A writer's weekend: The case of the iffy stiffy

Sex, struggle, and the future of reading are fodder for famous writers at a Bainbridge conference.
Crosscut archive image.

Roy Blount, Jr. (Valerie Shaff)

Sex, struggle, and the future of reading are fodder for famous writers at a Bainbridge conference.

This past weekend, I attended the Field's End Writer's Conference, sponsored by the Bainbridge Public Library and held off-island at Kiana Lodge in Suquamish, home of Chief Sealth's people and located just on the other side of Agate Pass on the Kitsap Peninsula.

The conference featured a terrific line-up of writers of all kinds, including three distinguished keynote speakers: Seattle novelist Stephanie Kallos (also a new contributor to Crosscut), humorist Roy Blount, Jr., and National Book Award winner Timothy Egan. There were numerous breakout sessions run by authors, poets, editors, and others, running the gamut of writing genres. I was asked to do a workshop on the topic of "Writing about where you live." My talk fell between Blount's and Egan's. Nice not to feel any pressure to perform.

I rarely attend writer's conferences, but apart from my workshop, I had the whole day just to soak it all up. I have to say the keynote speakers were all inspiring.

Kallos spoke first, as people were sipping their second cups of morning coffee, and she read two personal essays about her experiences writing her first and second novels, which together seemed to make the world's worst childbirth seem like a kind of cakewalk.

(Speaking of cakewalks, they were actually having a real cakewalk at Bainbridge's Town & Country Village on Sunday that featured a grim reaper in black frosting. Happy birthday, gramps! This activity seemed more country than town, which offers comforting evidence that Bainbridge hasn't turned into Mercer Island — yet.)

Anyway, Kallos talked about the importance of writers writing even when they aren't inspired: Get a little bit done every day. She said that she once spent an entire day trying to decide whether one of her characters would say "hard on" or "stiffy." And you thought it was tough to decide between paper and plastic.

The audience, mostly women, roared with laughter and a shared recognition of the absurdity of the writing game. "Hard on" or "stiffy," someone's got to do the heavy lifting on such decisions and has spent hours making such decisions over the millions of words you've read in a lifetime and never stumbled over.

After lunch, Roy Blount, Jr., widely known for his humor, sports writing, and his career as a panelist on NPR's popular game show, "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," spoke on the subject of "How words and I work together." He immediately pounced on the "hard on" vs. "stiffy" discussion. Most men, he thought, would prefer "hard on" because the "d" gave the word a certain thrust and force. But "stiffy," he said, rhymed with "jiffy" and "spiffy." And women might in the end relate to it because it also resonates with "iffy."

I won't try to summarize the rest of Blount's talk, which involved the essential plot of Adam and Eve, Wilt Chamberlain's sex life, a baby and a cigar, how to chew tobacco and bat left-handed at the same time, and why the word "struggle" is at war with itself (something about the fighting double g's), but it was very entertaining, and the man is a marvel at having a career that would be impossible to duplicate.

The final speaker, Tim Egan, allowed as how Blount has the benefit of a southern accent, which just tends to make everything he says seem funnier, just as, he noted, an English accent makes speakers sound more intelligent, including British schizophrenics.

However, in his plain, un-accented, native born blue-collar-son-of-Spokane voice, Egan held his own with a passionate defense of the future of reading, writing, and the power of storytelling. (Full disclosure here: Egan is an old friend and has written the introduction to my upcoming book, Pugetopolis which will be out from Sasquatch Books early next year.)

Egan riffed on a column he wrote in February (he's an online columnist for The New York Times) railing against Apple's Steve Jobs for dissing Amazon's new electronic book Kindle by saying "the fact is, people don't read anymore." Egan calls this bullshit, pointing out that book publishing is a $15 billion industry in this country, that some 400 million books will be sold this year (up 1% in a tough economy even), and that unlike the iPod, reading isn't a product, it's an activity that's been with us since the cave painters.

Egan is a master storyteller. He talked about how his award-winning book about the Dust Bowl, The Worst Hard Time, came from the mouths and memories of survivors who were a repository of untold stories just waiting to be tapped like an underground aquifer. Egan joked that he was slowly working his way through all the elements in his books: The Good Rain was about water, The Worst Hard Time about wind, the Winemaker's Daughter about wine, and his work-in-progress is about a big fire in Idaho.

If storytelling is elemental, so was Egan's passion for it, and his talk drove the conference attendees to a happy place: a sense of larger purpose, a confidence that great works could be accomplished by those who, like Woody Allen, actually show up, and a reminder that not only are there aspiring writers attending conferences, but readers waiting to hear the stories they have to tell, be it on Kindle or cave walls.

There's nothing "iffy" about that.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.