Writers Are Real People

I got up at 5:30 this morning, let the dogs out, made coffee, turned on the news: 4.0 EARTHQUAKE hits at 5:33 a.m.  Strong enough to wake people up, they’re saying.  No damage to speak of.  Life in California.


In other news ….  here’s my AWP top 10:

The mug is signed by Cheryl Strayed, and this is the Vogue article about her upcoming memoir, WILD.


1.  Listening to Cheryl Strayed and Stephen Elliott talk about writing nonfiction:  If you’re going to write about your family, there are lines that will be crossed — where is your line?  What can you live with?  Sometimes I think I’m waiting for someone to tell me where that line is.  Like I’m waiting for permission.  But the reality is this:  The line is different for all of us.  We all have to decide where our own line is, and live with it.

2.  I read Nick Flynn’s memoir on this trip and was sorry to turn the last pages, sorry for it to end.  It was originally titled ANOTHER BULLSHIT NIGHT IN SUCK CITY (a title that, sad to say, kept me from reading it until now).  He has one crazy story to tell, and he tells it with such grace and power and compassion.  Poets really do write the best memoirs.

3.  As expected, there were Jonathan Franzen look-a-likes everywhere, around every corner.  Here’s a great article about the real Franzen, and why he can’t appreciate Edith Wharton, over at the The Daily Beast.

4.  Margaret Atwood.  *swoon*  She only spoke for about a half-hour, but every word was such a treasure.  I wanted to bundle her right up and take her home with me.  And I feel the need to read CAT’S EYE again.

5.  Just like the DMV, even the most accomplished writers have to show up in person to get their badges.  I spotted Stephen Elliott in the registration line.  I wish I’d said hello to him, told him how much I admire his work.  There was hardly anyone else around.  It would have been easy.  But I was too scared.

Me, AmyG, Kathryn Harrison, Suzy

6.  I just about stared the skin right off Kathryn Harrison during her panel.  We were right there in the front row, Ms. Harrison not 10 feet away.  I even got up the nerve to ask for a photograph and, just like a real person, she came down off the stage and obliged.  Confession: I now own 4 copies of THE KISS:  a signed first edition, an old paperback marked up with orange highlighter and blue pen, a Kindle version, and a new paperback signed, For Teri, with all my best to you.  Four copies, and every single one holds it’s own value.

7.  Lee Martin.  I’d never heard of him, now I can’t wait to read his books.  He quoted this line from Flannery O’Connor.  Twice. Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.

8.  Listening to Fenton Johnson talk about the value of research when writing memoir.  Research can uncover the true narrative.  I’m glad I got up the nerve, when he later passed by me in the lobby, to tell him how much I loved his book, GEOGRAPHY OF THE HEART.

9.  I ran into a favorite teacher I haven’t seen in over a year.  We spent 2 hours catching up over a beer and coffee.  What are the chances we’d run into each other, by accident, in the midst of 10,000 people?

10.  On the plane home, I sat down next to a poet and, no shit, he looked just like Franzen.  I AM NOT not making this up.  I’m pretty sure he sneered a little when I laid the latest issue of Vogue on the seat between us.  Before take-off, a flight attendant held up a copy of Poets & Writers magazine, right in front of us, and said with a giggle, “Is anybody here a poet or a writer?”  My poet reached out his hand and said, “I’m a poet, I’ll take it.”  And then he looked at me and said, “Not a writer,” like the word writer was bad porn.  I can’t tell you the willpower it took to keep my big mouth shut.  Alas, an hour later, my poet redeemed himself when he helped clean up the giant mess I made spilling an Entire Can! of Sprite on Vogue and in my own lap.  “You,” he said, “obviously have a drinking problem.”  We laughed.


30 thoughts on “Writers Are Real People

  1. girl in the hat

    That shake woke me up. Bolt upright, with the girls crying in their rooms. Very scary– and I’m a jaded native. (Did you feel it, too? Are you that close?)

    AWP looks fun. Especially Margaret Atwood. I wonder– overall, did it make you feel more or less serious as a writer?

    1. Teri

      We didn’t feel a thing here in the South Bay. But I hear those close said it felt much stronger than 4.0.

      I like attending these events (occasionally) as they remind me I’m not the only one typing away, trying to figure all this out.

  2. Sarah W

    This is so cool, Teri — AWP, not the earthquake, and I’m glad you’re all right.

    I covet your mug and your experiences!

  3. macdougalstreetbaby

    This idea of lines being crossed is so very interesting. The only way I really know how to gauge it is by my emotional reaction. If something doesn’t sit well, I know I’ve crossed a line. Then again, sometimes that’s just what I want, for something not to sit well and that just leaves me totally confused.

    Thanks for all this reporting, Teri. It’s so kind of you to share it all. I’m with Sarah. It’s enough to bring out the green eyed monster in me.

    1. Teri

      The line between telling your truth and what you can live with in the aftermath. Like walking the high rope and wondering how much tension it can take before it breaks and you plunge.

      See, I feel panicky just writing that down. Imagine how fun the actual writing is.

