was great.
At one point the students where asked to write poems and give them to the other students to take home, read and evaluate. The next day Sherman was one of the first to arrive to class. As he sat there a female classmate came in and began to talk to Sherman and praise him for his poem. She went on and on about how much she liked it. Then another woman chimed in with her gushing praise, and another, and another. Soon he was surrounded by women telling him how good he was. “That", he said, “is how I became a writer”.
What struck me about this story was that Sherman preceded it with the statement that there was no such thing as three-act structure and no such thing as a happy ending. This was not reflective of real life, he said. Then he told a story from his real life that had three acts and a happy ending. If you go back and look I’m sure you’ll be able to identify the acts.