With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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“There he is,” someone whispered.
At the other end of the bar stood a stocky man with thinning hair and black-rimmed glasses. His skin gave off an unhealthy sheen; his eyes swam, magnified and vague, behind thick lenses. So this was the Pulitzer Prize–winning author (let’s call him Moe) who’d chosen my unpublished book as best new novel.
I’d gotten the call almost a year earlier. “I can’t believe it” was my response. I was serious. I’d forgotten I’d even entered the contest, and I suspected that Joe DeSalvo, cofounder of the Faulkner Society and bearer of these good tidings, was an especially wily telemarketer. Next he’d offer me his editing services at a very reasonable fee.
Instead I got a check, which helped me stay happily under-employed for another six months, and a free trip to New Orleans to claim my Faulkner-headed gold medal. The society bestowing the prize was less than ten years old; the prize was not well-known but had the advantage of being easily confused with the prestigious PEN/Faulkner award, which was conferred upon a published book rather than a promising manuscript.
I’d arrived in New Orleans to claim my prize, but the threat of Hurricane Georges had sent everyone running; the society had graciously invited all of the winners back this year. Now my husband Osvaldo and I were shivering in the air-conditioned ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel. (We’d dressed for the New Orleans heat.)
Besides the check, what had thrilled me most was the prospect of meeting Moe and getting his response to my novel. In the year since I’d won, I had written him a few times but had received no reply. Surely a face-to-face meeting would bear fruit. Toiling alone, as all writers do, I’d completely rewritten my book; no editor had yet laid eyes on the rewrite. Would Moe agree to be its first reader?
Swallowing the last of a screwdriver and grabbing Osvaldo by the hand, I made my way over to Moe and his pretty blond wife.
As I approached, vague ideas of master-apprentice relationships floated through my head. I’d never had a mentor. When older people had offered advice or help, I’d reacted with suspicion, wondering what they wanted in return. Now I knew I needed help, and probably always would need it, but I had reached the age at which I should have been a mentor myself. Just as I was ready to be taken under someone’s wing, I was too big to fit.
“Are you Mr. Moe?” I asked.
I introduced myself. I didn’t mention the letters he had never answered.
There was a long silence.
“Do you live here in New Orleans?” his wife finally said, trying to place me.
“We live in San Francisco,” I said, putting my hand on Osvaldo’s arm.
“I wrote Written on Water,” I said. “Now it’s The Gospel of Gone. It won the novel prize.” I tried to pin down his eyes with my own, but they were as blurred as a bad snapshot. “Last year.”
“Oh, yes, yes,” he said hurriedly, looking over my head, across the room, down at the floor. “I can’t remember. Were we in contact?”
“I wrote you,” I said. And didn’t hear back, I didn’t say. Not hearing back is nothing remarkable for most writers. We knock on closed doors until our knuckles bleed. But the celebrated author who chooses your book from among hundreds — he had to open the door, if only just a crack, to say, Well done! Or, Keep at it! Which would suffice, although it was much less than what we all want to hear: You, my friend, are a genius!
“Yes,” he said. “Now I remember. I’ve been so busy. I just came back from Australia. . . .”
I heard silverware clang, laughter erupt and die out. Do you think the book’s ending works? I wanted to ask, but I couldn’t find a way to shoehorn it into the nonconversation.
“It’s too bad you and your wife have to leave so soon,” I finally managed to say. They were flying out early the next morning, which meant Moe wouldn’t be able to give me my medal at the awards ceremony.
“Yes,” he agreed, turning away. I echoed his pivot, just a second or two behind, a student mimicking the master.
I couldn’t eat my dinner but managed to suck down three more screwdrivers and two helpings of bread pudding with rum sauce. Between gulps I looked around. There was Robert Olen Butler at the buffet table, poking at a platter of meat. This year’s novel judge (let’s call her LuAnn) sat demurely a few tables away, her bright blue eyes and lacquered fingernails visible even from this distance. Her nails were a silky, dangerous black.
