Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sunday Essay #1: Party Like a Writer! Party Like a Writer?

<---Please allow me to re-introduce myself...
--->Sunday Essay #2: How I Got Fired From Kumon Math and Reading Center

The man with the long ponytail is wearing white gloves. Thriller-era Michael Jackson white gloves.

Creeping behind a platter of carrots and ranch dressing, I watch this man with incredulity and suspicion. I imagine him an hour ago in his bedroom, surveying his ironed black pants draped on a hanger and his dress shirt strewn on a stool. He's thinking: I'm going to a literary party populated by grad school literati. There will be readings of poetry (delicate, hushed) and readings of prose (dry, ironic). There will be white wine in plastic cups. I'll put on a vest, but will that be enough?

Billie Jean is not my lover.

Gloves. Gloves. Gloves!

It's a Friday night and I'm wandering solo through the cozily-lit basement of the Woodruff-Fontaine House in downtown Memphis. I've come here for the release party of the University of Memphis literary journal, The Pinch. Since I'll be starting an MFA (Masters of Fine Art) program in the fall, I'm looking for a little taste of the MFA lifestyle: will I be an outsider, or will I be one of them?

My carefully crafted stereotype colors them as lovers of Ira Glass, the BBC, Vietnamese restaurants, and Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem. I thought Alexander's poem was plodding and pretentious and emblematic of why most folks stop reading poetry after eleventh grade. Rather than listen to Ira Glass, I download Adam Carolla podcasts. And the kicker: I didn't even vote for Barack Obama.

How will I fit in with them?

Fifteen minutes before the first reading, I lock eyes with an older gentleman whose owl-frame glasses belie a prominent forehead. "Dr. Shaheen," he says. "Alex," I say. He leans into me, as if to sharpen the shaky antenna in his right ear. "Nice to meet you, Alec."

I don't want to correct him, because he mangles my name with the careful precision of a Romanian gymnast sticking a landing.

"Do you use the Google?" Dr. Shaheen asks, his weathered voice bopping gleefully against the vowels. If I do a search on him, I'll find that he is the world's foremost scholar in Shakespearean biblical references. Shaheen's a brilliant guy, and here he is, rapping about the publishing history of his books with me, a young Joe Schmoe who finished undergrad two years ago. Am I now an official citizen of Academia? "Take care, Alec."

Not quite.

"So Dr. Shaheen got you all to himself?" asks a lanky redheaded woman in a black dress. With intense silver-gray eyes, she looks at me over her shoulder.

"Shaheen's an interesting guy," I say.

"HA HA HA HA," she booms, "HA HA HA HA." Her laughter herky-jerks my insides, gnarling them into a tiny ball of help!

I thread myself back through the slowly building crowd, where the dominant color of clothing is black and the dominant disposition bemused - authors referenced are obscure but smiles are knowing. The man with the white gloves is suddenly gloveless. Did the temptation of chips and salsa convince him to peel off his fingerpants? Perhaps not, for he quickly rolls his gloves back on. He is the Count Chocula of the literary party scene.

Eight minutes before the first reading, I find myself talking to a woman whose librarian glasses dangle on the precipice of her nose, making it appear as if she's looking down at me or at the world. "It's romantic writers mostly," she states cheerlessly, "one's published about sixty books." She's telling me about a writing group she joined, but I'm distracted by the tissues lying like upturned blossoms at the open rim of her bulky purse. She dabs one of these things against her nostrils. "I should leave now," she says, "my bipolar is acting up." Her bipolar is acting up? "I hear you," I say inexplicably.

So far, I've chatted with a Shakespearean expert hard of hearing and a bipolar woman who crashed the party for free wine. I haven't talked to any current MFA students; that is, until I cross paths again with the redhead. Linda. Linda reaches out to me, sharing her experiences at the Memphis writing program and introducing me to a few of her MFA friends. She gives my face a name, saving me from the fate of being the stranger who hovers silently by the salsa. Her roommate, black-haired and earnest, engages me in a ping-pong match of literary reference. I swing and hit Michael Chabon, but she easily volleys that name back. She mentions Lee Gutkind and I blink a response, my eyes scrawled with huh. "You don't know Lee Gutkind?" she asks, her shock at my ignorance tempered but palpable. "He's the editor of Creative Nonfiction."

Oops. Creative Nonfiction is the big-name journal for writers of, well, creative nonfiction, the genre in which I will specialize come the fall. I guess I have a lot to learn before my next ping-pong match.

The readings go about as well as I expect: some touch me with the raw nerve endings of written language suddenly, arrestingly spoken, while others drift over my head like errant balloons. The mood matches that of a sanctuary: I am one of the congregants in the pews, and the authors are the priests, taking turns on the podium. In between the readings, they politely joke, and we politely laugh.

Linda invites me to join a few of the MFA students for drinks after the reading. Talk is spirited and dynamic and not just about literature; I tell them about my time in Korea, and they tell me about a certain Memphis writing professor's antisocial tendencies. I'm reminded of my thesis advisor at Emory, who once told me that few of his friends were fellow writers. Why was that the case? "Come on," he had said with a chuckle, "we're the most neurotic, most self-absorbed people you'll meet. We don't like having writer friends."

Though I'm enjoying this whole MFA meet-and-greet, I still find myself crawling up into my own head. Do I agree with my professor, that writers don't much want writer friends? I can't answer that question. Not yet anyway. I know I should stay open-minded. I know I shouldn't prejudge these people on their voices or their laughter.

But really, what is the deal with that guy in the white gloves?

<---Please allow me to re-introduce myself...
--->Sunday Essay #2: How I Got Fired From Kumon Math and Reading Center



Kimberly Swinburne said...

Loved this post. Was in absolute stitches!

I'll note, I prefer that my friends are mostly non-writers as well. I do adore the company of other writers, however I don't want to become self-reflexive. Does this make sense? I want to taste a bit of each slice of pie, not just the literary slice. So my themes can be more expansive . . .

Anonymous said...

Soo happy you are back!


ThePloch said...

Also glad to have you back, "Alec."

I certainly hope your anti-NPR/BBC/DNC perspective doesn't change because of a bunch of Memphis snobs. There's nothing more boring than a (provincial, university) writer writing about writers and their own self-importance.

Anonymous said...

I remember that party. You were the quiet guy in the Cosby sweater with snowflakes on it. I'm not sure what that means.