Good, but Not Great

My first thought after reading Sherman Alexie’s “Superman and Me” was, What a great piece of writing. Of course the piece invoked other feelings –He makes learning to read sound so magical. How many Indian reservations are left? Was I taught poetry in school? But even an hour after finishing the essay, after reading blog posts, checking my email, and calling my mom, my mind lingered on “Superman and Me.” What a great piece of writing.

Like Alexie, I have enjoyed and had a knack for reading since childhood. My passion has never been quite as strong as Alexie’s, but all the reading over the years has helped me able to differentiate good writing between bad, and has given me an appreciation for the good. So, what makes “Superman and Me” so good? It has a purpose. It has a soul, a reason to exist. The world (in my opinion) is better with the essay in it. That is what makes “Superman and Me” so good.

And that is why so much writing I do is bad. Honestly. I don’t say this to be modest; I’m not fishing for compliments. I know that I have the ability to create good writing, it’s just that most of the writing I do on a day-to-day basis is out of obligation, not out of love for the art. A professor hands me an essay prompt; I research; I follow the guidelines and attempt to meet all the criteria; I check my facts; I revise; I submit the essay by the pre-determined deadline. At no point in these academic essays, however, do I insert my soul. Sure, the essay has a purpose: to improve my GPA. But is the world a better place because of my purely factual, uninspiring, 12-page report on anti-Semitic propaganda and socialism in Germany? My answer is no.

Don’t get me wrong, I still (somewhat) enjoyed writing that essay, and in some parts you can surely hear my “voice.” But there is no soul in it. No philosophical purpose, no reason to exist beyond last semester. For these reasons, in the grand scheme of things, that essay is not a great piece of writing. Good, but not great.

And that’s where I am now as a writer. I’m settling with the good; searching for the great. I suppose I shouldn’t wait around for inspiration to come to me, it’s one of those things you need to get out and find for yourself. I doubt I’ll find it in a dimly lit classroom surrounded by 200 other students, or on an essay prompt handed to me by a caffeine-deprived professor. It will come when I least expect it. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy reading works like “Superman and Me,” and work to the day I can write something as great.

Superman Isn’t Dead

Sherman Alexie’s essay, titled: Superman and Me, caught my attention for a variety of reasons.  Simply put, his story is interesting.  Sherman never explicitly states exactly why it is that he writes in this essay,  and on the surface he appears to talk more about his reading habits than how he became a writer.  For me, however, the story carried the “why I write” undertone in a beautiful and subtle way.

Out of all the pieces we have read for class carrying the theme of “Why I Write”, none of them have taken place on an Indian reservation.  After reading the essay, I was baffled at how little I knew about American Indian Reservations, so I went straight to the Internet to quench my thirst for this information.  But first, the essay.  After discussing how that before he could read, he would fill in the speech bubbles of the Superman comic books with the actions Superman was doing, speaking the words aloud, and eventually through this method he self-taught himself how to read, there is a paragraph I would like to quote.

“This might be an interesting story all by itself.  A little Indian boy teaches himself to read at an early age and advances quickly.  He reads ‘Grapes of Wrath’ in kindergarten when other children are struggling through ‘Dick and Jane’.  If he’d been anything but an Indian boy living on a reservation, he might have been called a prodigy.  But he is an Indian boy living on the reservation and is simply an oddity.  He grows into a man who often speaks of his childhood in the third-person, as if it will somehow dull the pain and make him sound more modest about his talents.”

Normally I would not quote an entire paragraph, but this particular series of sentences was brilliant in its execution.  It is probably obvious that I am referring to how the final sentence cleverly alludes to himself, and so forth.  I found my face cracking a gentle smile after finishing the last line, something I find quite pleasurable (and quite telling of the work).  I also caught my attention that throughout the entire essay was the author’s use of the word Indian instead of Native American.  I realize the essay was written in 1998, and the author is a Native American himself so he is able to call himself damn well what he pleases, but I would go as far as to say his use of the word enhanced the overall tone of the piece.

I also liked the repetition of the phrase that he humbly describes himself as a child: “I was smart.  I was arrogant.  I was lucky.”  Then again as he ends the essay describing the challenge he faces trying to reach out to those Indians uninterested in writing: “I am smart.  I am arrogant.  I am lucky.  I am trying to save our lives.”  The repetition of this phrase is strong and pleasant, and “I am trying to save our lives” being the final sentence of the entire essay made for quite the punch.  It also leaves behind a greater message to think critically about.  Reading and writing skills can have a profound impact on, and might be a ticket out of, the poverty those individuals in Indian Reservations face.  The author’s blatant passion for reading and writing, and his charity of teaching the Native American youth topics like creative writing, send a splendid message about the general population should never take writing for granted.

Thanks to this essay, I did end up looking up and learning a bit regarding the locations and details about the Indian Reservations across the country (beyond the casinos).  But most importantly, I was reminded yet again why we write.