A few tables away from LuAnn sat the woman who’d been runner-up in three contest categories. She kept telling the winners, with a tremor in her voice, how very, very happy she was for them.
On the plane ride there I’d devised a trick for keeping my bearings in this august atmosphere: I would repeat to myself, as often as necessary, It’s a big world, and you’re a big girl. Winning this prize was great, but it didn’t necessarily mean I was on my way to fame and fortune, or even publication. I still had my talented, mostly obscure artist friends who struggled to write, paint, craft jewelry, or make films, and I had the solitary pleasure of sitting down to whatever story I happened to be working on that week, or month, or year.
And the world was bigger than fiction; like the convention of osteopaths meeting in a nearby hotel, fiction writers were just another microculture. Flexibility was the key to a writing career; I could always teach, or edit, or write website copy. And whatever happened, I was a big girl; I could take it.
But big girls do cry, and that night in our hotel room Osvaldo had his hands full trying to console me. “I should have punched the pig,” he said in the early hours of the morning, which made me feel only a little better.
It wasn’t the first time my naiveté had done me in. At a conference billed as a “community of writers” I had incurred the organizers’ scorn for believing it to be just that. The brochure had promised that each participant would meet with one of the moderately successful writers teaching at the event. When I checked the schedule and saw that I’d been paired with an agent, I went to see if I could get a writer instead. (I already had an agent, who told me that I’d soon be able to live off my writing, but never returned my calls.)
“Did you hear the one about the Polish starlet?” sneered the scheduler, whose novel was soon to be a major motion picture. “She slept with a writer.”
The day after I met Moe, I was in a conference room at the Monte Leon Hotel, shivering in the air conditioning and wondering what “Tango with the Spirits: Sex, Angels, and Avatars” would bring. Panels had been meeting at a rate of six or seven a day since the conference had opened. They had titles like “The Landscapes of Literature: Paranoia, Politicians, and Prostitutes” and “The Big Gap: Have We Created an Elite Meritocracy with No Audience?” Rosemary James, cofounder of the Faulkner Society, had dreamed up the panel titles and then assigned writers to panels, often not telling them which one they were on until the day before.
I was trying to get ideas for my own panel, the prosaically titled “You and Your Editor.” I was supposed to contribute the writer’s point of view, but since I had no editor, I wasn’t sure what to say.
“Tango” got off to a slow start, with most of the participants admitting that they didn’t know what avatar meant. Then panel leader Andrei Codrescu took the floor.
Leaning close to the mike to amplify his familiar Romanian rasp, Codrescu gave a complete and up-to-the-minute definition of avatar, including the Internet definition of a persona you adopt to play games or post messages anonymously. He looked at his copanelists with disapproval, as if to chastise them for trying to pass off ignorance as a lack of pretension.
Then things got really nasty. One panelist said that not only did she not believe in angels or “avatars,” whatever they were, but that angels in literature irritated her to no end. Isn’t real life, she asked, mysterious enough?
A split developed between the New Englanders and the New Orleaners. Codrescu was in the latter camp, growling the virtues of “the city like a flower that never closes,” land of ghosts, vampires, and women who spill out of their dresses.
Maybe he had something there. New Orleans’ wet heat definitely acts as a sort of meteorological PMS, swelling the flesh and giving the city a hysterical edge. All my emotions were right on the surface, and the clothes I’d brought from San Francisco felt too tight.
A Northern panelist sang the praises of snow, straight lines, and Scotch on the rocks. Codrescu came back with a remark about Puritanism. This wasn’t the first time the War between the States had been revived during the conference. It was almost obligatory for the Southern panelists to testify to the greatness of their region, while the North was evoked as a sort of anti-South, a pale, cold shadow compared to the South’s steamy singularity. The West was mentioned only twice that I heard: Montana was “where the men dress like men, and so do the women,” and San Diego was “the bland leading the bland.”
