And Finally, Our Last Night at AWP: Doesn’t Play Well With Others

Love is all around, no need to waste it; if you can have the town, why don't you take it? You're gonna make it after all!!

Love is all around, no need to waste it; if you can have the town, why don’t you take it? You’re gonna make it after all!!

I’ve been home from AWP more than a week already. What is taking me so long to wrap up the blog thing on it? Good question. Here goes nothing:

Saturday morning, Rebecca and I facetime Sarah Yaw who would be with us (and whose novel, You Are Free to Go, is with us in the convention hall at the Engine Books table). Sarah is home making microwaved scrambled eggs for her five year old twins who wiggle loose teeth for us and wave bloody swords they received as birthday gifts. It feels a bit Mission Impossible — Sarah checking in to hear what we’ve accomplished so far (Rebecca sampled the local whiskey and survived 48 hours without her suitcase; I had lunch with Pam Houston and didn’t order a glass of wine because the waiter came to me first and I was afraid of committing a faux pas so grossly classless, that I couldn’t even summon the courage to ask for lemonade and, instead, settled for tap water).

“Okay,” Sarah says, infinitely forgiving. “Then your homework tonight is to go to the main hotel bar and shmooze.”

Cue iconic music.

Cut to my blanched face and trembling limbs.

Rebecca says this is a great idea and though the thought of meeting real live writing people terrifies me, we head off to the day’s panel discussions as if this is any other day on the planet. We separate and I listen to writers discuss how uncomfortable it is to promote their books. We’re socially awkward people as it is, they say. (I’m paraphrasing. Or projecting. I forget which.) We’re most comfortable at home with our families and our cats (I’m almost totally freestyling now, but this is what I heard no matter what they actually said.)

Thus fortified, thus reassured I am not the only freak out there, I head back to the bookfair to find Rebecca. I’m feeling good, strong, confident, full of adventure, and then I see Rebecca strolling along an aisle and the familiarity of her inspires me to run towards her and throw my arms around her. “I missed you!” I say. I don’t care who hears me.

7:30: we head to the bar. I deliberately do not fuss with what I’m wearing. Rebecca loaned me some lipstick that never comes off. It’s like a lip tattoo. This is my one attempt at looking good. (that I insist on my own meaningless-slash-invisible protest might seem ridiculous but it gets me the four or five blocks I need to travel).

“One drink,” I say. “And then we’re out of there.”

But we meet a cowboy from North Carolina who works at a university in Kansas. He looks so much like my cousin’s son, I feel almost at ease. We take a selfie with him and send it to my cousin and to Sarah. Doing our homework, we write. The cowboy says he’s relieved to meet us. Relieved. Great word. He even makes Rebecca talk about her book (Charms for Finding, (http://www.hebenon.com/charms.html). This is beginning to seem like that rare phenomenon: a really, really, fun homework assignment.

Two hours later, he leaves for dinner with his colleagues: “If y’all are here when I get back, that’d be great,” he says. We won’t be, of course, but we promise to be Facebook friends.

An editor from Alabama takes the cowboy’s seat. He tells us that a bartender friend of his in New Orleans said that during the AWP conference there, the bars sold more liquor than they did for Mardi Gras.

“You know how it is with writers,” he says. We do! We do! We’re so busy talking to him about pit bulls and publishing and our favorite cocktail nuts, we don’t even notice when the cowboy returns.

“Wow!” I say. “That was a fast dinner.”

“Fast?” he says. “I’ve been gone two hours! I never thought y’all’d still be here.”

So, we nearly close the place and then we leave, happy with our final night in Minneapolis. It’s a beautiful city, pristine and friendly. The weather is spring-like and people gather to play ping pong outside, to sit along the wide streets and watch the bars empty out.

Soon, we and 14,000 others, will return to the kinds of lives we awkward writers live. Tonight, however, I think: The world is full of strangers, and that’s not a bad thing. Some of those strangers have left Minneapolis with my book in their hands. That idea, the few friends we have made this time, and Rebecca’s company for a few more hours, seem like miracles enough for one trip.

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AWP: Friday Morning, Snow and Musings

Kim Addonizio plays a mean harmonica. That was yesterday’s highlight, poets and fiction writers putting words to music and me, sitting there, listening, wishing I hadn’t given up on that damn clarinet so fast. Or that guitar.

They started playing together when they were all teaching together somewhere, Kim explains. “It was the music cabin,” she says.

