Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Writers Talking

Tonight my daughter and I are going to see Billy Collins speak.  I am very excited.

The first writer I ever heard speak in person was John Updike.  He was marvelous.  He said that when he came to California in the summer, he was always struck by how brown the hills are, so unlike New England’s verdant lushness.  But, he said, Californians needed to relish their state’s own particular beauty and not wish for it to be anything other than what it was.
I think about that every year.  Truly.

In the early 80s, I saw John Irving speak at the College of Marin.  He read from an as-yet-unpublished novel that would become The Cider House Rules.  He seemed a little taken aback by the rousing welcome he was given by the crowd, which included many women, one of whom raised her hand and asked, “Do you drive a Volvo?”  At this, he recoiled visibly.  I was embarrassed for the woman, who thought she was being funny.

Lorrie Moore was shy and self-protective.  I heard her speak just as Birds of America was published.  She said only one of the stories was based on actual events in her life, but she wouldn’t tell us which story it was.  At the time, I was pretty sure I knew: I had read “People Like That Are the Only People Here” in The New Yorker and thought that no one—not even Lorrie Moore—could imagine something so harrowing out of thin air.

I’ve seen Annie Lamott speak several times.  She is known as the sort of writer women flock to hear.  She’s the best friend we all wish we had.  (Actually, my best friend is the best best friend there is.  We went to see Annie Lamott together once or twice.  Afterwards, we always said we wished we could invite her out for hot chocolate.  The way everyone else in the audience wanted to.)

Patricia Polacco writes children’s picture books.  She speaks at over 300 schools a year, a feat I find almost unimaginable.  I was mesmerized by her.  She has a rare gift: the ability to speak to children and adults at once.  She personifies the distinction between a writer who gives talks and a true storyteller.
The funniest writer I’ve ever heard speak is Elinor Lipman.  She makes her own writing sound screamingly funny when she reads it.  For years after I heard her the first time, I imagined her reading whatever I was writing.  If it sounded funny, I left it alone; if it didn’t, I revised.

David Sedaris is a marvel in the meet-and-greet department.  My daughter and I saw him at a small indie bookstore that was jammed to the rafters with fans.  After his wonderful reading, he stayed to sign books, and I think he engaged personally with every single person in the room.  He had a sweet conversation with my daughter about Australia (where she was headed in a couple of weeks), and then asked me my name. When I told him, he went on for a bit about how he likes to sign books with some reference to the person's name, but mine reminded him too much of "vagina."  We had a good laugh.  He ended up drawing me an owl that is thinking "I love black people!"  

There have been other writers over the years—too many to mention—but these are the ones who stand out.  Always, I remind myself how difficult it is for someone to stand in front of an audience and read what she has created, what she has thought important.  It is first and foremost an act of bravery.  I know from experience.

If Billy Collins reads “The Lanyard,” I will bawl like a baby.


Addendum: He did read "The Lanyard."  I didn't cry (but only because my daughter would have been annoyed).  

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