“T.S. Eliot said that most editors are frustrated writers, but most writers are, too.”
Was that my voice coming out of the speakers at the back of the room? People in the audience were laughing; was the laughter connected to what I’d just said?
Earlier, an author had confessed that what she hated most about speaking in public was that her hands seemed to separate from her body. Now I knew what she meant. My voice was out there on its own, cut off from its creator like a newly published story.
Disassociation aside, it wasn’t so bad being in front of an audience, especially when there were only seven or eight people there, half of whom I knew.
I related the story about the editor who’d told Nabokov that he’d publish Lolita if Nabokov made Lolita a boy and Humbert Humbert a farmer and set the first seduction in a barn. The other panelists, all professional editors, talked about the great collaborative relationship between writer and editor. Maybe, I said, the writer has to fight the editor a little to maintain his or her vision of the book. Maybe there should be a little bit of antagonism between author and editor, just to keep them both honest.
Proud that I’d made it through my opening remarks without betraying my terror, I sat back in my chair and looked at my copanelists. What I saw in their eyes was not Welcome to the club. What I saw in their eyes was Now, there’s a writer I’d never want to work with.
Later that day, four wildly different writers discussed “Fabulous Fables”: a medieval scholar spoke of Chaucer; Dalt Wonk read a modern fable of his own; a woman with the face and stillness of a toad offered up a few words on short stories; and A.J. Verdelle, author of The Good Negress and one of the few nonwhite conference participants, spoke of a fable she’d written years ago. Osvaldo and I had met Verdelle the previous year, just as everyone was leaving town to escape the hurricane. I’d been impressed by her strength, her style, and her dreadlocks, which had lifted in the gathering wind. Later I would read her novel and be even more impressed. A tale of a black girl shunted between her grandmother’s home in rural Virginia and her mother’s Chicago apartment, the story had that understated pain and big heart that gets me every time.
The fable she’d written, Verdelle told the audience, concerned a young girl who saw her mother as a bear. And since the story was from the girl’s point of view, the readers also saw the mother as a bear.
“People loved that story,” she said. “And I . . .” She grinned. “I hated it.” She hated it, she said, because it was too predictable, too easy. “You win when you take an old story and put just a little newness in it. And they love it when you stick animals in there, when you give them a bear. And if you make the bear talk,” she concluded, “you win.”
Her copanelists nodded, either in agreement or confusion, and the audience was silent, giving her final line the space it deserved.
Although Verdelle spoke with derision of making the bear talk, as if any hack could do it, the idea intrigued me. Just how, I wondered, do you make the bear talk? And what does she say?
The French Quarter was still very much alive at one o’clock on Saturday morning. Jackson Square bristled with fortunetellers, drunks, and vampires — to be specific, two full-fledged vampires and one wide-eyed female apprentice who passed out glossy leaflets advertising vampire-led cemetery tours while the head vampire staked out a spot on the steps of Saint Louis Cathedral. We were about to see just how far they would go to promote their product.
Flipping his long blond hair over his shoulders, the head vampire raised an arm above his head and sliced into his wrist with a scalpel. Immediately blood ran down his sleeve.
A noose of spectators tightened around him. We moved closer as he wrapped his wrist tightly in gauze. In a showman’s baritone he expounded on the forces of evil. Red seeped through the white gauze. We watched silently, almost hungrily, as the force of his heart pumped his private blood out into public.
“For the eyeing of my scars,” wrote Sylvia Plath in “Lady Lazarus,” “there is a charge.” Times have changed. Scars are no longer enough. To get anyone’s attention these days, you have to open fresh wounds.
Another circle was forming to our left, in front of the old military garrison. About ten individuals, black and white, mostly in their twenties, joined hands and started chanting. The chant increased in volume from a low murmur to one shouted word: JESUS! The circle swayed, and a call and response started up.
