Wordstock 2006 Report

I was able to sleep in my publisher’s house before Wordstock. My publisher, Matthew Stadler was in a great mood and busy preparing for Gore Vidal. Vidal was going to speak at one the dinner’s Matthew holds for RIPE as the restaurant’s writer-in-residence. Matthew had tiny booklets for the event of a handsomely produced, original essay by Wayne Koestenbaum on Vidal. While Matthew and I talked Saturday morning, a man came to the door and offered to mow the Clear Cut lawn. The man had his own gasoline in a red plastic jug. He offered to cut the lawn for fifty bucks. Matthew said that was a deal but that was more than he could afford. The man gradually dropped his price down to twenty-five dollars. Matthew turned him down because the man’s labor was worth more than that, it was worth more, Matthew said, then he could afford.

Wordstock was smaller this year than last, but people were buying books. At least that was the census. The weather I suspect kept the ne’er-do-well book rubberneckers out. The only people who came where those who were compulsive enough book types to forego the sun and unseasonable balmy sky.

Kevin Sampsell maned the Independent Media Center table armed with artifacts of small press production including a galley of Eric Spitznagel’s new book from Manic D, Fast Forward: Confessions of a Porn Screenwriter and the Sampsell edited issue of Spork.

In the writer’s hat check room, I met a blogger whom I read regularly, The Moorish Girl. She was very self-effacing and pleasant. Her blog which is pretty matter of fact and sometimes starry eyed about the literary world is also heartening to me because of the faith Laila Lalami and the writers she writes about place in the importance of narrative. It is always strange for me to meet someone whose affect varies from what I think might be their interior monologue. I like to think I am like this. But most likely the affect of a coffee swilling insurance salesmen matches my interior monologue, the secret ranting of a coffee swilling insurance salesmen.

I read on the Emerging Writer’s Panel again this year. Provided I am allowed anywhere near a book festival again, I suspect I’ll bypass emerging and go directly to “washed up.”

I always learn something from doing these things and I learned that I am not a publishing-industry type. I had suspected this before, but now I know this.

Evidence 1: I met Garth Stein, a Seattle writer. Have you head of him? He seemed to assume I would know all about him and when I didn’t, he spent the rest of our short time in close proximity staying as far away from me as he could. To be fair, I have heard of him, but only because I have been obsessively following any potential coverage for my own book. Although he’s lived in Seattle since 2001, I’ve never run into him at any literary event. But then The Seattle Weekly recently ran an article that mentioned eleven writers who are writerly enough that I’ve never heard of them, either, except Stein and Doug Nufer who has run several long-standing reading series in Seattle including the much missed Titlewave series on lower Queen Ann.

I failed to do the obvious thing. I failed to even feign a knowledge of Garth Stein’s work, perhaps egged into this by his clear lack of having heard of my work. His work looks fine, judging from Garth Stein dot com.

Evidence 2: I read too long in my panel, which was bad form. I had my part marked out, and then as soon as I got up, lost my place. But I erred, I guess when I suggested that MFA programs are nearly a complete waste of time and money and perhaps hinted that under this was a rant that had more to do with the function of MFA programs to exert federal hegemony over the freakish beauty of provincial culture.

My two fellow readers were gracious about my reading long.

They were both brand new writers, with thick hardbacks from famous New York publishing houses. They were both new enough that they probably still had money from their book advances. Justin Tussing was featured in The New Yorker’s debut fiction issue last year, and scored one of last year’s eighty odd tenure track creative writing job openings. Cheryl Strayed was fresh off a national tour for her book. They both MFAs. Someone in the audience asked about MFAs. Of course Tussing and Strayed, lottery winners both were very up on the whole MFA thing.

Cheryl Strayed said she’d been in a waitress in Portland. She went to Syracuse, which covered her expenses for three years, sold her novel, and had just returned from a national book tour. This kind of support didn’t happen to her in Portland.

And then I spoke.

All I said at the time was that a person who lived in Portland didn’t need to go graudate school to find community or support as a writer. Portland was a great town in which to be a writer.

But I think I somehow conveyed what I was really thinking.

I was a writer in Seattle who had a day job. And then I went to Baltimore, which covered my expenses. I returned to Seattle and was a writer who had a day job. And I kept writing and sometimes publishing.

Naturally I am bitter since I bought my ticket and I didn’t win. Everyone else I went to graduate school also bought their ticket and didn’t win. The fact of the matter is, Justin and Cheryl, no matter the merits of their work which sounded great to me but no less great than the majority of work produced by writers in my workshop at Johns Hopkins University in 2000, that the vast majority of writers who pass through graduate programs do not meet with success. As of this writing, I’m the only writer in my class who has continud to publish books of my own work. The thing is, I had a book out before I even went to school. My class was not full of laggards. John Stinson, one classmate, won the Glimmer Train Prize and finally published another story, five years later, in Other Voices. Another, Jane Delury, has had excellent stories in StoryQuarterly and The Sun. One, Meri Robie, wrote and published a book during the nine months of the program. And a fourth, Ava Chin, edited an anthology published by McGraw-Hill. But no one in that class won the lottery in the way Cheryl or Justin has, nor has anyone going through JHU done so since. The fact is that the vast majority of graduate students don’t become productive writers. The vast majorty of writers who actually continue to write after graduate school don’t see success resulting from their experience. Rather the entire experience of graduate school, like working for a living and finding enough money to get by, becomes for most writers just one more thing to overcome.

After the panel, Cheryl and Justin smiled wanly at me and then stayed as far away from as they could.

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