This, it seems to me, is what unnerves me about AWP. Home alone writing, exchanging emails with my five or six writing friends, the world is manageable, a world where hope you might one day have a book published seems possible. Here, amongst 10,000? 11? two things become very clear 1) everyone has a book they want you to read or publish or buy or love or all of the above, and 2) there is a world of intricately connected writers of which you are not part.

It’s high school all over again. Except this time around, I have someone to eat lunch with and I don’t mean to downplay Rebecca’s presence because she anchors me in the world that is mostly my world — the world of motherhood, of a day job that isn’t in a university’s MFA program, the world of TJ Maxx and dogs we love and husbands who call us to see how it’s going here.

But you do feel a little left out. As if, somewhere along the line, you took a turn you imagined every other writer took and, instead, they veered the opposite way and stayed for the party.

The day I walked out of the creative writing department at Boston University after registering, I met Don sitting on a step. Was he waiting to go in? I don’t remember, only that we started talking and then, we became inseparable, We met every Monday morning before Derek Walcott’s class to exchange anxiety dreams. I drove him to the few parties we had in my beat up Chevy Citation. After George Starbuck’s afternoon workshop, we walked down Comm Ave together to get on a green line train. Once, in the pouring rain, we forged ahead, Don with his black backpack and glasses, me with my growing insecurities that I wasn’t quite cut out for this poetry thing. As the rain lashed us, he said: “It’s times like these that make me wish I didn’t write in felt tip.” That’s what friends do, right? They bring you out of a cold dark place and remind you of one absurdity or another.

The last day of class, we met in Harvard Square. It had been a difficult year for me, an odd year for us all, to be plucked out of the real world and deposited here. To adapt, we had done things we had to mull over in the clear light of a Cambridge day. And who else would we have spoken to about these things? We were each other’s natural first choice.

Long story short: We lost touch. Again, I moved into the next thing which didn’t revolve around writing, but Don hung around.

Yesterday, I visited the booth of his literary magazine at the book fair. It is perennially amongst the most popular stops at the fair as it should be. The woman there told me he would  probably not be by. “He’s very in demand,” she said. And I said, “Of course,” wondering what we did to end that day in Cambridge — in which direction he walked, in which direction I did.

AWP: Thursday

Well, if you think you’re the only one a) flying to Minneapolis on a Thursday afternoon, and b) flying to Minneapolis on a Thursday afternoon to attend AWP, you would, in fact, be very, very wrong. You would find yourself immediately sitting across from four poets, for example, as you wait for your flight to board. Already, someone is handing out postcards for his new book (beautiful cover).

The woman next to you on the plane is editing manuscripts for a small literary magazine and the woman behind you has some business with Grub Street.

Oh! And NO ONE (and I mean no one) is watching the in-flight television.

Also, I haven’t met anyone yet who hasn’t been to several AWP’s. Let’s see, someone said, counting off AWP cities the way I count my students’ heads as they climb back aboard the bus after a field trip (I did leave someone behind in a cemetery once; exchange student; long story). Turns out, by November, it was impossible to find anywhere in Minneapolis to stay.

My hotel is very convenient to the action and the lobby? Full of writers.

Now if only Rebecca’s plane would land, this one writer out of thousands would love to go to bed.

The Story of the Stories: Conclusion — See You in Minneapolis?????

A chai martini tastes like chai. Perks and Corks, a cozy spot, is part of downtown Westerly’s Renaissance. Thom McCann used to be on this block. But now, it’s breweries, bars, restaurants. This is my first time out in my own hometown. I’m fifty years old.

But this is not my first time out with my cousin Sue. The year after I graduated from college, I moved home and, though we pledged to stay home a night or two, we never did. There were discos to stroll through and beachside cabanas to drink Bartles and James at. And when the night ended, there was always IHOP. With our history, you’d think I’d be careful, but she says we should try the place on the river. Sit outside. Watch the swans. And I say, “Sure.”

It’s a beautiful night. My daughters are sleeping over their cousins’ houses after dinner with Nana. The girls and I are here visiting family (and there’s a lot of it) for a few days before heading home to pre-season workouts, captains’ practices, before my own school year gears up again. I dread September, so why not indulge August?

At the next spot, that patio we sit on juts out into the Pawcatuck. Sue and I have nothing to do but talk, and we never run out of that. The swans glow in the dark on the black river. A Lemincello martini tastes like lemons.

I don’t remember what kind of martini I order next. I do remember trying to stand up and thinking the river is a lot closer than it had seemed.

Sue, like the underage disco queen she used to be, bounces up from her seat, and says, “We need to get together more often.”

I say, “I can’t go home yet. I need to walk.”