“Who is my savior?”
“Oh, come on,” said a man in the vampire’s audience.
“Who protects me against evil?”
“There is a world beneath this one,” intoned the bleeding vampire from the cathedral steps. “The world of the UNDEAD!”
“Who lies in wait for the devil?” answered the Christians.
“Who’s the cat that won’t cop out, when there’s danger all about? . . . SHAFT!” The answer, like the question, came from a solitary voice across the square.
The Jesus folk upped the volume, drowning out the Shaft fan and the vampire on the cathedral steps. “Who fears no evil?”
A final, deafening JESUS! hung in the warm air a moment before an answering ALLAH! came from the Shaft fan’s buddy.
The chants and shouts lingered. Something traveled on the sounds and, still needing to travel, wouldn’t let them die down too fast. But finally they wound fully and truly down, and everyone silently agreed that the moment had passed.
Osvaldo and I had heard many people sing the praises of New Orleans, but we’d heard no song of Canal Street on a Saturday night. It seemed a glaring omission, even though the street, which borders the French Quarter, has about as much old-world charm as a bus terminal. A mix of Marriotts and McDonald’s, souvenir shops and high-end department stores, Canal has no wrought-iron balconies to dress up its wide swath of neon and cement. The real show is the people: hordes of humanity, mostly teenagers, all strutting their stuff with such energy and abandon that it was a little, well, scary — at least it was for someone who’s a couple of decades away from that impulse. If they hadn’t been so absorbed in showcasing their cars, music, clothes, and bodies, they would have been a force to be reckoned with. (You could say the same about the entire country.)
As it was, you were best advised to stay out of their way: Girls in micro miniskirts dancing on traffic dividers, arms and hips circling like giant chain saws. Shouted conversations across the wide, pitted street. Heavy-duty cruising and preening. Hormones and pheromones making the air a slippery stew.
A beautiful shirtless boy jumped out of a stopped Range Rover and threw himself into an acrobatic dance in the space between lanes. When the light changed, he jumped back in, but the line of cars moved only a few inches before the light turned red again. Once more the boy jumped out, stomped to a spot in front of a group of girls, and went at it, his almost-falling-off pants not slowing him down a bit. The girls incited him further with a lethal blend of admiration and disdain. “That all you can do?” cajoled one beauty, raking his torso with her eyes.
© Mark Townsend
I would be the first to receive my medal. LuAnn standing in for the absent Moe, would sling it around my neck, then do the same for this year’s winner, Diane Freund. The three of us were sitting backstage at Le Petit Theater with half an hour to kill before the awards ceremony. The bald, smiling theater manager kept telling us we’d be more comfortable in the green room.
“It’s much cooler up there,” the manager said.
But I, for one, wasn’t going to miss my opportunity to be within spitting distance of an author I admired, whose books have that rare quality of something older and stronger than words rising up off the printed page. If LuAnn wanted to go up to the green room, then I’d follow.
Up close, she looked older than I’d expected, but still gorgeous in a sleeveless velvet tunic, with her blue, blue eyes. She asked me how to pronounce my name — she’d have to say it when she gave me my award. I told her how much her first book had meant to me. “I was living in Ecuador when it came out,” I told her. “Three different people mailed me the book, thinking I’d love it. I did. I loved it. It was a voice from a world I’d lived in but had never seen on the page —” I stopped. Unlike Moe, LuAnn was looking me in the eye, and there was something in her expression that said, Enough already. “It was great,” I concluded hurriedly. Oh, to have the luxury of being bored while someone raves about your book.
I let her go, then peered out of the closed curtains to see how the theater looked. Dark, impressive, cold.
A few minutes later I saw LuAnn seated beside Diane, whose novel she had chosen as this year’s winner. Diane’s manuscript was spread out on their laps, and their heads almost touched as LuAnn pointed out certain lines and passages that she liked, that moved her, or that maybe needed a little more work.
