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A Few Times I Been Around That Track


When I was in the seventh grade, there was a guy who hung out in the school parking lot at lunch, a guy who’d graduated the previous June, but still came back on a regular basis to smoke cigarettes and gun the engine of his metallic brown Trans Am.  You know the kind of Trans Am I’m talking about, right, with the big, golden eagle decal on the hood?

That first year, he was kind of a celebrity.  But then he didn’t go away.  And by the time I was in the 9th grade, even I, the most unpopular girl in school—with the possible exception of Cindy Evans, whose mother only let her wash her hair once a week—knew that Paul Hearst was a weirdo loser without a life, blasting Starland Vocal Band from his tinny car speakers and lying about all the pussy he was getting.

I’m sharing this story with you to create the following shorthand:  I am the Paul Hearst of the PEN Emerging Voices program—a 2008 fellow, still hanging out in the parking lot, smoking cigarettes and lying about all the pussy I’m getting writing I’m doing.  So, when PEN asked me to speak on a panel for potential Emerging Voices applicants, I said yes, of course, and immediately ran out to get my Trans Am detailed.  Then I thought it all the way through and told them I couldn’t make it. Then I felt like an asshole for saying no, so I recanted (re-recanted?) and said yes again.  I bet Paul was never that wishy-washy about how to spend his lunch hours.

Two days before the event, I spent more money than I could afford having Botox and Restylane injected into my face, in the vain hope that my preternaturally smooth skin would distract from the fact that my ass is 20 pounds larger than it was the last time I saw most of these people, and, more importantly, that my book is still unfinished and “my agent” hated the last two drafts of it.  I’m putting “my agent” in quotes because I’m pretty sure that relationship has died from attrition.  At least the Botox thing caused a huge (I mean seriously HUGE) fight with my husband, which was a welcome distraction from the fact that I am a fat, unpublished writer with a handful of early accolades under my belt and an inability to get out of the parking lot.

The day before the event, I woke up looking like the Plastic Surgeon General of Beverly Hills, which won’t mean anything to you if you don’t know who Snake Plissken is, but you can probably infer that it’s not good.  I was ready to renege for the third time when Betsy asked me to write a guest post about the event.  And I would never, ever, say no to a request from Betsy, so here it is:

I got there late, stood in the back, and drank two cups of vodka while a bunch of people said a bunch of stuff I couldn’t hear because I was too busy worrying about my ass and my lip.  Then I had dinner with some of the other fellows from my year (Hey, congratulations on your Bread Loaf fellowship! Ditto on that book of short stories that just came out!), and then I went to the hotel I got on Priceline for 90 bucks and took a sleeping pill.

Don’t let any of this stop you from checking out the PEN Emerging Voices program, and applying if you fit the criteria.  http://www.penusa.org/programs/emerging-voices

Trans Am and crippling lack of self-esteem totally optional.

Can anyone relate?

My Baby Does the Hanky Panky

A friend told me that she was going to writers “conference” this weekend. Those quotation marks looked mightily suspicious to me, so naturally I emailed her back. What’s his name? She wrote back, “I wish.” Now, I ask you, what is the point of going to a writers conference if it isn’t to swap saliva? All that built up tension, anxiety, insecurity roiling through the workshops. And don’t the girls look so pretty in their indian print shirts and espadrilles. And the boys all old spicy. Who, after all, could make a better lover than a writer? Someone who is sensitive but strong, deep but shallow, narcy and giving all at the same time.

Once, at a writers’ conference, we canvassed all the women and asked them who they would rather sleep with, Richard Ford or Tim O’Brien. I guess that dates me a bit. Ford won, by a landslide. What writer would you most like to sleep with? Living or dead?

I Climbed A Mountain and I Turned Around

Tonight something remarkable happened. A rag tag group of writers with seemingly nothing in common came together and became greater than the sum of the parts. I’ve taught at a lot of conferences and I usually walk away quasi-suicidal. But tonight I felt wonderful. Tonight I saw each person transform in front of me, either in their ability to comment on another writer’s work or their ability to see their own. One woman seemed to have stepped out of  a Roz Chast cartoon, had only written in her head thus far, but was adorable and no-nonsense in her feedback. One man, probably the smartest about writing in the group, was as shy as a blanket, but eventually made great observations. But the biggest surprise came from the woman who read her work last. We’d been listening to everyone’s work over the three hours. Now, we were tired and ready to get home (or in my case hoping to make a late movie). That’s when it happened. From her first sentence we were all transfixed. The quality and the power of the writing and story was undeniable. I welled up with tears. The room had shivers. And in her victory, we were all lifted up a little.