When we were kids, our mothers warned us never, NEVER, go into the park at night. There’s still a little of their warnings with us, but we go anyway. Except for its ancient beech trees, its well-spaced lamp posts, the fish pond, the place is empty. I strut and fret my hour upon the stage that has been constructed for the annual Shakespeare in the Park. Sue climbs barefoot into the fountain behind the library. I think one of us takes pictures.

The next morning, my head pounding, I slink out into the light of my mother’s already busy kitchen. She has a visitor. She almost always does, and we are in the middle of an important conversation with this one when my mother’s phone rings.

My god, I think, has it always been that shrill? It announces the caller: Dennis Donoghue.

“Ignore it,” I tell my mother. Her visitor’s story that requires our attention and I am already struggling mightily not to puke. I’ll call Dennis as soon as I can move my jaw without the pain ricocheting through my skull.

Again, it rings. Dennis. My mother picks it up this time and, after several confused seconds, hands it to me.

Dennis says, “Why would someone from George Mason University be calling you?”

George Mason University?

I take the phone outside. Sit on my mother’s sidewalk. Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry, I think.

“My god,” I finally say. “I think it’s AWP.”

 ***

This flight is crowded with writers. Minneapolis-bound Bostonians on their way to the biggest gathering of writers in the world. 10,000 plus people just like me, people nursing this stubborn dream, or – maybe — people celebrating this dream come true.

The Story of the Stories: Part IV — From the Loyalsock

nature 2

Our Own Little Bubble. Loyalsock Creek. Williamsport, PA

July, 2012.

After the flood, I ask Rebecca, what was on the creek bottom? Tomorrow, we both leave for Minneapolis, but today, I am back at the Loyalsock. Summer. The cabin’s new wood redolent of wood and sap.

She writes: plates, mirrors, tire rims, rain spouting, footie pajamas , records, a car bumper, buckets, baskets, forks, siding, windows, tin cans, spoons, dolls, an old phone, and a pin-ball game. Not all at once and not all actually underwater, but they had been there and were muddy and amazingly twisted. And then, miraculously, there would be that delicate thing like a lightbulb, that looked completely unscathed.

Isn’t it amazing? The list itself, and the way she pulls the objects back together and leaves us with the most fragile, the least probable?

That summer, Brenda brings an underwater camera and this means she has to get near an element she’d rather gaze at from the porch, barefoot with a beer in her hand. Beside me, of course, land lovers, though I at least have been out in the rowboat. Rebecca, Sarah, and Amelie, Rebecca’s dog, paddle in water so clear, we can see bare legs kicking, Amelie’s soggy limbs.

We’ve written on the porch every morning, deep into the afternoons. My novel is revised. Sarah’s too. Rebecca’s poems like it here. Inside, Brenda rises later than we do, plans an art project. We can always do this: gather, work, and then live with each other again the way we did for eleven days at Bread Loaf when we first met.

c & r

On the last day, Rebecca finally convinces Brenda to come for a ride in the boat and we nearly tip over. This is how it goes, right? You say: you’re safe, you’re safe, you’re perfectly safe. But the world has other ideas.

Anyway, with her new camera, Brenda captures the creek bottom, a boneyard, scrapbook. This is how Rebecca spent the winter, shoveling dirt out of people’s bathtubs, tearing out sodden sheetrock, streaks of primer on her face, often deliberately. Sarah spent the winter with her twins. Sledding at the Big Hill. Costume romps and petting zoos and dancing, of course. Brenda? We never get that window opened completely. Some scenes with Nigel in them, his snout on the dashboard of her car, his stumpy legs blurring on their walks through their Pittsburgh neighborhood. The Steelers on Sunday. Gaga, Katie Perry, Alicia — the powerwomen soundtrack to her life without us.

So we have this week, by the end of which I’m searching for the next time.

AWP, someone says. It’s in Boston this year.

December, 2011.

My agent doesn’t like the novel.

I, a fraudulent writer who mostly wants to hang out with her friends, registers for AWP. I read the catalog to see what looks good or at least not painful. They also advertise a book award.

January, 2012.

I brood about the fact that my agent doesn’t like the novel.

February 2012.

Paralyzed by this most recent rejection and by winter in general, I sit on my bed and lay out all the hard copies of my stories. I have enough the required number of pages. Why not send them to the stupid contest?

The Story of the Stories, Part IV: Letting It Be Bad

In my Hetzel Hall single, I sat agonizing over how to write a short story. Stayed away from nickel night at Nick’s. Closed my dorm room door and ignored knocks. Let the phone ring and ring down the hall, people with reasons to chat be damned.

