The Masterful Art of Storytelling as Told (No, Shown) by Sherman Alexie
Last night I heard Sherman Alexie, one of my all-time favorite authors, speak at an event. While some authors talk blatantly about their writing process and try to impart a lesson on their audience, Sherman told a story---a damn good story---and unbeknownst to some in the room, taught the most important lesson about writing there is.
The story Sherman told isn't (yet) in any of his books. It was about how he found he had a brain tumor, the surgery to get it removed (which had the potential to kill him), and his recovery process. But the story was so much more than that---the story about the brain tumor was the overarching narrative, but there were countless mini spinoff stories and moments of gut-clenching laughter at his wit. The story took you from laughing hysterically to being nearly in tears. He molded us in his hands.
His talk is one that deftly defies summary. So many speakers take the stage with the intention of imparting some moralistic lesson. For writers, it's usually something to the effect of "write every day and you'll eventually get good" or "you're going to get rejected, but the real writers don't let that stop them." These kind of talks are the ones most people have heard before, the ones that can be boiled down and synthesized into just a sentence or two. This is the kind of author talk you'll hear many times over if you're a writer who doesn't stay holed up at your desk. This is the kind of author talk that Sherman Alexie is too good for and thank god for it.
The story of his brain surgery is a fairly recent one as it occurred within the past six months. As he was telling the story, I looked around. In a room full of young college kids and the occasional fan from the outer community, I didn't see a single person texting or looking at their phones. All eyes were on him, all ears attuned to what he would say next.
When he tells us just how recent his brain surgery was, he mentions that he's constantly processing it, usually in silence. He said that every time something interesting happens in his life he thinks, "this would make a good story," and he keeps a running list of autobiographical experiences that he can work into his fiction. He said, "I'm constantly thinking of things to add and change. As time passes, you get more ideas about the way the world works, more ideas about the fragile nature of human beings. The story gets more fictional with time."
There were no dramatic pauses. There was no flashing red light to call your attention to the revelation behind the statement. For most people in the audience, I imagine it was a throwaway line, or another short detour on the road back to the story of his brain surgery.
But that's the marvel in it all. Despite the fact that Sherman told the audience that the story gets more fictional with time, thus lending the possibility that---like his fiction---parts of the story were fictionalized autobiographical experiences, the audience didn't care. He had the room so enraptured at that moment that no one cared one way or the other how true or fictionalized the story might have been. We were entertained. We were sent into fits of giggles and we were rocked to our core. The truth was the least of our concerns.
Unlike the authors who give talks in the hope of imparting some moralistic lesson or piece of encouragement to aspiring writers, Sherman practiced the age old writing advice "show, don't tell." He didn't tell us how to construct a good story or how to look for inspirations for stories in the everyday. He showed us. Again and again, he showed us. He took us by the hand and lead by example.
I was in college once and not so long ago. I imagine there was an aspiring writer or two in the audience who brought her notebook ready to write down any advice he might impart and, at the end of the talk, found her notebook empty. Yet, still feeling that this was one of the most compelling author talks she'd ever experienced. Like Sherman processing his brain surgery, mulling it over in silence, she too will process his words last evening. She will consider things to add and change, and perhaps add meaning where there might have been none. She, too, will make herself a storyteller.