Day 2: A Notch on the Belt
The easiest part of the day is waking up. My body is warm underneath four blankets and the surprise of Beth’s sweet, black cat that curled on top of me sometime in the pre-dawn. A rooster crows from the backyard and I can hear the early calls of spring birds peeping into alertness. There is no mistaking the hue of sunlight as it filters through pleated, ivory curtains.
It’s an easy 45-minute drive from Corvallis to the UofO campus in Eugene and I find my way to the guest parking without a wrong turn. The campus is larger than I remember, “blocks” on the map more like two or three blocks in a city. It takes fifteen minutes to walk to the Student Union building to find lunch, then ten minutes to the law building where the workshop is, leaving about twenty minutes to eat and clear my mind before the session begins.
The awkward silence in the room before introductions always kills me. Writers can be so painfully shy that it almost seems easier just to stay at home, to not risk anything.
“So, you guys are all writers?” a young gentleman says, laughing nervously.
“Well, you are too, right?” a few people respond.
Empty chuckles ring in my ears. I stay quiet, make eye contact with the others, offer a firm handshake when one comes my way. The editor and the judge arrive and there is a bit more energy in the room as everyone takes their seats.
There is nothing spectacular about the workshop except for the fact that the judge reiterates her rules of writing, which, in most cases, cover ground I’ve heard before. But as a practicing writer, it never hurts to hear these things again and again, letting them carve deeper ruts into the brain or better yet, make new pathways for greater insights. We also discuss endings, and the judge confesses that she read not a single essay for this competition that ended at the best spot. I offer mine as an example, partly out of masochism but mostly because it is the ending of my own essay that I despise the most, knowing it will be published even though it is not where it should be. The judge agrees, the room agrees, the paragraphs are read out loud a few times, and then the verdict.
“Yup, you’re not there yet. I’d cut it short here, at least, and then see what you can come up with later, if you’re ready to come back to this piece.”
By the third hour we are a bit more warmed up as a group but if someone walked in on our meeting, we’d look about as bland as dry toast. The information is good, everyone is genuine, and everyone is awake yet still, we seem eternally, unabashedly, reculsive.* (*reclusive: the activity of a recluse.)
That’s when I find out that I am reading first.
“Oh, too bad. I was counting on the sleepy audience,” I say to the first place winner jokingly during a break.
“Well, now I’ll get them.” She smiles. “But you’ll have them at all ears.”
And perhaps it is the low-level shyness endured in the workshop room all afternoon, or perhaps it is the fact of my period (which came a week early at 32,000 feet above sea level, somewhere over the Montana Rockies), or perhaps it is the fact that I have to read an essay whose ending is not complete and that I wrote a year ago – when I was a different writer and a different person…and certainly some element of Cass’ absence remains in my psyche as well, after all, it was she who convinced me how utterly important this reading would be, and before I know it I have three hours in Eugene in my pair of Crocs with rain on the horizon and a sad, sappy heart to wander around and try and find some nourishment, solo-style.
I find a sushi bar and order hot sake, dousing my empty stomach and waiting for the onslaught of easy thought.
It comes and it looks like this:
We make life so painful for ourselves, unearthing the past or hurling into the future, forgetting the present moment and the breath that brings it into life. My state of mind plummets. I don’t want to read and I don’t want the podium and I don’t want to have to act my way through it. I am over my essay and over the workshop and over being in Eugene and over being cheated on and really, I am wondering what I am doing here at all and thinking that instead I ought to be writing, writing, writing.
Pull out the laptop at the restaurant table, hardly taboo in this university town where coffee is god and liquor is king and the Ducks are masters of the universe and the hi-fi-wi-fi-sing-song-electric-buzz of wired life is nothing but protocol.
So I write. I write because somewhere between the words there is a truth that feels more like home than anything I can name. I write because if I didn’t, “I believe one part of who we could be might never come into existence, might never be realized—that state during which the blood courses more brilliantly, the senses strengthen and increase, possibilities expand, and new light comes to sing in the bones.” (Pattiann Rogers, The Dream of the Marsh Wren: Writing as Reciprocal Creation)
And suddenly, the tables turn. I am at the reading, the hall is grand and elegant with ornate chairs and Persian rugs and a grand piano. My nervousness about reading first doesn’t have time to cultivate because, well, I am going first, and before I know it I am at the podium, all smiles and a deep breath, looking out at an audience of 100+ smiling Oregonians.
“I had a dream last night that a marching fifth grade band entered the auditorium just as I was about to read,” I say. The audience laughs and I am at ease, having broken the silence. “So in the event that they come in, I’ll just try to project.” More laughter and then boom, I read the title, I say the first few lines from memory, and I am off, reading painfully slow (to my ear) but elegantly and I can tell I’ve got them because they are laughing in the right spots and wide-eyed in other spots.
But it is the congratulations at the end of the reading, when all of us have finished, that I appreciate the most. Six, seven, eight, no ten people came up to me to make a point of individual thanks – not congratulations – but THANKS for what I wrote and how I wrote and for opening their hearts and for reading eloquently. We get lots of photo attention from the UofO people and then there are the chapbooks handed out with all our essays and now full sized posters with our names printed and the UofO endorsement and that epic photo of a rock outcropping that I’d seen on the invitations just a week before.
The writing life is steady only in that it demands constant dedication and commitment. But the rollercoaster of emotions, the highs and lows, the praise and criticism, are the ripples and rip tides along the way that will never disappear. It’s small victories and challenges that make us stronger and after one heck of a day, tonight I feel like Rosy the Riveter.
Today’s pic! (look on the side bar after you click this link)