It’s always interesting to me that I can read the same book at different times and notice very different things about it. Recently, I began reading Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for at least the third time. I first read it several years ago, then read it with my eighth grade English students last year (and reading something I’m teaching really involves reading it more than just once), and am now reading it again with this year’s eighth grade. This time, I was really struck by the main character Arnold’s description of why he draws cartoons. Arnold explains:
“I draw because words are too unpredictable.
I draw because words are too limited.
If you speak and write in English, or Spanish, or Chinese, or any other language, then only a certain percentage of human beings will get your meaning. But when you draw a picture, everybody can understand it.
If I draw a cartoon of a flower, then every man, woman, and child in the world can look at it and say, ‘That’s a flower.’
So I draw because I want to talk to the world, and I want the world to pay attention to me.
I feel important with a pen in my hand. I feel like I might grow up to be somebody important. An artist. Maybe a famous artist. Maybe a rich artist.
Just take a look at the world. Almost all of the rich and famous brown people are artists. They’re singers and actors and writers and dancers and directors and poets.
So I draw because I feel like it might be my only real chance to escape the reservation.
I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats” (5-6).
After having read this novel more than twice before, I remembered a lot of parts of it in pretty specific detail. But I did not remember anything about this powerful description of why Arnold draws. On my current read-through, however, this passage struck me as the most compelling part of the first several chapters of the book. I don’t know why this passage jumped out at me this time and didn’t before. But once I focused on it, I remembered another piece I used to share with students, way back before I’d read Absolutely True Diary the first time: a short, poetic personal essay by Terry Tempest Williams called “Why I Write.”
This year, my students and I spent some time discussing Arnold’s reasons for drawing. Then, we went around the room and read “Why I Write” together, with each student reading a sentence and then the next student taking over. When I’d used “Why I Write” in the past, some students found it odd or confusing. But this time, since we’d read Arnold’s very accessible reasons for drawing first, everyone seemed content to latch onto the lines that spoke to them and read past the ones that didn’t. And once we were finished, I asked students to write their own “Why I [fill in the blank]” lists, about why they do something that’s extremely important to them. Their lists were great—they helped me learn new things about some students, and many of them juxtaposed mundane reasons with profound ones and included opposites within their list (as Terry Tempest Williams does with sentences such as, “I write to remember. I write to forget.”).
In fact, next time I’m discouraged with my writing, I think I’ll make my own “Why I Write,” list, and I also think “Why I [fill in the blank]” lists could be great tools for writers getting to know their characters. It could be really telling for me to write a “Why I Bake” list for the protagonist of my novel-in-progress, or a “Why I Play Baseball” list for one of my secondary characters. You should try one, too! (And perhaps even post in the comments, if you are so inclined.)
I still think it’s important to change up some of the books I teach so that everything stays fresh, but this is the beauty of good books: depending on all sorts of hard-to-quantify factors, you pick up on different things when you return to them, so re-reading and re-teaching them never has to get stale.