Hello my friends. I’m really sad about how long it’s been since I updated this blog. I’d like to say I’ll try to be better, but you know how that always turns out.
I’m settled in in San Francisco, doing some freelance work, and applying to go get my MFA in nonfiction. Before I write about my life here, I have a few more things to say about Boston. I wrote this post a long time ago, but my it was trapped on my broken computer for awhile. This is about a seminar called “Radical Disclosure” I took through the wonderful Boston writers’ organization Grub Street, taught by the always excellent Steve Almond. Originally I was going to be coy and not say who, but what’s the point of that? This was a seminar about “Radical Disclosure,” after all. Time to strap on some metaphorical balls.
I tried to get into the literary scene ever since I moved to Boston (and by trying, I mean loitering around online and hoping that I’ll get invited to workshops). Boston is allegedly a literary city (Robert Frost, Jack Kerouac, Thoreau, Emerson, John Irving, Jodi Picoult, e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, Dave Eggers, and tons more have all lived here or nearby at some point), but I hadn’t really been able to find those literary people. If all writers are as shy and crippled by self-doubt and anxiety as me, then we’re all sitting in cafes with our Moleskines and great glasses looking as casually pretentious as possible, but we’re not ever going to get up and talk to each other. Unless you’re in college or grad school (and bless your little heart for being more ambitious than me), finding your way into a literary circle is pretty much impossible without barging your way in.
Instead, I did the cool thing and bought me some writers. Meaning, I found a seminar that wasn’t more expensive than a month of groceries and signed up. If I couldn’t find writers, I had no problem paying to hang out with them. It would be just like a sorority, only without housekeepers and with more drinking.
The point I’m avoiding is that the seminar was taught by one of my favorite writers. This is a writer who I recommend to anyone who will listen until they tell me to shut up, and then for a little while after that. He writes nonfiction the way that I want to write, a combination of self-deprecation and brutal honesty and beauty, while also being fucking hilarious. He’s one of only three writers who have made me laugh out loud. (The other two are David Sedaris and Tina Fey, for comparison.) He’s a writer who supports his family without teaching full time. Some people hate him for his political articles, which only means that people read him enough to get really, really angry. In my opinion, you’re not quite a real writer until someone hates you.
All fawning aside, I’ve been writing in a vacuum and have been feeling like a dried-up plant without some talk of writing and books that didn’t include the phrase “Oh, I skimmed that part.” So that I didn’t go into a Beatles-worthy panic and so that I wouldn’t have to go alone, I asked my other writer friend Lauren to come with me. As someone who I’ve forced to read this author, she at least understood my embarrassing fangirl tendencies and was willing to endure my nerves to learn something.
In a lovely twist of coincidence, it always seems to rain when Lauren and I do writerly things. And not just the mist that sometimes settles in Boston, like the city has landed in a cloud, but the kind of rain where you end up soaked even if you wear a raincoat and carry an umbrella. On the night of the class, I’d remembered my rain boots but forgotten my umbrella. I didn’t care much about getting wet but was instead worrying irrationally about my hair looking good. On our way to the class, I was telling Lauren how much I’m afraid of in-class writing exercises when a car went by and drove through a large puddle. I was hit by a small tsunami. My entire right leg was as wet as if I’d fallen into a swimming pool. A few people walking nearby helpfully suggested that I walk farther away from the curb. At least my hair was fine.
We were buzzed into the building and took a ride in the most frightening elevator I’ve ever been in. It managed to hum and make a lot of noise while seeming to barely move at all. It was hot. I felt like I was in a microwave. Upstairs, the seminar room was small, with a rocking chair in the corner, white-painted walls, and big windows overlooking the rain-washed Boston Common. Someone had stenciled writing quotes on the walls. We sat at a wooden table that wobbled and I tried to act like a writer and not to freak out. I was wearing brand-new dark jeans, and spent the twenty minutes before the seminar fretting that my soaking jeans were bleeding blue dye onto the carpet.
I’ll spare myself the embarrassment of describing the writer’s entrance and the start of class where I took lots of deep breaths and willed my face into a look of focused intelligence. The class dealt with the issue of writing the truth about people close to you, whether veiled in fiction or in nonfiction. It’s an issue that can’t be resolved, and the discussion went round and round while the instructor read pieces of work, told us stories of people who had gotten angry, and of writers who wrote anyway. I wrote down quotes like “Don’t write scared.” “Sometimes you can never undo the hurt that you cause.” “We traffic in unbearable feelings.” “I don’t go to writers for moral behavior.” “It’s unburdening to stop pretending that we’re not all messes.” It was like a drink of cold water for my dried-up writing.
And then he casually mentioned that we’d be doing a little exercise. “No pressure,” he said, which made me feel immediate, immense pressure. I was back in school, in writing classes where the exercises are supposed to be no big deal but we’re all so desperately trying to prove ourselves in the eyes of our professors that we are all bundles of nerves, racking our brains for something that isn’t completely stupid. He asked us to write about something we’ve been hesitating to write about. Whether that meant we were afraid someone would hate us, or afraid of the writing itself, here was a place to practice writing, in confidence.
Perhaps it was the spark of being around other writers that gave me momentum, but I knew immediately what to write about. Usually my writing process starts with staring in panic at the blank screen or blank page, but I was lucky. When we were done, some part of me raised my hand to volunteer to read it. The other parts of me were all “What the fuck, idiot? You know you’re going to actually have to read it, now, right?” but it was too late; everyone was looking at me.
Before I read, I had a flashback to a literary journalism class where I read something sensitive aloud. I had plenty of practice reading aloud, but I usually practiced before readings and writing classes, and I hadn’t practiced this one. While I read, I got more and more panicked because I could tell how panicked I sounded, and I ended up crying. It was more nerves than the content that made me upset, but I still wanted to die. Thankfully it was a tell-all sort of class and everyone was kind, but I was desperate not to repeat that now, not in front of a writer I admired.
So I made my voice be still and read quickly, making lots of mistakes trying to read my own sloppy handwriting. When I was done, the other people in the class let out a sigh at the last few sentences. And ladies and gents, at the risk of sounding like an arrogant assclown, please let me tell you what this writer said. “Wow,” he said, and I could feel my face getting hot. I thought about snow and refrigerators to try and calm myself and cool my face. He said so many kind things, most of which I was too flabbergasted to commit to memory, but one of the kindest was, “You said so much with so little, especially with the dialogue. I was reminded of Hemingway…” and I didn’t hear the rest because I thought I might have to run out of the room to throw up or cry or both.
I write this not to be self-congratulatory or to say that I believe what he said for a second (he’s known for his kind and helpful critiques, and I mean, COME ON), but to write about how grateful I was. Writing is a cruel field. I think writers crave acceptance and validation more than other people, but for some fucked-up reason we choose a field that offers so little of it. This wasn’t even validation, though; it was a moment that all writers crave—someone taking the time to really listen to your words, and feeling moved by them for a small moment.