After I moved home to Seattle from New York seven years ago, I quickly developed a crippling, irrational fear of the Richard Hugo House, Capitol Hill’s literary arts center.
I had this idea that Seattle literary events were populated by hyper-intellectual hipsters whose junior high scars had hardened over time into a kind of shiny brittle exoskeleton, under which beat a cold, cynical PoMo heart. I feared these imaginary Seattleite smartypants would scorn narrative — which is more or less the only religion I practice — preferring, say, experimental poetry comprised exclusively of punctuation, or worse, cow patties thrown at readers to illustrate the failure of language in a post-colonial society.
The event that changed my mind about Seattle’s literary scene was the Hugo House’s Literary Series, an affair that takes place four times a year, in which three writers and one musician present new work based on a theme. A friend was presenting an autobiographical story at the Series, and the night was a hugely entertaining mix of graphic novel, memoir, and literary fiction. All my fears of Seattle’s literary scene slunk away, embarrassed by their own existence.
Soon enough, I summoned the courage to introduce myself to Brian McGuigan, the House’s program director, and was delighted to find that he wasn’t scary in the least. He was sincere. He loved stories and good writing, no matter what package they came in. We started talking about our work, and after my first book launched last August, he invited me to participate in the final Literary Series event, which took place last month. I was scheduled to read alongside the great comic novelist Sam Lipsyte and National Book Award finalist Ben Lerner, both from New York. The theme was "The End of the Line." I was thrilled — at first.
There are two types of failures I’ve grappled with as a writer, one that gets easier with time, and the other — well. Not so much.
Private failure has become an essential part of my job. I don’t fear it one bit, though it’s hardly something I enjoy. From the day I started writing seriously, I considered it my job to write failed stories, to pace my room, to wonder why my doomed novel, the one now interred in the attic, didn’t hang together well. Failing taught me to distinguish between writing that mostly works and writing that mostly fails.
So, I’m not afraid of private failure. But public failure? That's something else.
It’s not my job to imagine how readers will respond to my work. My job is to write as well as I can. But I am profoundly unenlightened, see, and so the thought of failing in public — at my favorite event in town, the Literary Series, no less — is not something I’m quite so sanguine about. I know I shouldn’t care. I know this. But every day when I sit down to write, I struggle to ignore the sadistic online commenter who lives in my head, the one who sneers at my subject matter, who verbally moons my devotion to narrative, who snickers and whispers that no one in the world wants to hear my story, no matter how entertaining I try to make it.
Even when I know this isn’t the case, when every inch of me knows I am writing something that matters to me and that the odds are good that it will matter to someone else — that’s usually how the math works — even then, that demon commenter, that Screwtape underminer, wants me to consider that I may be wrong.
In other words, it’s ego. I’m comfortable grappling with words and sentences, or as comfortable as it’s possible to be when working with such hard clay. But grappling with how my work will be perceived?
Oh, let me tell you: I am not comfortable with that at all.
At first, when there was a cushion of months between me and the Literary Series, I thought only of the honor, of how much I loved having been asked to participate. It’s not unlike selling a book on proposal, when you get to drink champagne and receive congratulations, but it hasn’t quite sunk in yet that this means you actually have to write an entire book.
I loved the thought of having a piece of writing commissioned. It sounded so antique, as if Brian McGuigan were actually the Pope commissioning me to scribble one of my vulgar little stories on the ceiling of his new chapel.
But with time, the thrill started to turn shrill, like it was actually an attack of hyperthyroidism that was going to give me insomnia for the next six months. I found myself repeating Brian’s words: I would be reading alongside the great comic novelist . . . National Book Award finalist . . . and that mean little online commenter in my head started muttering. You? Local girl author with the "narrative arc" and the jazz hands? Go back to the cave. Speak to no one. Subsist on bugs and pages of the OED. Attempt alcoholism.
I plugged my ears and started writing. I knew enough about failure to abort my first story, and to know I was on to something with the second. The writing went well, which is to say it was a bit like two months of hard dentistry with no drugs. I struggled. I revised. I found plot solutions and whole sentences while lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. I worked and worked.
But when I wasn’t writing, my ego, well — my ego was freaking out. Instead of thinking about how much fun the event was going to be, what a thrill it would be to read alongside such accomplished, inventive writers, instead of picturing the wonderful people I’ve met at the Hugo House, the writers and readers who love stories and words as much as I do — instead, I imagined Paul Constant, the Stranger’s book critic, live-tweeting Who is this local writer with the jazz hands? followed by a half-dozen shiny bookish hipsters tweeting in response LOL, right? Nice fiction,“Yoga Bitch.”
(To be clear: no one live-tweets the Lit Series. At least, I don’t think so. But this is a town that has silent-reading parties, so it could be just a matter of time.)
Yogis have this neat little mantra: This is not that. That is not this. Like all yogisms, it sounds a little moronic, but it’s actually a very practical reminder of what is real and what is not. It goes like this: you have a terrible vision of the future, and then you say to yourself, Self, that fearful reverie? That is not this. This is me, sitting at my desk, removing a sentence, adding another, rethinking a word.
Oh, how useful that mantra would be, if only I would have used it! It would have been useful to chant it around the time the first draft blues set in, when the story that was so vivid in my mind was finally down on paper, where it took on a sort of ragged, homemade look. When I realized for the umpteenth time that all stories are, in a sense, failures when compared to the Platonic version glowing in my mind.
That is not this. That: visions of the great Lipsyte and the award-finalist Lerner chuckling behind their hands. Audience members’ ironic facial hair whipping in the wind as they flew for the doors. My parents asking me if I had considered getting a real job. This: me, writing an SOS email to my friend Jean-Michele, who put me in my place at once:
"It’s not about you," she wrote. "Think about the audience: they’ve left their warm houses to sit in a dark room listening to stories. Just tell them a good story, one that you would like to hear yourself. Nobody really wants cow dung flung at them, no matter how smart they are. People just like stories."
I wrote it on an index card and pinned it to the wall: Just tell a good story. I’m looking at it now, and it feels like a talisman. This is my ego; that is the point.
As for the event itself: I loved it. I told a story I liked, listened to great music and inspired writing, and by the end of the night, wine in my belly and three interesting conversations happening around me, I couldn’t help but notice that all the fear and loathing, the zing of anxiety, was worth it. It’s always worth it, in the end.
In cases like this, I always have to ask myself: what is better? To have an audience you know will be supportive, or to be a little bit afraid that your work won’t live up to their standards? For my part, I’d like Seattle — and the work — to stay scary. It might be bad for my stomach lining, but the fear of failing a smart, discerning audience — an audience whose attention I must earn — keeps me on my toes. It makes me look at a piece of writing and accept when it is a true failure, when it must be trashed. And it makes me fight harder for the stories that want to live.
The night after the reading, there was a brief panel discussion at Naked City Brewery, and Nicole Hardy, another veteran of the Lit Series, asked Sam, Ben, and me what had been the most difficult aspect of preparing for the event. We all shrugged at each other as if it had been the easiest thing in the world.
But then Sam, the great Lipsyte himself, spoke up. "You just don’t want it to suck," he said.