In one of Stephen Elliott‘s recent e-mails, he wrote about becoming a Stanford Fellow. I wish I’d kept his exact words so as not to misquote him (sorry Stephen), but the gist was he’d submitted a different kind of story in his application. He’d written from the perspective of a 15 year old mental patient. After he was accepted he figured it was his originality, more than perfection of prose or command of craft, that got him noticed.
I thought about this last night at my Peninsula Literary Series reading. There were 6 of us, and the one that stood out the most for me, and for friends I talked to afterward, was Richard Lawson. He read 2 short pieces on the following: A retirement community arguing about whether to put out a flag on the 4th of July, and a gentleman in an elevator who can’t figure out what the “ground floor” means anymore.
What’s missing here? Death. Mother issues. Abuse. Addiction. Missing fathers. Teen angst. Childhood fear. Not to say these aren’t worthy subjects — hell, I’m writing about most of them myself, as does Stephen Elliott — but there must also be something else, something off the generic mark, something surprising, that makes it worth telling.
That was Reminder Lesson #1.
I got this lesson a second time as I browsed around the gallery. A lot of beautiful art (paintings, sculpture, photographs, texture) but there were a few pieces that stood out. My friend Bonnie (thanks for coming Bonnie!) led me to a series of paintings — all paths-through-the-woods images — and said, “All of these look basically the same, but there’s only one that speaks to me.” She was right. Of all the scenes, only one had just the right sunlight dappled through the trees, just the right depth of darkness down the path. Bonnie raised her hands and opened them outward, “This is the only one inviting me to walk through those trees.”
Rex and Bonnie, of course.
Tommy, who brought Jason as the best surprise of my night – I’m so proud of you, kid.
And of course you, my blog crew, for your constant encouragement and advice. Lyra, I wore uncomfortable shoes and they worked: who can be nervous with pinched toes? Shanna, over at Betsy’s, who said “remember, nobody will mind if your reading is too short.” (Here I was worried about only having 7 minutes, yet when I was up there at the mic, looking out at those 50 quiet faces, it felt like 7 hours). Laura, who said “practice!” and I did enough practicing that I almost felt I could read it without the paper. Erika for the purple Carnvial Mask, which I carried in my purse, folded into my pages, as a talisman. It all worked.
Now, the morning after, looking at this photo, all I can think is: Tie your scarf next time – you look like a priest! And I desperately need a haircut, lest I start channeling a brunette Florence Henderson.