We lost Katie Evans a year ago today. I want to mention her here because if this blog is about writing, and art, and life, it is inevitably about grace, and no one exemplifies this trait more than Katie. Sure, she had the credentials of generosity—Peace Corps volunteer, M.A. in Public Health, AIDS and Family Violence Outreach Project Manager in Romania—but it was her spirit that most impresses.

I got to know Katie all at once. I first met her and John in Miami, at the orientation party for FIU’s creative writing program. Afterwards I emailed my mom: "There seem to be at least two normal people here. John went to NU too—though we never met there—and Katie grew up near Chicago, which I could tell right away. Not just her accent but her warmth and comfort in her own skin—that down to earth attitude that manages to accept whatever might happen yet still laugh about it.”

I say I got to know Katie all at once because a week after our brief party meeting, she and John invited me to sort of, well, move in to their apartment. Hurricane Ivan was on its way, and they invited me and another newly arrived grad student to hole up with them while the storm passed overnight. I was grateful to have company instead of sitting in my still unfurnished apartment, alone.

During those three LONG days, Katie remained positive. She always found something to laugh about—the TV newscasters trying to report in a downpour, the flying coconut warnings, her and John’s often-conflicting taste in music. She made me feel, though I knew it couldn’t possibly be true, that by camping out in their spare bedroom and making a mess in their new apartment, I was the one doing them a favor.

If you’re reading this and you’d haven’t in some way been touched by Katie, it’s only because she hadn’t got to you yet. You can read more about her and her life here:
Katie Memorial Foundation
How to Like It (John's Blog)


Writing Camp

The conference was a blast. I felt fantastic the whole week, and busier than I’ve been in a long time. In an email I told a friend: Here, I think more clearly; I’m funnier, its easier to find the right word; I’m stimulated, I laugh, I am blown away over and over by peoples’ diversity and their similarity; I am constantly impressed, and heartened, and happy.

It was an intense week of learning and drinking and talking and drinking and sharing (and...more drinking). The Celtics won. I got five new best friends, and thanks to Facebook I’ll be able to send them virtual cocktails and smack them with sheep. It was just like good ol' Camp Caribou.

Here, in no particular order, are a few of the big ideas on my mind in the aftermath:

The writing (sub)conscious. In class, some folks liked to ask (and others liked to complain about them) questions like, “How do I structure a story?” or “How do I choose a point of view?” Alex Chee got to the bottom of these unanswerables by talking about standards, and the idea that you’re only as good as your own. Immersing in good writing—through reading, writing, exercises, classes, self-examination—serves to elevate your consciousness and allow you to write from a better place. Good writing isn’t about knowing “how;” it’s about sharpening your instincts and then writing some more.

Timing: Writing is an art, but publishing is a business.

We writers are hungry for recognition, and it’s always easy to find someone who’s both younger than you and more accomplished. Yet throughout the conference I kept hearing stories of success too soon. We all want the next thing—a certain publication, an agent, a book deal—but just because you can take that next step doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

Case in point: Alex Chee told us that he got an agent based on the first hundred pages of his (awesome) first novel, Edinburgh. Woo! Party time, right? But he hadn’t yet written the rest of the book. Based on those early pages, the agent developed an expectation for the ending, and when Alex turned in a different book than she'd imagined, the agent was disappointed. And no one wants the person selling their book to be anything less than in love with it. So his advice was to keep that query to yourself until you have a finished manuscript.

Roya Hakakian told us that she got a lot less for her upcoming book than it was worth because she sold it before finishing her research. This included extensive travel and countless interviews—some with people who took years to come around and tell her what they knew.

How are we to know when it’s no longer too soon, when it’s just soon enough? According to Roya, it’s when you are a master of your material, when, as she put it, you are person CNN is going to call if they need an expert. The talk she gave referred to non-fiction but I think the same principle applies to a novel. It won’t be your best work, and its value won't be clear, until you’re a master of the story, and if it’s not your best, you’re only hurting yourself by putting it out there.

My suitemate asked on the last day of the conference if I’d been inspired to send out more work. I think, if anything, I will submit less, or at least I’ll wait longer between printing that final “perfect” draft and sticking it into an envelope. I’ve got a couple stories that’ve been rejected 50+ times, stories I look at now and think, Oh, I could make this so much better. But even if I did the rewrite and it turned out to be a top-tier story, there would be fifty fewer outlets for it.

