Write (Right) Where You Are


“Don’t write for a market. Write what you need to write and work out the pesky details later.”

Jill Christman, AWP’19 Panel: Going Long: Editors & Writers of Longform Nonfiction in Conversation

I recently returned from my third AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference. As with previous conferences, I am inspired and, I am overwhelmed. I find myself, once again, swimming in the vast sea that differentiates my writing from more skilled writers, especially those seasoned essayists whose work I deeply admire. Writers who’ve written essays like:

Can you tell, I have the True Story series–a series made up of longform narratives–by Creative Nonfiction on my heart and mind today? Although I’ve been subscribing to True Story for about a year now, I covered the AWP panel, convened by Jill Christman, on longform nonfiction writing for Assay Journal. From attending that panel discussion (and listening extra hard), my interest in writing longform has only magnified.

But I know I do not yet have the layering skills of Christman, the probing reflections of James Blackwell, or the breathtaking lyrical underscoring of Gwartney. So, what does a writer do when she cannot yet bridge the distance between the kind of essays she wants to write and the kind of essays she is currently writing (or not writing, in my case)?

She brews five cups of tea, she edits photos taken out and about Portland (backdrop to this year’s AWP), she eats the dairy-free chocolate eggs intended for her nine-year old son. She also does a load of laundry and then spends long moments contemplating whether she’s finally beyond her fixation with blue bottles, contemplating whether perhaps blue bottles are now simply too blue, contemplating how she can fall so completely in and out of love.

I’ve made this observation through nearly five years of reading, studying, and writing personal essays: they are definitely written with differing degrees of skill. Some very fine essays only scrape the surface of one single subject; these seem to work best when they come from the writer’s soul. Some essays attempt to weave in a second counterpoint and implode. Better perhaps for these to have kept to one point and to have executed it well. Some amazing essays successfully layer, balance, and weave multiple points of juxtaposition. These are the kind I so admire, these are the kind I desire to write. Even when they involve the oddest subject matter, I will immerse myself in the sheer enjoyment of the skill it took for the writer to pull off such a complex weave.

Do essayists begin writing these complex weaves? Do pianists begin with Grieg’s Concerto in A Minor? Unlikely, although some might arrive at the destination sooner.

So what does a writer do when she cannot bridge the gap in her own ability? For me, the answer is probably not sit around, drinking endless cups of tea while dreaming of the kind of essays I would like to be writing. Instead, I need to work on my scales; instead, I need to begin (again) where I am today. While I may never write essays like “Spinning” or “Lethe,” I will surely progress, I will surely improve my craft, if only I dare dive into the mediocrity of right now. If only I dare to write what I need to write.

Indie Bookstores, Part II: Stingy with Sexy at Milkweed Books

In Part One of my blog post on indie bookstores, I mentioned having recently visited Milkweed Books. Milkweed Books is housed on the first floor of Open Book, the same literary arts space where Milkweed Editions and The Loft Literary Center are located, on the floors above. On October 26, 2016, I entered Open Book with my twenty-one year old son, Ethan, to attend Benjamin Percy’s publication release reading his craft book, Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, published by Graywolf Press.

Before Percy’s reading, Ethan and I decided to check out Milkweed Books.  While we were browsing, Ben Percy entered the store and handed the store’s manager two signed copies of his new book. I assume he provided only two because upstairs, outside the auditorium where book readings are held, another local indie bookseller, Magers and Quinn, was selling copies that Percy would sign after the reading. I recognized that Ethan, a busy senior in college, wouldn’t have the time to stick around after the reading to talk to Percy. As soon as Percy left the bookstore, I located the two-signed copies, plucked them from the shelf, and tucked them under my arm with the Ann Patchett book I’d already decided to buy. Why two? I was purchasing one for a former professor of mine, who’d recently provided volunteer hours on my watershed stewardship capstone project, graciously editing my first article for St. Croix 360; the second signed copy would be his thank you.