Earlier in the evening, we talked about taking chances with cover letters and in the writing itself. We talked about how you have to take chances to do anything that’s going to break through, but you also don’t want to do anything crazynuts. How do you know the difference? I told them to exchange emails with each other if they wanted to, and to be readers for each other. That finding reader friends at workshops is one of the most valuable aspects of attending. Having a trusted reader or two, especially where you feel safe enough to take risks, is priceless.

When we finished, as I was leaving, one woman asked the others if they wanted to exchange email. And then they did.

And The Dreams That You Dare To Dream Really Do Come True

I’m going to love up some writers in Miami on Thursday and Friday. I’m giving a talk called “Why Your Book Isn’t Selling.” I’m getting a little nervous that it might be too negatively cast. Even worse, I got roped into reading pages and doing the fifteen minute consult. I stopped doing these years ago when a woman cornered me in the ladies room, deeply upset my response to her pages. She was crying and yelling, mascara streaking her face.  I was done doing consults after that. But somehow the nice folks in Miami got me in a weak moment. I feel like these 15 minute consults are the drive-by shootings of the conference world. Of course, I’ll do my best to help the writers who dare seek the great and mighty Oz. I want to save everyone, that’s my problem. I’ll also want to race back to the hotel and get a solid hate on for myself while I watch as many episodes of Law and Order the universe will offer up.

Have you ever had a writing consult of any kind? How did you handle it?

Without Your Love, It’s a Honky Tonk Parade

I have to go fast because this is a pay computer in a Sheraton in Miami Beach. I’m down here for the Miami Book Fair, which is a fantastically vibrant event with tons of booksellers, authors, street performers, sausages, you name it. After my agent panel, I signed books for a half hour or so. I was very moved by a few people who brought in old dog eared hardcovers and told me how much the book meant to them. One woman, with the beautiful face of a Mayan sculpture, told me that she never used to speak in her writing class or share her work. Her professor, sick of her oracular silence, insisted she write the last lines of her diary on the board. She wrote, “all I have left to do is die.” This woman then told me that he called her into his office and gave her a copy of my book. She told me read it ten times. I really didn’t know what to say. It was almost too much to take in. I silently hoped that he also gave her the name of the campus counseling service.

It’s hard to know what’s true in this world. Hard to know if the full moon over Miami wasn’t a stage prop, fat as a face. It’s hard to know if the laughter around the pool wasn’t forced, or the lamb chops cooked to perfection were fully appreciated by the dinner guests who floated above the calm water of a dark canal. Hadn’t we come to be wooed. Hadn’t we come to steal candy and laugh like children finding our way out of a strange labrynth of palm trees and howling dogs. Did I tell you I met Dave Eggers, my hero, CK Williams who is called Charlie, and Russell Banks, and Susan Cheever. Did I tell you that I cut myself off after two glasses of white wine because it was clear I was about to behave regrettably.  And I’d like to be invited back.

For me, it was Ariel, the book that saved my life. What book saved you, or at least reminded you that you were not alone.

We Are the Ones Who Make a Brighter Day So Let’s Start Giving

Last chance to come see me in a dress at the SheWRITES launch and benefit on Wednesday, October 6, 2010.  Don’t wait for the YouTube. I’ve also heard a rumor that August will be there.

I’m so happy. I just got invited back to Tin House Writers Conference for next summer. They didn’t invite me this past summer and naturally I thought it was something I did: was I too good at croquette? Did I insult one of the big name writers? Did  I make a fool of myself on talent night? I don’t think so. Anyway, here’s to 2011 PORTLAND!!

The lady who runs the Adirondacks conference wrote to thank me. She said the “evaluations” were all really positive. Evaluations!?!  I want to see those mother fuckers for myself.   I want to see what those motherfuckers said about me. Ha ha ha.

On a scale of 1-10, how useful was this workshop?  On a scale of 1-10, did the presenter drop names and allude to bestsellers she had nothing to do with? Did the presenter, on a scale of 1-10, sweat her balls off trying to make everyone feel good for being fool enough to be a writer in the first place? Yes, she did. And did she speak the truth? Ruth? And did she find a way to say that you may not be good enough yet, or ready, or know what you’re doing, but that it is your job to keep coming to conferences, and read and write, and find an ideal reader and never stop trying. Yes, she did. Because of all the people there, a few touched her so deeply she wanted to cry for their sweetness and name tags and sincerity and their stories. And did one guy follow her into the parking lot and whip out his manuscript. Yes, he did. That’s what mace is for.

If someone asked you if he or she should quit writing, what would you advise?