There was a peculiar hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. I recognized it quickly. It was judge envy.
The bald man finally got us to climb the stairs to the chilly green room, which was strewn with tropical-colored overstuffed armchairs. Someone was handing out champagne in plastic cups. LuAnn sat in one corner, still paging through Diane’s manuscript. (I would later learn that she’d made many detailed suggestions on how to revise it — saying that the narrator should be eleven instead of seven, for instance, and offering a new title.)
In another corner sat A.J. Verdelle. “How are you two?” she asked Osvaldo and me.
We told her we were fine. “I liked what you said on the fables panel,” I said.
“I was wondering if I made any sense.”
“Oh, you did,” I assured her. “The thing about making the bear talk — that was a great way to end. I’m not sure you meant it this way, but to me it was almost like a riddle, a challenge: how do you make the bear talk?”
“It kind of felt like I was babbling.”
“Not at all.” In the pause that followed I looked over at LuAnn. “It’s exciting,” I said softly, “to get to meet LuAnn. I love her stuff.”
“We’re buddies,” said Verdelle.
“Well,” she said, “we’re sort of buddies. It’s not like we talk about writing or anything.”
The theater manager appeared at the door, asking that the first round of award recipients come and wait backstage. He also cautioned us to keep our acceptance speeches as short as possible. “So we can all get to the party sooner,” he said. “Which is where we all want to be, right?”
But where I wanted to be was onstage, getting my medal. I hadn’t gone to my high-school, college, or graduate-school graduations. Ceremonies had always seemed extraneous to me. Something had come to an end; why draw it out? But just as I’d recently come to realize that I might be open to receiving help, I’d begun to think I’d missed a lot by refusing to participate in those rituals. If you don’t celebrate your achievements, who will?
I was so nervous when I went out to receive my medal that I hardly saw the audience. My acceptance speech was brief. The few photos Osvaldo snapped of me in my moment of triumph are all blurred, because I was in motion.
I slipped backstage, then out into the audience. I watched the winner of last year’s story award get his medal and then stand his ground, making the most of the moment. I listened to another author, whose story would soon be coming out as a novel, almost break down as she told the audience how the award had come just as she was about to quit writing.
Everyone took their time; all of the speeches were at least three times as long as mine. Once again, I’d worked hard to get someplace, and as soon as I’d gotten there, I couldn’t wait to leave. I’d catapulted myself toward, and then right past, the moment.
Fingering the raised Faulkner head on my medal, I turned it over and read my own name. It was misspelled. Fuck a duck, I thought. Fuck a large, quacking duck.
After all the awards had been handed out, there were a few speeches by writers who’d climbed at least halfway up the slippery rope of fame. One spoke of having found his book up for auction on eBay. The bid started at a lowly two dollars and stayed there for days. Finally the author decided to start a bidding war. He offered $2.50, which turned out to be the winning bid. Later, when he got his own book in the mail, he saw it was a copy he’d inscribed to a dear friend.
As I left the theater, a contest judge stopped me to tell me that the screener who’d passed my book on to the Faulkner Society committee had absolutely adored the novel. “She works for me,” he said of the screener. “Every day she’d come in with a new romance novel. So I thought, If she reads so much, why not put her to work?” He smiled at me. “She loved your book,” he repeated. “She just loved it.”
The postceremony party was held in the garden behind Saint Louis Cathedral. Presiding over the well-dressed crowd was a marble Jesus with his arms opened wide, welcoming the successful, the scrambling, and the rich people who fund such galas. I wandered around under moss-hung trees, watched a white cat slide under a hedge, and looked for the bar.
When I brought two glasses of wine back to the table Osvaldo had staked out, I found LuAnn seated next to us. It’s a sign, I thought. (In real life I don’t believe in signs, but this wasn’t real life, was it?)
