Had brunch yesterday at The Loft with Jane Hamilton and the winners of this year's Loft-McKnight Fellowship, for which Hamilton was the judge. I was invited because I'd won "Honorable Mention." It would be easy enough to be surly at this near-miss, but I was happy to go. The Loft has been good to me (they gave me my first writing award, way back when, and now invite me to teach/speak) & really: it's such a treasure that it always cheers me a little to walk their halls.
My only real problem in accepting the invitation was what to wear, since I pretty much only come in two fashion flavors these days: $1000 suit and $40 jeans. Glad I chose the jeans. It's always a little comical to me when people think of any writer as "famous." I don't think the "star power" of our little group could have powered a piss-ant's motorcycle around the inside of a Cheerio. Most writers I know, even when lit up with a drink and a new book out, have little or even anti-charisma anywhere except on the page. Even Jane Hamilton and Trish Hampl, superstars each, would be anonymous on the street. Sure, there are still raconteurs out there (if you've ever seen Richard Bausch in joke-telling form, you'll swear there's no one more entertaining than a writer)--but most of us are more than happy to have an editor out there to strip out the jokes that make us look paranoid and insane, or catch us when we're in the grips of some enthusiasm that is only coherent to ourselves: l'esprit de l'escalier, in writing, is better known as "the second draft."
But we try, and Jane Hamilton's introduction to this year's winners was one of the better I've heard--and, in fact, had a quality about it that made me sure to steal it someday. I hate gushing, fawning, hyping, etcetera... it drives me nuts, and always seems a little unfair to the writers at hand: why not let their work, which almost always holds 92.6% of their personality, speak for them & avoid the risk of setting them up to trip over the expectations you've just placed before them? Jane said, when it came time to introduce the writers she chose for this year's fellowships, that she liked to imagine what the writer of a piece looked like as she read it--and then enjoy the surprise of seeing what they actually looked like when she met them. Cheri Johnson, she thought, would be a "hapless man, probably middle aged," instead of the cheerful & geeky 31 year-old woman sitting at the end of the table; John Salter, she thought, "was... well, just a man, pretty obviously," which he pretty obviously was and is: a 42 year-old man from Glyndon, MN; and of course, I'm illustrating, in completely reversing the order in which Jane actually spoke, the luxury the writer has over the speaker, by saving for last her introduction of Bonnie Rough. "You," said Jane, shaking her head in amusement, "You I pictured as a woman: but very intense, very large, pale, with black hair and black eyeliner---moody, with heavy sensible shoes." Bonnie, with her jock husband and her new baby along... Bonnie, sporting a fabulous smile and breezy outfit, let out such a gleeful peal of laughter that she underscored the joke, gave it a lingering quality that filled the rest of the afternoon.
Bonnie, though, when she read from her essay "The Birdmen," also quieted the room as no other reader that afternoon. It was a revelation. Just. fantastic. stuff. Writers--our lifestyles are far from the rich and famous... but we're sneaky, hold surprises, and when we catch you--we lay you out like no one else. Watch out for Bonnie Rough: she may look like a ΔΓ alumn while roaming the aisles of Whole Foods, but holy shit--she writes so well she's dangerous.