By that time, Ethan was deeply engrossed in an art book and so I went to the front of the store to page through Mary Oliver’s new book, Upstream. While reading, I heard a man talking to the manager with enthusiasm and confidence, providing tidy critiques of all the books he’d recently read; he even instructed the manager to add a few obscure titles to his line up. My back was faced toward the window, away from the man; I couldn’t see him. I did, however, find myself wondering what this man did for a living—that he should have the time to read so many books. Then I heard him saying he wanted to purchase a copy of Thrill Me. I felt shamefully like a hoarder. I let the manager puzzle over the shelf where he’d placed the books just ten minutes earlier until I heard him say, “I know they’re here somewhere.”

“No. They’re not,” I said as I turned to come clean. “I’m sorry, but I’m purchasing both copies.” The customer—the one who seemed to know so much about books—told me to never apologize for buying books; he told me that he would pick up a copy upstairs. I told myself I was being selfish for not handing over my extra copy—but it was, after all, for my beloved professor who undoubtedly read even more books than the man with the thick wavy hair—just starting to gray—and sexy glasses (nicely dressed too—metro, decidedly metro—I noticed). He nodded at me graciously and left the bookstore.

After purchasing my books, Ethan and I proceeded out to the bistro to grab sandwiches before the reading. I contemplated the beverage container—kind of in line, kind of not. Then, over and over, I slid a bottle of ginger brew closer, then further, from my squinting eyes, struggling to read the fine print. I wondered aloud whether the beverage was alcoholic. That’s when I realized the man from the bookstore was standing beside us—at the front of the line. He was, I observed, the kind of guy I’d have fallen for back when I was single. Perhaps he was a professor (and that’s why he read so much). I’d once had a thing for professors and dated more than a few in between my two marriages.

I found myself apologizing again, this time to the woman for getting out of the line (if I’d actually ever been in it) and asked if she would mind terribly if we jumped in ahead of her; I brought my ginger brew with me, still not sure whether it was alcoholic. At that moment, the man with the sexy glasses said something achingly clever about democracy and lines. Whatever it was he said (and neither Ethan nor I can remember what he said), sounded like it came directly out of a New Yorker piece. Hell, it sounded like it came straight from the pages of an f—ing novel. I attempted a response but, later, neither Ethan or I remember what I said.

Eventually, we all sat down at different tables with our food. “Sexy Glasses” ended up at a table near the front with Ben Percy. Couldn’t he just get Percy to give him a copy if they’re this close? I’d wondered. To make myself feel better, I suppose, I leaned over to Ethan and whispered, “That’s one heck of a pretentious dude over there.”

It wouldn’t be the end of Sexy Glasses that evening. We walked by him later on our way into the auditorium where he was purchasing Thrill Me from the Magers and Quinn staff member sent to The Loft to sell books that evening. I admit, I felt a slight twinge of guilt at the sight. But then I heard him telling the woman from Magers and Quinn (as if she knew who he was), “Ben’s teaching from one of my books this fall.”

One of his books? So he’s a writer—of more than one book, I thought. What’s he published? Probably a few B-list spy thrillers. *Oh, the petty writer envy that sometimes fills my soul.*

I dismissed all (most) thoughts of Sexy (I had to drop the “glasses” part now—knowing he was a published writer; sexy said it all) and took a seat with Ethan behind the reserved seating area up front. Of course, three minutes later, Sexy walked into the auditorium and took a seat in front of us, in the reserved area. Ben Percy solicited Sexy’s perspective multiple times throughout his reading (I love Percy’s book, Thrill Me, by the way—I don’t want that fact to get lost in all of this writerly foreplay).

Two nights after Ben Percy’s reading, I awoke in the middle of the night with a sick feeling. From the depths of my declining memory bank, it hit me. I laughed my I’m-so-stupid laugh; my husband stirred to ask “What?” before falling back to sleep.

I left our bed and located my laptop, recharging in the living room. I googled “Jonathan Franzen” at 4:22 am. About 600 photos came into view. I opened a few for a closer look. Instead of screaming, A search of Ben Percy’s Facebook page confirmed that Jonathan Franzen had indeed attended the reading. Another ill-fated brush with literary fame.

Instead of screaming, I stuffed the fuzzy fleece blanket draped across my shoulders into my mouth and bit down really hard. I missed not one, but four opportunities to interact with Jonathan Franzen. Jonathan F—ing Franzen! (but as Ethan pointed out to me later, what would I have said to him when I’d never read any of his books).

But how lucky am I? Not many people get to say they were stingy with Jonathan Franzen.