The clerk at the literary liquor store looked at us fiction writers and shook his head. All seven of us were at the register and between us we had only a measly couple of six-packs and a flask-sized Jim Beam.
“The poets drank waaaayyyy more than you folks,” he said, referring to the poetry workshop the week before. Indeed we had heard tales of drunk driving and general inebriation; whether this was conduct unbecoming a poet wasn’t clear. “They certainly bought more hard liquor,” he said. The clerk took our money and counted our bills. He still shook his head. “This is kind of sad.”
The place wasn’t exactly literary, but it may have been the only liquor store that not only sold cases of beer and wine, but used books too. To the left when you enter is an entire bookcase stocked with authors of especially fine vintage, i.e., they were staff teachers at the workshop.
“Look! It’s so-and-so’s first collection of stories! This is out of print!” someone said as we walked into the store.
“And here’s so-and-so’s latest book!” said another as she rifled through the hardback’s pristine pages. “I can get her to sign it!”
We were distracted for a few minutes, pawing through the shelves (“I just bought this!”), which in hindsight probably aggravated the clerk’s later feigned disgust at our pathetic alcohol purchase. We decided instead to buy the books at the workshop office to support the Community of Writers because it was the right thing to do.
We walked out with our bottles, but no books, and into the night. We couldn’t drink too much anyway because there was still a lot of reading and writing to be done.
An odd factoid: the words “Jonathan” and “Franzen” were mentioned at least once or twice a day during the panels, which made his name the most-mentioned throughout the workshop, other than Flannery O’Connor. I’m thinking of working Jonathan Franzen into a punchline somehow.
After midnight, after we’d come back from dinner and drinks and started to read and write again, my roommates and I compared notes. I thought some pieces shouldn’t have been workshopped at all — as in, some pieces should have gone off to the printers already because they’re already that good — and some were, well, somewhat rough and iffy. We kind of agreed on the rough and iffy part.
And reader, I’m taking you through this little digression because it illuminates my own twisted way of thinking. I felt something form in the pit of my stomach — not only did talking shit about my fellow workshop participants have to be bad, bad karma (okay, it really isn’t), but it also made me wonder about the quality of my work. Instead of me saying to myself, “Hey, I can totally do better than this,” the first thing I thought of was: “If they’ll accept stuff like this, then what does this mean about my work?” Oh, these moments of self-doubt. I don’t think it was just the mountain air that was messing with my head that way.
But my roommate Benton, bless him, talked me off the ledge. He reminded me that Squaw Valley was pretty competitive, that we were instructed in any case to bring something still slightly rough that would benefit from the workshop experience, and that all these wonderful teachers and writers and agents and editors wouldn’t be attending if the quality of submissions were mediocre. They all had their reputations to uphold, after all.
Benton, of course, was right. My inability to see that my work wasn’t half bad was tying me up in knots. Exhale, Benton seemed to be saying. You’re in good company here.
One of the cooler panels today was entitled “(Un)solicited Testimonials: You Must Read This,” and it involved staff members speaking for five minutes on books — not including the so-called classics, and not including other staff members’ work — they loved and wanted to share with the audience. (I’m afraid I was only half paying attention to Diane Johnson’s earlier “craft talk” on “endings,” so I don’t have any notes; I was deliberately tuning out the spoilers.)
There may not be much point in me enumerating what I can retrieve from my notes — they’re incomplete and aren’t accompanied by the recommenders’ praises and might even be inaccurate — but hey, for what they’re worth:
Malcolm Margolin recommended Jaime de Angulo’s Indians in Overalls. (He prefaced this with a story that reminded me of Keith Basso’s amazing Wisdom Sits In Places.)
Lynn Freed mentioned Jane Gardam’s Old Filth and another novel of hers, and then read some beautiful excerpts about Mikhail Baryshnikov from Joan Acocella’s Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints.
Reagan Arthur — editor to Joshua Ferris, Ian Rankin and Tina Fey, among others, and the person who led our workshop that morning — started off by recommending a couple of NYR books, the latter sitting in my Amazon wish list for what seems like ages now: Elaine Dundee’s The Dud Avocado, and John Williams’ Stoner. She saved her big recommendation, however, for (pre-abbreviated) T. Coraghessan Boyle’s Water Music, a copy of which she actually found at the literary liquor store, I think.
Joy Johannessen is up for a challenge: 15 books in 5 minutes. Unfortunately I may have missed one or two, but here’s what I got:
- Harriette Arnow, The Dollmaker
- Pat Barker, The Regeneration Trilogy
- Andrei Biely, St. Petersburg
- Elizabeth Bowen, The Little Girls
- Rebecca Brown, The Gifts of the Body
- Michael Cunningham, Specimen Days
- John Derbyshire, Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream
- Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men
- Ursula K. LeGuin, Searoad
- Rosina Lippi, Homestead
- Colum McCann, Everything in this Country Must
- Tillie Olsen, Tell Me A Riddle
- Grace Paley, The Collected Stories
- Paul Scott, The Raj Quartet
- Hector Tobar, The Tattooed Soldier
Finally, Anne Lamott picked two books: Alexa Stevenson’s Half Baked, and (“I hate her, this is only her first novel” or words to that effect) Kathleen Winter’s Annabel.
I don’t recall whether they were instructed to pick books that they thought were “overlooked” or “books we can’t believe you’re not reading,” but I was clearly the right audience, because I hadn’t read any of them. But I should probably read the staff’s writings first, and preferably not purchased from the literary liquor store.
Anyhow, I’m already loving this whole experience and it’s only Day 3. Sitting around after midnight, reading and writing and discussing craft — it’s like graduate school but with less insecurity.
I can’t remember what we talked about after we bought our drinks. I remember we ended up in one of the condos and out on the dark balcony and tried to imagine the Raymond Carver story-like lives of the couple we can see preparing dinner in one of the other buildings. I remember we made jokes that would make sense only to the people who were there. Night fell across the parking lot below us and over all the mountains, and we lifted our glasses and drank toasts to writing.
I remember I walked back to my room before 9 pm with five bottles from the six-pack still unopened. I remember I passed by the literary liquor store, with the clerk sitting outside, looking at the beer in my hand. He was shaking his head once again.