Friday, January 29, 2010

WITS reading

Yesterday, at 5:30 PM my alarm woke me up from a deep, dream-filled sleep. This is usually the time I wake up in the morning so I was disoriented. I thought I had a second chance to make my day go better and that I hadn't really bombed my Arabic quiz. It was just a dream! Then I remembered why I had set my alarm. The WITS reading at Powell's! Every year Writers in the Schools releases an anthology of students' stories, poetry and artwork. I participated in the reading last night along with other former interns like myself, writers, teachers, and students.

I stood behind the podium and read the poem "Girl," by Jaleana Williams. That poem, along with all the work in this anthology, is inspiring.  I wish all the students the best of luck with their literary aspirations, and I hope this publication gives them encouragement to keep writing.

Writers in the Schools is a great program which sends professional writers into high school classrooms to get kids excited about writing.

I wrote and drew a lot in high school. One teacher, Mr. Hardin, encouraged me, and each time I'd read one of my stories aloud, he would do a one-fisted Tarzan drum roll on his chest, or yell out, "Solid!!!!" If it weren't for him, I would have been even more depressed and hopeless and full of self-loathing, and that is a scary thought.

On Wednesday some memories came back to me, memories I had shoved in my brain's junk pile. I had reserved Wednesday for sleeping all day, my reward for giving a long presentation in one of my classes. When I finally woke up, I knew I needed to study Arabic, but I really wanted to read Langston Hughes instead. I resisted the temptation, and tried to focus on Arabic. In bed, hunched over my textbook, my mind wandered back to high school and how I was so fascinated with the Harlem Renaissance. I loved Richard Wright, I loved the word "renaissance." I wanted to start my own renaissance. I wanted to show people who never noticed me before that I could create beautiful and meaningful works of art and literature.

To commemorate these artists and writers from the Harlem Renaissance, I drew their portraits and handed them in to my 10th-grade history teacher. I included a short paper, telling a little about each of their lives. Well, I never got that assignment back and I don't know what grade I received, but 5 years later when I was 20, I was on a coffee date with a potential suitor. He and I had gone to the same high school and he brought up how much he loved that history teacher. Trying to persuade me that our old history teacher was really good,  my date told me about a time he was in this teacher's room at lunch and how the teacher ridiculed some student's assignment. "It was so funny!" he said. "This student just handed in a bunch of drawings of black artists, and Mr. Blah Blah was like, 'These drawings are the only good thing this student's handed in to me.'"

The horror. I wanted to get up and leave. But looking back, I'm glad I drew pictures of Harlem Renaissance writers, even though I wasn't following the assignment.

Monday, January 25, 2010

How I Write

I can be extremely nosy, although I've gotten better over the years. Maybe this quality comes from being the daughter of a journalist, and tagging along as a child to her interviews. After listening to my mom shoot questions relentlessly, maybe I thought this was how people normally interacted.

I like it when people open up to me and I don't have to ask questions, when unexpected answers arrive to questions I never ask. But sometimes I can be given too much information, like in the book I just read.

"How I Write" is a collection of vignettes by famous writers, all about their superstitions and inspirational knick knacks. I'm embarrassed to admit I had only heard of about a quarter of the authors featured in this book. I think most of them are English, but anyway, that's no excuse. Perhaps not knowing most of them accounts for me not caring about the weird things on their desks.

I loved the first essay by Vendela Vida, all about her used copy of "A Farewell To Arms." That was so interesting and well written I was aghast that I had never read anything by her. Now I plan to read both her novels and stay on the lookout for anything else she writes.

I skipped the lies by JT Leroy because I am still mad about that literary hoax and how I fell for it. I even gave a presentation on JT Leroy to my bookclub many years ago, giving special attention to the writer's personal life. And all that time a woman was pretending to be him. The nerve!!! Although, judging by JT Leroy's photos, I wonder why she wasn't called out sooner.

After reading Jonathan Franzen's little snippet about his squeaky chair, I think he must be the next biggest liar featured in this book. Either that, or he's just plain crazy. Apparently, when he's done working, his voice is hoarse from talking loudly all day, but he has no recollection of making a sound. I just don't believe that. He would have to be shouting to make his voice hoarse and the only way I can imagine someone shouting without knowing it is if that person is sleeping.

I found it interesting that Natasha Mostert pummels a speedbag for inspiration. Many of the writers in this book have routines just like boxers preparing for bouts. I wish I had a speedbag. Right now I like writing in restaurant booths, drinking Guinness, and eating fries doused in malt vinegar. Note to self: hitting a speedbag would be healthier.