After I’d sipped most of my wine and talked with everyone else at the table, I turned to LuAnn, who had just finished talking up Diane Freund’s book to the agent sitting to her right.
“It’s great that you’re so involved with the author whose book you chose,” I began, and I proceeded to tell her, in fifty words or less, about my experience with Moe. Even as I spoke I felt silly; what did I expect LuAnn to do? But I was leaving the next morning, and I wanted someone to know about my disappointment. “It was almost,” I said, “as if he didn’t read it.” It was the first time I’d thought seriously of that possibility.
She nodded, her expression placid. “He’s pulled in all different directions,” she said. “He’s very busy. Maybe he had someone else read it.”
I let this sink in, but not too far. I needed to be alone to bear the full weight of the idea. “Or maybe he just read the first few pages,” I joked.
“That’s something,” she said, in a neutral tone that neither condemned nor condoned such a possibility. And then, as if sensing what I was going to do even before the idea had crossed my mind — to ask if she, this year’s judge, would be willing to read the revised manuscript of last year’s winner — she erected an invisible barrier between us that only a die-hard self-promoter would have attempted to scale. I picked up my glass and downed the last of my wine.
A blond woman in a low-cut dress sat on a grave. A palm reader, she had offered to tell the fortunes of all the winners, even last year’s.
My turn came. I sat down next to her on the cold marble, and she told me to clasp my hands together. I laced my fingers, crossing my left thumb over my right.
“You’re left-handed!” she congratulated me.
“You may have learned to be right-handed, but really you’re left-handed. Many creative people are.”
Holding my hand in hers, she continued her assessment. I didn’t care about money, she said, glancing at my cheap sandals. Taking in my robust build, she said I had incredible health and energy. Generally I had confidence in myself, but recently that confidence had been shaken. I was misunderstood as a child, so I had to fend for myself, make my own rules. “They didn’t get you,” she said. “So you had to make up your own world as you went along. But did you have to make up such hard rules for yourself?”
I thought of my microsecond onstage, of how one of my rules was that you don’t rest on your laurels. Instead you minimize any achievement, because look how much farther you still have to go. On the other hand, if you still have so far to go, wouldn’t it make sense to rest, if only for a few minutes, before venturing on?
My eyes filled with tears. Everything the palm reader had said was probably true for 90 percent of writers and 50 percent of the general population. But that didn’t make it any less true for me.
Walking back to the hotel, Osvaldo and I got into one of those wine-soaked fights that have no real beginning and seem as if they will never end. A fight in a foreign city, a fight that throws you so off balance that you think about setting out to walk home, even though home is thousands of miles away.
I kept coming back to a line he’d thrown at me: “Sometimes,” he’d said, “I feel like I don’t even know you.”
Nobody here in New Orleans knew me, that was for sure. Not the man who’d supposedly read and liked my novel; not the organizers who’d dumped me on the wrong panel and couldn’t even spell my name. Osvaldo was the person I felt closest to in the world. If he didn’t know me, then no one did. I felt completely alone. So of course I went on the offensive, attacking him with all the rage I’d kept under wraps until that moment. Hell hath no fury like a writer not known.
The fight raged, banked, then flared up again. Osvaldo stalked ahead, then drifted back. A few barbs later, it was I who stalked off.
I must have said something pretty bad, because Osvaldo locked me out of our hotel room. I wandered the empty, carpeted halls, high heels hanging from crooked fingers, muttering drunkenly to myself. Then I found the right door again, and I banged and shouted until he let me in.
The next morning, we were sheepish and gentle with each other. It was gorgeous out, the air soft and still a little cool. We had a few hours before we had to be at the airport, so we walked to the French Quarter for bookstore and gallery browsing, then coffee in Pirate’s Alley, just down the lane from Faulkner Society headquarters, in the house where Faulkner had worked on his first novel.
