I have seen Sherman Alexie speak a few times, and his craft at the Institute of American Indian Arts this past summer was the best.
The most practical element of Sherman’s talk has to do with memorizing some of my writing; this is not something I’ve ever done. I guess I’d been thinking that memorization belonged to the realm of poets and now I know differently. I do try read all my work out loud so both my mouth and ear can engage in the editing process, but I think moving toward memorization will not only improve my public performances; I will grow in my ability to revise because I will ‘take up residence’ in the language I am using. This will help me understand what I am committing to the page: is this the best possible way to phrase/express this thought, action, description.
Sherman also helped me remember that I get to take up space. His example and discussion about people who rush through their material definitely was instructive. I’m pretty sensitive to people who do not know when to stop speaking (or writing), and as a result, I might shortcut my own ability to effectively connect with an audience because I don’t want to over stay my welcome. I loved how he phrased it, “Nervous about being nervous.” Letting go of one’s anxiety about anxiety, well, that’s a pretty profound insight. One powerful way to create this connection with the audience is to begin with an engaging story. Sidestep the formality and just launch into scene and give the audience something to invest in from word one.
Reading someone else’s work is brilliant. It not only changes the energy and focus, it’s a moment of generosity that can benefit everyone involved. It can also “anchor” me if I’m feeling a bit unmoored by the reading itself. I love this idea.
As someone who tends to go through life unscripted, Sherman’s comments about preparing for the event so much that it feels improvised was another deeply instructive moment. It aligns with a mini-epiphany I had in the last year: getting organized and prepared is not selling out or giving into the Man—it actually makes me stronger and more able to accomplish what I want to accomplish, allows me to connect with a broader group of people.
I think Sherman’s talk boils down to this: presence. Be present with your audience, your material, your own heart. We all struggle, regardless of race, class, accomplishments. Being present with your own material and preparing so that you’re ready to go wherever you need to go with the specific audience you are with is key. Be ready to invite the audience into the world of the writing you are presenting, and this invitation can happen in a variety of ways: immediacy of story, repeating a line in a piece to give it more emphasis, asking the audience to become the chorus of a piece you are reading. In some ways, it seems Sherman let some of his masks drop, and in that dropping, made searing connections. These are the kind of connections I want to foster, and as a result of this talk, I feel more equipped to do this.