I thought I would enjoy this book more than I did. Maybe the JT Leroy scandal teaches the lesson that we should not meet our idols. They're only human and focusing on their lives in addition to their writing might give them incentive to lie, build themselves up, even pretend to be totally different people. When Christopher Hitchens came to Portland, I was so determined to meet him, I sought him out with as much gusto as that lady who tackled the Pope. Luckily, I wasn't disappointed. He left a deep impression on me as being charming and kind, and he didn't bore me with stories about squeaky chairs and superstitions.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

My Magical Morning

Today I went to the St. Honore Boulangerie to read my book and as usual it was crowded. I always hope it won't be, but I guess I'm not the only one in Portland addicted to chouquettes. I sat down at the long table and exchanged smiles with a cute girl. She had short disheveled hair like mine, brown eyes, and freckles that almost looked fake, like she was playing a farmgirl in a school play and someone painted freckles on her cheeks.

She reminded me of a Strawberry Shortcake doll I wanted when I was little. In the beach house my mom rented for our family, it was hard to accept that the toys in the bedroom belonged to some other little girl that I never met. I loved smelling that doll's strawberry-scented hair. For me, that was the most amazing, mysterious, wonderful indulgence. That doll obviously had a big impact on me because I remember its smell so clearly. To this day, I am comforted by perfume, and the smell of delicious food. (Another reason why I love the St. Honore!)

That was the first time I remember feeling envious. I don't understand why envy is considered a deadly sin. It seems like a normal human weakness to me, and one I am afflicted with quite often, usually in regard to talented musicians. Sitting at the long table, trying to read my book, envy engulfed me once more.

An Italian trio sat down across from me, all very attractive. One guy I recognized from a couple parties I've been to. He asked what book I was reading and I told him, "A Forbidden Passion by Cristina Peri Rossi. It sounds like a trashy romance, but it's actually really good." I returned to my reading, or attempt at reading, when more attractive Italians joined everyone at the table. Loud, animated dialogue and wild gesturing ensued. I wanted to speak Italian so badly, or at least understand what they were saying. The way they rolled their r's was sublime. I wanted the gift of bilingualism and I wanted to connect with people in meaningful ways, like Italians celebrating a chance meeting with other Italians.

I looked up again at the cute girl with hair like mine. She smiled and held up the same book by Cristina Peri Rossi. We were both amazed by this rare coincidence. "She's not even that famous," I said, meaning the author. "I just randomly picked up this book at the library." The other people sitting around the table grew interested in our conversation and started asking about the book. The cute girl told me she read it in Spanish and English and that she loved it. I said, "I was just feeling bad about not being bilingual. Am I missing much by reading it in English?" She said some things didn't translate, but the English translation was good. When she had to go, she smiled and waved good bye. We never exchanged names. I felt the urge to run after her and exchange contact information. (The Italians exchanged business cards.) But I restrained myself. Now I'm wondering what else she and I have in common.

I was replaying that coincidence all day long. There I was, lamenting my lack of meaningful connections with people, and then I made one.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Bravo, Christopher Hitchens.

There is a God. Christopher Hitchens signed my book and blessed me. I had never been blessed by an atheist before, and it was the most heartfelt blessing I've ever received.

Tonight, Christopher Hitchens read at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, which he said felt uncomfortably like a cathedral. He was delightful and witty and it was clear that he really enjoyed engaging with people, and getting them to think. Even though about two thousand people listened to him tonight, he had a personable charm that reached out to individuals. I'd say he ranks at the very top of greatest authors whose book readings I have been to, right next to Dave Eggers.

Afterward, I smooth talked my way into the after party, all for my brother, Cory. He is a huge Christopher Hitchens fan, and I wanted to ask Christopher Hitchens to autograph the book "Is Christianity Good For the World" for his birthday. Mission accomplished.

Christopher Hitchens was so gracious and kind. I told him how much I enjoyed his lecture and I complimented him on a debate I saw him in on Youtube. We talked a little about that, long enough for my mom to snap about 12 pictures of us. (My smooth talking got her into the party too.) I was shaking the whole time. He happily signed the book for my brother and when he shook my hand a final time, he said, "Bless you." Wow.

Christopher Hitchens made so many witty remarks tonight. If only I had written them down. I'm still star-struck, which is probably why I can't remember. I am so grateful for Christopher Hitchens. I wish more people were willing to question traditions and dispel myths for the betterment of the world.