How Jumpin’ Joe got in, I don’t recall. He’s an unavoidably buoyant person, hard to discourage.

“Look,” he said, not standing still. Bobbing, probably, using hand motions, wiggling his Marx brother’s eyebrows. “Why don’t you take a poetry class, instead. Have a little fun for a change?”

“I know nothing about writing poetry,” I said to this animal science major, to someone whose first real job would be as an egg inspector for the USDA during the day and a bass player in a band at night.

***

Poetry derailed me (fodder for another 100 blogs).

But it was loss that brought me back to writing stories.

First, my father’s death and a summer workshop for teachers in Amherst. We had to tell name stories and one woman said: “I was named Margaret after my grandmother, but her name had originally been Mexico. When she married, her in-laws forced her to change it to something more appropriate.” There was no poem in that, only something vital being erased, something unimaginable. The dorm room I slept in was stifling. The group of teachers assembled not writers but earnest educators hoping to learn something that they could bring back to the classroom with them. Peter Elbow led some weird kind of writing therapy session that made me itch. I could still summon my father’s smell, cotton and starch, Ivory soap. I had memorized the cracks in his fingers, the missing nails. I wouldn’t let my mother throw his comb away.

In my conference with Peter Elbow, I said I wanted to write an essay based on the Mexico story. “I thought about writing something fictional,” I said, “but I can’t.”

“Do you know what word I hear?” he said, leaning forward. “Can’t. You can’t write it, you said.”

“That’s right. I can’t.”

He asked me what I was afraid of and I thought of standing up, walking to my car, driving back to my mother’s house. My mother’s house that used to be my parents’ house.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. This quack. This witch doctor. “Just let it be bad.”

***

I had learned long before that writing didn’t bring anyone back. Had spent my sophomore year in high school chronicling my friendship with two girls whose companionship I had lost. For Christmas that year, I had received an electric typewriter. I set it up in my room beside my stereo and banged away on it, filling page after page with the scenes from our lives together. When I’m finished, I thought, I’ll show it to them and they’ll remember: Oh, right. That’s how it used to be.

***

I didn’t write Having Your Italy because I believed it would bring Dan back. Older, wiser, more accustomed to the way loss inserts itself into life and how we surge forward, grateful even for the loves that cannot last, I wrote the story for me. But I loved many things about him and one of those was his longing, his restlessness despite my own realization that these things meant he couldn’t stay.

One day when he listed all the things he wanted to do, that he couldn’t imagine doing, I thought about how I might console him. Finally, I said: “I went to Italy without a map, without anything, really, except a good friend and the absolute wrong wardrobe.”

He said, “Well, I haven’t had my Italy.”

In the weeks after he left, I sat at my desk and clicked away at the keyboard of my Apple IIGS and wrote a story based around the line that forced a painful and necessary goodbye. The Mexico story was an invitation to write. The Italy story, I thought, might be something more important. Outside, night fell. Inside, I batted away all the never-again’s. I wrote the first draft and I let it be bad.

***

Teaching, too, derailed me, but motherhood? That sat me down in one place and threatened to hold me there, my beautiful daughter, Beatrice, busy with plastic things, her diapers dry, the electrical outlets sealed off.

I hung signs in local libraries: Writing Group Forming, Please Call (Please) — the parenthetical is just a reference to the little prayer I said each time I punched a staple in.

We met in the Rowley Library when it had a basement room with red shag carpet. Of the five people who assembled, four returned for the next four years. Mostly, we met in Newburyport at Jane’s condo, every Thursday night. Her children were grown; her husband tucked himself away in the spare room while we listened to one another’s attempts. When my middle daughter was born, Miriam filled me a water bottle and lectured me about the importance of hydration as I nursed Apphia through the critique. When I was finished, they took turns passing her around: Jane, Brian, Miriam. When my third daughter arrived home from Guatemala, I brought them all gifts.

But the writing stalled, story after story rejected. “I might just start writing poetry again,” I said, threatening the indifferent air and houseplants.

Then the phone rang. Landline.

Ten years after I had finished Having Your Italy, someone said, “We’d like to publish your story.”

The Story of the Stories: Part III — Fording Rivers with Jon and Not Disappointing John Denver’s Doppleganger

Jon knew the best time to leaf peep along the Kancamagus Highway. So that I could fully appreciate the beauty of his homestate, he drove his Le Car and I gaped out the windows at the scenery. We stopped often so he could take pictures and teach me the kind of lessons he picked up in the required New Hampshire history course he had taken in high school. Once he learned them, Jon never forgot facts. Campus was a couple hours south. The demands of our full courseloads in a place that had yet to change color, that would offer up for dinner the Sunday special Yankee pot roast, were far away. Instead, we had this. Was there traffic? I don’t remember. Crowds? In my memory, we are alone against the calendar page settings. The day was perfect and then it was time for lunch.