We settled at an outside table across from the garden where the party had been held the night before. At the next table, a young woman was being fired. Her boss, a muscular young man with a frosted flattop, snarled, “I’m a bigger bitch than you are.” Down the cobblestone alley, I saw the head vampire and his apprentice, looking wan in the daylight.
Someone waved, then came over. It was Michael Cahill, winner of the 1996 novel prize. Since then his book, A Nixon Man, had come out to good reviews, and he and his wife had had their first child. I’d spoken with him over the phone about agents and publishing the previous year; he’d been extremely generous with his time and advice. At the time, I hadn’t known how rare that was. I offered up a belated thanks.
“You caught me when I was young and stupid,” he said with a laugh.
“Ah,” I said. “Now you wouldn’t be so generous?”
He shook his head. “You have to be careful” was all he would say. Then he had to go. He had a plane to catch.
So did we. During the flight I wondered about his comment. I even made some notes about it, so I wouldn’t forget. What did you have to be careful of? People asking too much of you? Wanting too many favors? People writing about what you’d said on the plane ride home?
Back in San Francisco, I have quickly been reabsorbed into my workaday world. New Orleans seems like a dream I can’t quite remember. Yet parts of it keep coming back. I’m in touch with Diane Freund, who writes from Bisbee, Arizona: “The other night the moon looked like a bone trying to carve its way out of the night.” We share trials and strategies for keeping the faith. She tells me to forget about being taken under someone’s wing; what I need is to unfurl my own.
I aim to heed her advice, despite my wing-clipping full-time job, despite the tiny apartment I share with Osvaldo and his tubes of paint. I write when I can, a weekend wing-spreader. And, good late-twentieth-century American that I am, I see a therapist, who helps me root out the tender rot of my past and tries to train my gaze away from my weaknesses and toward my strengths.
One day she urges me to invent an animal guide, since no human ones are forthcoming. When I close my eyes, a bear lumbers into view — a big, female bear; one minute she has A.J. Verdelle’s dreadlocks, then LuAnn’s long, straight hair and jet-black nails. Though not exactly threatening, the creature is not particularly benevolent, either. I remember what A.J. said on her panel: “If you make the bear talk, you win.”
Hell, I’m game.
“Is there any help to be had?” I ask the bear.
She takes her time answering — so long, in fact, that I start to think she’s slipping into early hibernation. But finally she opens her mouth. “Maybe there is,” she says, enunciating precisely, “and maybe there isn’t.”
So I made the bear talk. And I’m not crazy about what she had to say.
Maybe the trick is to make the bear talk until you do like what she has to say. The bear could be a hairy muse, totem animal of inspiration and rough drafts.
Then again, maybe she’s just a woman in a bear suit.
Erin Van Rheenen
Erin Van Rheenen’s “Thirteen Ways of Claiming a Literary Prize” [November 2003] was poignant, painfully telling, and funny. I could relate to the moment when she discovers her name has been misspelled on her medal.
After finishing Van Rheenen’s essay, I attended a reading and dinner for two visiting poets. When I arrived, a friend handed me a copy of a journal she edits, in which some of my work appeared.
The night was filled with strained conversation and big egos. I found myself wishing I were anyplace but there, eating overpriced appetizers with people who had no interest in my presence. When it was over I flopped into bed at 1 A.M. I had to get up early the next morning for a long drive. But at least I had the journal in which my work was published.
Before turning out the light, I opened the cover, and there was my name, spelled incorrectly. Thanks to Van Rheenen, I had just the words to express my feelings: “Fuck a duck,” I said aloud. “Fuck a large, quacking duck.”
I’ve twice been to the Faulkner Society’s Words and Music Festival, the setting for Erin Van Rheenen’s essay “Thirteen Ways of Claiming a Literary Prize” [November 2003], once as a paying participant, and again as a faculty member. The nonprofit Faulkner Society does generous, perhaps imperfect, but always exciting work on behalf of writers, both emerging and established. Information about the society can be found online at www.wordsandmusic.org.