Telling Stories at a Bonfire without Any Companions

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The outcast, deep thinker, and storyteller, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, doesn’t stop sharing his stories even when no one listens to him and everyone rejects him in Sherman Alexie’s short story “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”.

He says:

“We are all given one thing by which our lives are measured, one determination. Mine are the stories which can change or not change the world. It doesn’t matter which stories as long as I continue to tell the stories.”

In addition to storytelling, Thomas has the gifts of seeing visions, receiving messages about the future, and knowing what people are thinking.

One of the problems with Thomas’s storytelling is that he’s been retelling the stories for so long that his community becomes tired of hearing them, but one begins to wonder: are people actually listening to them, taking in their messages?

At one point during the short story, Thomas asks his former friend, Victor, for a favor that seems really simple, but which will take a lot of effort and courage: Can Victor listen to just one of his stories in the future? This is hard to do considering that anyone who associates with Thomas is frowned upon.

In connection to my rookie short story writing skills, I’ve been writing stories because I felt inspired to write them, and, sometimes, I kind of feel like Thomas receiving his stories. I don’t hear a voice tell me the stories word for word, but the stories form without effort.

This is what it feels like to be a storyteller, to feel the call to write from within, to feel a spark of inspiration, to let stories form on their own terms.

Do you ever wonder about the impact your words have on the world? According to Thomas, writers must use their gifts to share stories even when no one seems to be listening. You may never know the full extent of the impact of your words. In the end, you show up to the task of writing, the only thing you’re fully in control of as the storyteller, as the writer.

How to Become a Better Writer Today

How do you become a better writer today without taking classes for an MFA in creative writing? To improve your writing, all you have to do is pay close attention to the texts you read: your favorite book, the article you found online, or the advertisements you see on a daily basis.

All it comes down to is being a better observer of the world. In this case, pay close attention, not so much to the contents of what you read, but at how the writer paints a picture inside your head.

Notice the Writing Strategy

Notice the strengths in other people’s writings. Which lines do you find yourself rereading because you loved how the writer composed a phrase, sentence, or passage. Why do you reread those lines?

The Writing Strategy

Sherman Alexie applies the following writing strategy in “This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”: If you describe something with a series, start each item in the series with the same phrase or word for emphasis.

The Writing Strategy Example

Alexie writes:

“They ran then, hard as they ever had, faster than Billy Mills, faster than Jim Thorpe, faster than the wasps could fly. Victor and Thomas ran until they couldn’t breathe, ran until it was cold and dark outside, ran until they were lost and it took hours to find their way home.”

Billy Mills and Jim Thorpe were famous Native American athletes known for winning Gold medals in the Olympics. In the scene described above, two boys run faster than these athletes from a wasp nest.

In the paragraph that follows, we learn how much they run and how they run without thinking. These lines don’t let you catch your breath.

Why is the Writing Strategy Effective?

The repetition of the words and phrases in the scene form long sentences. The long lines emphasize how important it is for these boys to run fast and how much they need to run without the full stops of periods so that the wasps don’t catch them.

Apply the Writing Strategy in Your Writing


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After you notice the writing strategy in the text you’re reading, reflect on its effectiveness, and find ways to apply it to your writing.

Let me give you an example on how I applied this strategy in a short story that I wrote a couple of weeks ago:  

She wanted to find meaning in the way blood covered Marcos’ body and hers, in the way he called out her name to ask if she was okay, in the way she could not find the voice to answer.

from “After Missing Death By 43 Seconds”

I’m not saying the imitation has to be perfect. What matters is that you apply the new writing strategy as you continue writing until it becomes a habit.


Join the Conversation:

What writing strategies have you applied in your writing to strengthen your work? How do you find new writing strategies to use?


Works Cited:

Alexie, Sherman. “This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Volume E, edited by Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine, Norton, 2012, pp. 1213-1222.

After Missing Death by 43 Seconds: A Short Story

Missing death by 43 seconds could have inspired Marcos to live life to the fullest. Instead, he became cautious, and, to everyone’s surprise, he started attending church regularly.

He would never know that he missed death by exactly 43 seconds. He soon forgot that 5 other people had died in the car accident. His only priority was to care for the unconscious woman at the hospital.

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