      1. Averil Dean

        Yeah, that’s exactly it. And sometimes you really don’t know how it’s going to be until the truth is out there and you’re stuck with it. I can’t imagine writing memoir, Teri; your courage blows my mind.

        I’m voracious for the AWP stories. My head is spinning at all the names!

      2. Averil Dean

        Gawd, it was supposed to be the beginning of May, but we’re now at mid-June. I feel like I’m walking to the horizon sometimes.

        I’m afraid of what that conversation sounded like, which is good reason to show up in Boston to defend my pristine reputation.

        I keep meaning to say how much I love your curls, Suzy. You’re a rock star!

  4. amyg

    stephen’s insight was phenomenal. set your limits. i also loved the idea of giving it over before hand–not to ask permission, but to deal with whatever before whatever was available for all to read. (i just ordered a hardback of adderall diaries for my brother’s b-day gift.)

    (the irony and timing of this talk couldn’t have been more on queue for me)

    i was totally cheezing it up during katheryn’s talk too.

    i didn’t have one bad session there. or dinner. or coffee. i even enjoyed the time i spent wandering around the wrong hotel.

    1. Teri

      This is the thing I think I’m always waiting for permission on, or waiting to see what will happen if I just push one button, then 2, then 4, etc… I think I needed to hear someone — someone who’s done it a few times, and survived — say these words:

      You have to decide what your line is, and what you can live with. You are the ONLY person who can make that decision.

      If we all just wrote what everyone else approved of (whether they’re in your book or not), there would be nothing worth reading.

      P.S. Do you have a sense of direction? Because we pretty much decided that me, Suzy, and Lyra DO NOT. I’m not sure about Laura and Sherry, but I wonder —- it took us an awfully long time to locate a building with food in it.

      1. LauraMaylene

        Ummm obviously I have no sense of direction, either. Remember when I was sitting in the Palmer and you were in the Hilton, and I didn’t get it? Yeah. But at least I wasn’t alone!

  5. Lyra

    On the high wire…you know, I wish you could have heard the memoir talk about the distance between the narrator and the character. You are the character, but the narrator is the one who provides the distance, the one who frames the story…I’ll try and get my notes straight before I post that one. Maybe something in there will be helpful.
    It was the same thing I tried explaining to you and Amy, but you know? It all seemed so clear at the time and then I look at my mishmash of notes, and well, they’re mishmash.

    1. Teri

      No need to fight through your notes — I’ve got this one. Well, I’ve got it until I try to do it, and then we all know what happens. Is it just me, or does there seem to be about a thousand miles between my brain and my fingertips?

  6. Bobbi

    Great top ten list. I love that shot of Madame Atwood. Now Monsieur Franzen. What is the friggin’ deal? I suspect he is a far better writer than a human being. Nobody disses Wharton on my watch.

    1. Teri

      I was talking about the Franzen thing with an old professor — while neither of us really liked his books, we both have this great admiration for him professionally. I admire him, which for some reason makes me feel I can needle him a bit.

      And I think I’m also a little jealous of his ability to say whatever he thinks, knowing the backlash that will come, and stand his ground.

      And isn’t Atwood just dreamy. To say I adore her is so not a big enough word.

  7. Paul Lamb

    I understand physicists consider themselves the true scientists, and all others, like biologists, are merely pretenders. (And mathematicians sneer at the physicists in the same condescending way.) So poets disdain writers, eh?

    1. Teri

      Ha! This makes total sense, Paul. I remember so many of the difficult poets in both undergrad and getting my MFA. Granted I finished both degrees in my 40’s, so I was no young starry-eyed pup and the young poets — smarter than the writers! — were so damned painful to be around.

      That said, we writers often got a kick out of how over the top they could be when judging our prose. As in, why in the hell would ANYONE write prose. It’s so, so, so pedestrian. Or maybe it was just that I’d have to leave class and look up the words they used. Silly me!

  8. Catherine

    Lovely post, really engaging and I can see you on that flight. How strange that a can of Sprite brought poet and writer together. About that line. I know I have crossed it secretly at night, using things in my fiction that perhaps I should not have. When I write I distance myself instantly from the material, but I realise some of my closer readers don’t feel the same way. It takes training, doesn’t it, to be able to pace things through, use guises.

  9. lizisilver

    Teri, THANK YOU so much for giving those of who us who couldn’t make it a taste of AWP. I love hearing about all the writers but I especially love seeing pictures of the gang. And what a gang it is.

    I don’t like crowds and I’m intimidated by all the writers, but my heart is set on next year in Boston.

  10. LauraMaylene

    I think this is the best AWP post ever. I LOVE that you sat next to a Franzen on the plane, and that he ultimately redeemed himself. I love your Kathryn Harrison stalking abilities. And of course I love the Sugar mug!

  11. Sherry Stanfa-Stanley

    I never should have returned home and to my office. Obviously, I missed so, so much.

    Glad we met up again though, Teri, even if only for a few hours!

    And thanks for the recap–it was the second-best thing to being there for it all.

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