This weekend, I taught for a couple of days at the incredible Mt. SAC Culturama. I’ve been involved in this event for four or five years now, and it’s an event that never fails to leave me feeling so satisfied, and full of the hope that inevitably comes from having had a whole weekend of being a part of a strong literary community, yes, but also being able to pass on what I know and have worked hard to know in intense, 75-minute sessions.
I always end up starving at the end of every day, probably from sheer joy. This is as it should be. But this is also beside the point.
In a class I was teaching on alternative essay forms, I covered braided essays, some experimental techniques, and finally, the hermit crab essay, which is by far my favorite type of essay. (It’s the essay form that takes on the form of something else, like a list; a set of directions; advertisement copy.)
I described two events that I’ve been noodling over since they happened, and used them to illustrate how, when you’re struggling with what things your brain won’t let go of mean, thinking of them in different forms can help you to resolve them.
I’m past that point. These two events have taken up a lot of my brainwaves and I need to write them down. Maybe someday I’ll do something more creative with them, but right now they’re burning a hole in my creative pocket and I want to tell you about them. We can discuss them together in the comments below, if you like. Or just take them home and noodle them and then tell me what you think.
Event the first: A tale of heresay
Many of you know that I run a literary magazine with some friends. We buy a booth every year at the big writers’ conference we go to. This year I got to be on a panel with a Bigwig Writer, whom I already knew from another event. We like each other. So after the panel, Bigwig Writer came by our booth to say hello to me. I, alas, was not there. Here is the scene I understand to have taken place.
Personnages: FRIEND OF YI SHUN (FOY); ASPIRING POET (AP); BIGWIG WRITER (BW).
Scene: AP is IN CONVO w FOY when BW appears.
BW: Hello! Is Yi Shun here?
FOY: No, but she’ll be back later!
BW: Oh, okay. I was on a panel with her! That panel!
BW POINTS to the framed sheet we have displayed outlining our staff’s panel appearances.
AP is still AT THE BOOTH, now STANDING next to BW. Some might say she’s LURKING, but I wasn’t there, so who’s to say?
FOY: Oh! You’re [BIGWIG WRITER]!
AP to FOY: You didn’t know that’s [BIGWIG WRITER]?
FOY is suitably embarrassed. I know, because I talked to her afterwards. BIGWIG WRITER, by the way, is still standing there, this entire time. God knows what he thought of the whole thing.
Event the second: A tale of I-Don’t-Know-What-to-Call-This
Personnages: CLASS full of people; INSTRUCTOR; UNNAMED WOMAN; ME
Scene: INSTRUCTOR is telling an anecdote to illustrate how important it is to make literary connections. He tells a story about how, at this same conference two years ago, one of his goals was to get his next book published. He whips out a book.
INSTRUCTOR: Guess what? Today is my book’s birthday. I met my publisher right here, and we made it happen.
INSTRUCTOR displays book.
CLASS oohs and aahs.
INSTRUCTOR: Isn’t that amazing?
CLASS murmurs agreement.
UNNAMED WOMAN raises her hand.
INSTRUCTOR: Yes! A question!
UNNAMED WOMAN: I’m an artist. I already see a problem with this book. I can’t read the title.
UNNAMED WOMAN leans forward; squints. INSTRUCTOR gamely leans forward with book in hand.
UNNAMED WOMAN: Here, let me see that? Yeah, I can’t read this. It’s so busy.
CLASS is dead quiet.
I am fuming.
UNNAMED WOMAN: Who chose that cover, anyway?
If you’re anything like me, you are mouth open, wondering what could possibly make these people behave like this.
You are also furiously thinking up rejoinders, or maybe wondering what the appropriate thing to do or say would have been. I am most often reminded of an article I read about Bernie Williams, the New York Yankees’ former center fielder. He also plays concert-level guitar and composes music and likes chess, but whatever. (#overachiever)
Anyway. The article recounted how quiet Willians was in the locker room, and that whenever anyone would “yo’ mama” him, Williams would usually just gaze at the offender and say, something like, “Man, why did you have to say that?”
I have wanted to be Bernie Williams for a very long time.
I have noodled over these two occurrences for some time now. This is where my writing is supposed to take a left turn to Albuquerque, or maybe take the Osprey’s dive, to use a metaphor I borrowed from essayist Kathleen Dean Moore, and I’m supposed to see something fantastic that I didn’t see before about what these two events mean to me. But that is not going to happen. I can only posit a few theories:
1., I have maybe been shamed enough myself that I know what it feels like to be made to feel stupid in public.
2., I have maybe been shamed enough that I don’t believe anyone should be called out in public.
3. Painfully transparent short-sightedness makes me itch: UNNAMED WOMAN actually asked the publisher’s information, so that she could submit her work to them. And ASPIRING POET clearly did not put two and two together: If BIGWIG WRITER is at someone’s booth, and that someone is not you, them maybe you should consider that being nice to everyone at that booth and not trying to look like you know better is the right way to do it.
4., I am just churlish and curmudgeonly and need an ice-cream sandwich, stat.
5.. I am furious with myself for not having been there in situation the first to say something snappy to AP; and furious with myself for having not spoken up in situation the second. Earlier, I justified it to myself by saying, “Well, it’s not my class” and things like it, but FFS people. I should have said something.
6., I also distinctly remember what it was like to feel so insecure that you just need to prove you know more than the next guy. This makes me sad, both the remembering and the idea that grown-ass human beings still feel the need to behave this way.
I don’t know. I just needed to put all this somewhere. Just–don’t be like this, people, okay? People have long memories. And the ripple effect of your actions are always bigger than you think they are.