We’d packed something and, as I scouted the road for a White Mountains picnic spot, Jon pulled the car over, instead, onto a gravel shoulder and got out. Below us, the shallow rapids of a river sparkled.

“What are we doing?” I asked.

Jon clambered over the guardrail with our cooler. “Come on,” he said. “There’s the perfect spot.”

I looked around. Trees. More trees. The faded little Le Car with its implausible  racing strip. The river still racing towards the Atlantic.

When I hesitated, Jon motioned to where a house sat on the opposite shore, a vacation cottage, its windows blinking in the sun.

“That’s someone’s property,” I said.

Jon insisted no one was home. Even if they were, he doubted they’d mind someone using their picnic table for a few minutes. Live free or die, I thought. Live free or be arrested for trespassing, but Jon was on his way to the river. Live free or get washed away by the rapids before you get a chance to trespass.

“I don’t know about this,” I said, and that’s when Jon altered the course of my life.

“You don’t really have a sense of adventure, do you?” he said.

I love Jon. Best friend love. The kind that lasts no matter how infrequently we get to see each other. He’s brilliant and funny and earnest and, in those glorious days when we did see each other more than once every other year, he made me look at myself in ways I had not before. A mirror kind of friend, someone who saw who I was, and said: What the hell. I’ll hang out with her anyway.

I didn’t have a sense of adventure, but when he held out his hand that day, I took it and, in that moment, I began to remedy something.

I’ll never jump out of airplanes (like Jon did a few years later), but his words stay with me, urge me forward, still. Even onto Minneapolis.

As do these:

Eighth grade, Westerly Babcock Junior High School:

Mrs. Serra would stand before us with the book in her hands, read passages aloud, coax discussion from us. She liked books and that might sound odd, but it was the first time I thought it about a teacher: she reads. I’ve forgotten the novel we were studying, but once we’d finished the unit, the assignment was to write a different final chapter.

And I loved the job. Did what I always did: slipped into the world and wrote from it. The difference? No one had yet asked to see any of what I produced.

Mrs. Serra handed the papers back a few days later, calling us up to her desk to retrieve them. When it was my turn, she held the paper out to me just out of reach.

“You need to enter the school’s essay contest,” she said. I had no idea the school had an essay contest, but before I could ask for details, she added: “You can write.”

Sophomore year, University of New Hampshire:

Will Evans looked like John Denver who I had a soft spot for since a) that was the first concert I had ever attended (all decked out in my Dutchmaid lime green pantsuit), and b) Back Home Again was the only song my brother would let me sing to when he played guitar. Will rolled the sleeves of his plaid shirts halfway up his arms. He loved John Gardner and Joan Didion. I didn’t have a crush on him but I did feel very tender towards him. He was so earnest. You didn’t want to let him down even when you tried several times to read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and finally had to fake it in discussions. I’d cruised through freshman English. Writing papers had become rote for me. Five pages a week. Easy A.  For Will’s latest assignment, I scribbled some stuff about missing my niece’s birthday, homesick stuff, blah blah blah, yanked the finished product from my typewriter and headed into Lauren’s room to battle with the television’s rabbit ears so we could watch M*A*S*H*.

The next week in my one-on-one conference, Will slid the paper back to me.

“You know what your problem is?” he said.

He had a cowlick, I swear to God. Blond bangs and a cowlick. Not the kind of haircut you’d expect on someone who is about to excoriate you.

“You’re lazy.”

Lazy? No. Writing was just easy. Maybe I told him something like this, but I doubt it. I’m pretty sure I was stunned into silence and trying not to bawl.

“This isn’t an essay,” he said. “This is just some flowery description. You’ve got talent, but that won’t get you anywhere if you aren’t willing to do the work.”

Back in my dorm, I grabbed the box of tissues and the Webster’s New Collegiate: Essay, I read. A short literary composition on a single subject, usually presenting the personal view of the author.

This didn’t help me one bit. But I didn’t want to let Will down. Or Mrs. Serra. I started working then. Not just writing. Never again just writing.

Writing is easy. You put the right pen to the right paper and dream away. But Will was right. Good writing? That takes work. Work and possibly, a sense of adventure. An understanding of the power of words.