MOYERS: Where do ideas come from? We'll be asking that question often over the coming months, as we listen to the voices of this new century. We begin with Sherman Alexie. This Native American writer grew up on the Spokane Reservation in Washington state. In addition to his novels, short stories, and poems, he's also turned his work into acclaimed movies, including SMOKE SIGNALS, and his latest, the business of fancy dancing, which he also directed.
Such prolific inspiration doesn't come easily. To the contrary, Sherman Alexie has to go looking for it...out in the streets...and deep into his memories. In fact, it keeps him awake at night.
SHERMAN ALEXIE: Michael Chabon calls it the midnight disease, the thing that keeps us unhappy writers, unhappily walking the floors, looking for that next word. Randall Jarrell, the poet, said he liked to work in the middle of the night because there was less people awake competing for the ideas. And Linda Davis once wrote that insomnia is the wish for immortality granted by an ass. My name is Sherman J. Alexie Jr, and I am an insomniac. Every time I leave the house on one of these insomniac journeys and try to get into that place where I create and think I'm hoping that I write something great.
Even before we had kids, I would sit in the bedroom we used as an office, and my wife Diane could hear me writing and talking and pacing the floor all night long.
My father was sleepless most of his life. So by the age of five, I was awake with him all night long, watching bad television or we'd lie in the same bed, and I'd read my comic books while he read his latest spy or mystery novel.
But my dad, that alcoholic nomad, he used to leave our family for weeks or days drinking and roaming. And I'd lie awake at night waiting for him to come home, and five or six times I cried myself sick into the hospital. And I'd lie awake in the kids' ward, ignoring the night shift nurses who came in and said, "Please, try and get a little sleep." So maybe I learned how to be an insomniac because I'm still waiting for my father to come home.
In the middle of the night, when you're ambiguously ethnic, like me, when you're brown, beige, mauve, siena, one of those lighter browns in the Crayola box. You have to be careful of the cops and robbers, because nobody's quite sure what you are, but everybody has assumptions.
Last September 16th, I was walking in downtown Seattle when this pick-up truck pulls up in front of me. Guy leans out the window and yells, "Go back to your own country," and I was laughing so hard because it wasn't so much a hate crime as a crime of irony.
And so I'm walking the floors of my office and I'm trying to write a poem or a story or a novel or a screenplay. Or... or I'm out in my car driving the streets of Seattle, and I'm searching, searching, searching and looking and trying to write. I've got a pen in my head and a pen in my... in my hand and... and... Or I'm in these 24 hour restaurants and diners or... or these all night supermarkets walking the aisles. And... and I'm trying.
Welcome to Madison Market, the beautiful, wondrous, abundant, glorious, politically progressive, expensive and elitist place. But not a whole lot of brown people wander the aisles here. But I, a brown boy, do wander the aisles. I mean, let's not tell lies. You want the good life? You live where white people live, you go to school where white people go to school, and you shop where white people shop.
You've got soy milk. You got lactose-free ice cream. You got Rice Dream. You got beauty products never tested on any animals, so I guess the animals are still homely.
You got juices from fruits and vegetables I've never heard of. You got your beeswax products scattered here and there. 70% of bees voted for Nader in the last election, but I think the wasps, they went for Buchanan. No wheat was harmed in the making of this bread. And Paul Newman is everywhere.
But it's good too, being awake, meeting the other insomniacs, the other artists, the other night-time people, and sometimes its just poor and middle class folks who are working the graveyard shift so they can make a little money, maybe one and a half or two times the minimum wage.
WAITRESS: "Hey man, what's up?"
Alexie: "One." Waitress: "Come on!"
WAITRESS:"You want some coffee?"
ALEXIE: "Yes. Forever and ever."
I'm addicted to coffee, and being a coffee addict and living in Seattle - "fancy pour" - is like being an alcoholic and having a studio apartment in the middle of a brewery.
And here in Seattle, you go into a coffee shop, and you get people who are ordering their double caffeinated cappuccino organic soy wheat free-range coffee bean grown in one-acre, you know, freedom-fighting plots in Colombia. But I like my coffee straight and black. I like it simple.
This time of the morning, it's me and all the cats of Seattle wandering around, and I'm a dog person.
On Friday nights when I can't sleep, there's a place I can go unlike any others in Seattle. Twice Sold Tale is open 24 hours on Fridays. And in that, I find such great comfort and joy. I mean there's something amazing about a place where I can find Chester Himes at four in the morning, or... or Graham Greene at 4:30. That instead of some... some carbohydrate grand slam feast that kills your heart, I can find something that feeds your heart. Toni Morrison. Imagine that, Toni Morrison at sunrise. Can you imagine anything better than that? I mean I could be patriotic in a place like this. I can love this country more in a place like this than in any other place. We have too much. But not here. There is no such thing as too many books.
So it gets to be five, five-thirty, six AM, and you want to eat. And you want to eat the worst things for you.
Could I get a hamburger, french fry, and a large Diet Coke?
Maybe ten years ago I would have gotten drunk, but it was easier to give up drinking than to stop eating french fries. Let me tell you, I'm falling off the french fry wagon all the time.
The worst thing about insomnia is, like a moth, you're attracted to bright light.
On these insomniac nights, sometimes everything you do is ordinary. I worry, as I wander in the middle of the night, how good a father I can be, how good a husband, if I'm exhausted all day after having spent the entire night awake. Because of my passion for writing, and my father's passion for drinking, both of our sons miss us all the time.
The thing tonight I... I saw was... was... was Carrie, the... the waitress and she had a tree tattoo on the back of her neck, and you know, I was asking her about it and... and... and she wouldn't tell me. She said it was a secret, which I understand of course, but it really made me curious about her. And so, if I was going to write poems about the people I meet during the night, and I often do, you start thinking about that tattoo. "Hey man, what's up?" And... and... and I asked her how far it went down, real... you know, realizing right after I asked the question how invasive it was. And she said, "Not very far." And I think that's how I would start the story in fact.
But you still feel alone; you still want to sleep. And when it's at its worst, this sleeplessness, I would trade a few hours of rest for the chance to write the greatest poem in the history of the English language.
So, you sit here, looking at that one last cup of coffee. You're thinking about being a father and a son. And wanting to live a lot longer than 51 which is the average life expectancy for the Native American male. I want to live to be 102.
I'm awake because I'm a father, I'm awake because I'm a son, I'm awake because I'm a husband and a lover. I'm awake because I'm a Spokane Indian. I'm awake because I'm an alcoholic. I'm awake because I'm sober now. I'm awake because of all of that. Why can't I sleep? It's because I don't want to sleep.