Endings. Resist the urge to put a shock Band-Aid on the end of an otherwise good story. The right ending should feel both surprising and inevitable to reader (and, sometimes, to the writer). Put your deaths, accidents, and diseases up front. To my mind, a good ending should be more like a straw breaking a camel’s back, not a piano falling from the sky.

Constraint fosters creativity. As humans we are creatures of habit, and habit is the enemy of creativity. Like the blind man who can identify a person by their smell, obstacles force compensation, creative problem solving, and allow us to consider solutions, or words and phrases, that we otherwise wouldn’t.

Case in point: In 1939 a man named Ernest Vincent Wright wrote an entire novel without using the letter “e.” (A lipogram, for all you word nerds.) Of the experience, he said, “All words used are complete; are correctly spelled and properly used. This has been accomplished through the use of synonyms; and, by so twisting a sentence around as to avoid ambiguity. The book may prove a valuable aid to school children in English composition.”

(I tried this exercise during a 15-minute break. Here’s what I got: That night at Billy’s Pub I had a singular goal: drink a ton. My psychic and I had had a fight--lotto picks, again--and also about which guy from my match.com compatibility list was most willing to put up with that damn rash.)

Wright admits it wasn’t easy. His recommendation for getting through: “keep a bromide preparation handy.”

After such an intense last week, a little bromide doesn't sound like such a bad idea.


Main Street, U.S.A.

I’m spending the week in Middletown, CT attending the Wesleyan Writers Conference.

I arrived yesterday, on two hours’ sleep, which was partly why it took me so long to figure out why there were so many cars with out-of-state plates on the highway. I finally realized that in a state small enough you could practically reach out and touch both sides, this wasn’t such a strange thing.

This is my first time in New England. It’s an odd feeling, landing in a city where no one is waiting for you. For the first time in awhile, I didn’t rush to turn on my cell phone when the plane landed. The possibilities of that freedom made me a little nervous. I could rent a car; I could ditch the conference completely, go to New York and dance all night; I could hitchhike to Boston and feast on beans and lobster and catch a game at Fenway, and no one would stop me.

In the end, though, I hopped into a taxi and made the $63 trip to Middletown. They put us up in dorms, and since the conference doesn’t officially start until this afternoon, I had the place to myself. My single dorm room is just as spartan as I remember dorm rooms being, though the plasma TV in the lounge and the suite kitchen with a bar-style seating area were swankier than anything I remember from college.

I ventured out into the kind of humidity that can wave even my hair, and took a walk. A fabulous thunderstorm brewed up as I strolled, and the skies opened just as I crested a hill overlooking a baseball field where two Little League teams were singing the National Anthem. The harder it rained, the louder they sang, until they were screaming and jumping in a downpour. The ump called “Play ball!” despite the rain, and I watched an inning of mudball from the shelter of my umbrella.

This morning I took a jog around campus and downtown. The houses here all look like the kind you draw as a kid, pentagons with a chimney sticking out the top. Green, unfenced yards sprawl all around and raise a thirst for fresh lemonade. Look behind any house and you'll likely see an old swingset, the metal kind with plastic swings. Everyone’s got a front porch.

It’s quite a change from Silicon Valley. I have yet to see a BMW or Porsche. Kids play in the street while adults watch—or don’t—from a porch. And people are nice. A construction worker, rather than catcalling as I jogged past, applauded politely.

Middletown is the hometown of Allie Wrubel (what a name!), composer of “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” and its city website claims the “widest Main Street in Connecticut.” Hanging across Main Street is what must be the widest banner in Connecticut, advertising the Middletown Cruise and Sock Hop to be held Tuesday night. A SOCK HOP! I don't know what's on the conference schedule that evening, but whatever it is, I'm pretty sure it won't beat out "Sock Hop" on my to-do list.

On Main Street I noticed a delightful business, a store that might exist in San Francisco, albeit with different wares and clientele.

It’s fun, traveling solo, coming to a new place and letting my curiosity lead. Without a companion to share the view, I am more inclined to write about it, to take those silly pictures with my cell phone and send them off. This afternoon I’ll meet my fellow conferencers and though I won't be alone anymore, I'll still be on my own. In a way it feels like the first day of college, hanging around an empty dorm, hoping my suitemates will be cool, wondering how we will invent ourselves for each other. John bets this week is going to be like summer camp. That sounds good to me. As long as my fellow campers also want to go to the Sock Hop.