The day had finally arrived: she would spend two glorious days soaking up the smell and feel and aura of all things associated with good books, sneaking in the back door at the Conference on Southern Literature in Chattanooga.
Why did she say “sneaking in?” She wasn’t sure. She’d paid $60, the only requirement for being present, and there were no credentials she’d had to present in order to get the name badge and canvas bag that signified her as one of the profound and artsy people allowed to attend events, listen to speakers, stand in line for autographs, and buy more books. Yet the feeling of not-quite-belonging remained, allowing her to feast upon the given bounty with euphoric enthusiasm while always looking over her shoulder, assuming that at any moment the invisible “book police” might sniff her out, exposing her for the more-than-reader-but-not-yet-author she really was. Even so, fear of being caught can be a near-aphrodisiac, and with each new and inspiring thought she grabbed onto, the excitement at simply being a part of it all seemed to multiply.
The first day—not as organized as she expected. With the opening panel of guests, when the PA system is not working at all, she thinks the sparse audience should at least try to be quiet so that these esteemed authors can be heard, but no such luck. Then comes the grand opening event – the premiere of the documentary film (of the autobiography she’d just finished reading last night.) The author, as well as the director and producer of the film are on stage, while cell phones are ringing in various chairs of the auditorium seating below. People actually ANSWER the phones; a few leave the room to complete their calls, others talk from their seats in what they seem to think are quiet voices. They aren’t.
Next session – “New FSW Writers.” She’s so green here, she’s not even sure what those letters stand for, but reads the printed program and puts together enough to assume that this may be Fellowship of Southern Writers or something therein. She is “geared” for this one: Being somewhat of a “workshop junkie” of this genre, she’s read at least one book from all the folks on the panel, actually ALL the books of one, who she’s seen at a previous conference and didn’t realize was a “southern” author.
“Oh!” she thinks, hearing in the moderator’s introduction that the author, though born in California, now lives in Tennessee. So even here, in a birthplace of southern gentility, we do what we have to do to get bestsellers on the ticket. Oh well, she likes the author a lot and doesn’t really mind.
They read from their latest works, and she is transported to that place that only good books can take her. She makes a note of the titles, knowing she’ll buy the ones available now and preorder the other one from Amazon. Oh boy – now there’s some kind of tribute to a poet. She grits her teeth but knows that this, too, will pass. She learned back in school that poets were like Baptist preachers – the perfect time to plan to-do lists, Christmas lists, and other such boring but much-needed tasks. And this poet, when he finally got to read, was actually interesting; she smiled at the images, laughed at the jokes, even got a little teary-eyed at the conclusion, but she knew better than to add this book to her list of must-haves. The MFA program had taught her at least that much; she COULD listen to good poets read their work, but buying it to reread herself was a waste of trees and shelf-space.
Another panel discussion – this one she’d dreamed about since the first advertisement brochure: “A Writer’s Response to Environmental Threats – Preserving the Southern Landscape.” Four writers she loved and a poet she’d at least heard of would talk about the South and how sense of place created and maintained the genre they all had in common.
This one is formatted a bit strangely; each author reads a couple of paragraphs of work, then talks about their own connections to environmental issues and how this affects the work. The first author was a long time favorite: she’d been following Great Southern Authoress since her own days as a library assistant back in the 80’s. Exciting as it is to hear her, she can’t fully concentrate on the words; just seeing her on stage, in person, is like running into a long-lost friend, and her mind begins to wander.
She remembers the first time she actually SAW Authoress, standing at some sort of arts and crafts booth at the Decatur Book Festival, three years ago. She stopped what she was doing, picked up some nearby object and pretended to ponder its details, just as an excuse to keep standing there, watching and listening. She remembers the long, flowing skirt that Authoress wore, the glints in her dark hair under the sunlight, how she laughed casually about promising not to bring home anymore “treasures” because her house was running over. She had sounded just like a real person, which didn’t seem right, yet of course it WAS right, since Authoress’s stories were some of the most REAL she’d ever experienced. She remembers the eerie feeling she’d gotten when it seemed that Authoress had been inside her family home, met her relatives, and actually seen inside her head as to how she felt about them. And there she was, in normal clothes she might buy herself, walking around at the same book event, breathing the same air that she did. Amazing!
Of course, that had been her FIRST book festival. She’d been to many since, and learned not to be quite so star-struck by the creators of the words she so loved. Still, seeing Authoress again is almost embarrassing, bringing back memories of how desperate she’d once been.
The Authoress finishes, and the next author begins. Epic Tale Writer is her absolute favorite—she’d read all his books, even the poetry. Knowing what he’s given the world, it’s a bit hard NOT to feel a sort of god-like presence as he speaks. She loves the way, after first reading his novels, she’d found their beginnings in his short stories, knowing from a previous reading that this happened when “the characters simply weren’t through with him.” The passage he reads now she knows well, but she still feels a slight chill as picturesque images set her up for the painful climax ahead. Good stuff.
His environmental rant is almost poetry itself, reminding her of her father’s descriptions of the flora and fauna he cherished each day on the farm. And once again, she finds it hard to hear every word, since her mind seems to go ADD in a hundred directions – back to the book, to her father, to other great books about streams and hollers and disappearing mountaintops—and then strangely back to the speaker himself, who she’d forgotten was better looking than Robert Redford. It’s a kind of sensory overload – she is almost relieved when his time was over.
The Poetess reads. Her words are as beautiful as the writer/reader, and she looks like a perfect cross between fairy and fashion model. She is from New Orleans, and writes of the power and pain and rebirth caused by Katrina. The awesomely hot Epic Tale Writer is seated next to her, and he looks at her intently as she speaks. He smiles, nods, agrees, mesmerized by her every word. Or maybe he is mesmerized by her beauty. No way, she thinks, he is a saint and probably never thinks about things like that. But the Poetess IS beautiful, and everything she says is so descriptive, and passionate, and wonderful, and—oh my god, she shudders, Here she is in a room full of intelligent, well-read, artsy people, and she is getting turned on, imagining herself as the Poetess, being admired by the Hot Epic Tale Writer. This is the stuff of which soap operas are made—extremely BAD soap operas. She shakes her head, sits up straighter, and manages to focuses on the discussion at hand until the session concludes. She vows to do better tomorrow.
Day Two. It begins with a tribute to Harper Lee. She hears nothing she didn’t already know, but it’s nice to know there’s a plethora of people who feel the same way she does about this iconic author and book. Then there’s another panel discussion, “Revisions and All That Jazz,” presented by a poet she’s heard before, one she hasn’t, and (great!) Hot Epic Story Writer again. Staying on task may be harder than she expected, so she decides to take more notes—lots of notes.
Again, they read, and then they address the subject of revision. They are very good – they must have called each other before the conference, because they all give at least two quotes from other writers about the act of writing. She writes them all down. Then they all talk about what they are currently reading – which she REALLY likes to hear. She decides she likes this format. The speakers have done their homework and have plenty to say, and it’s refreshing to NOT have a big block of their precious time taken up with inane questions from the audience. She smiles, thinking if she had a nickel for every time she’d heard a stupid question about “process” she’d be able to attend a year of conferences for free. To her, the idea of “process” is a done deal: You either have one or you don’t, and it can work either way. Hearing how each individual author lights candles, says three Hail Marys, plays Mozart, spits into the wind, etc. has done her no good and wasted far too much time she could have been hearing something beneficial.
She hates the three hours lunches: it was fun to explore downtown Chattanooga for an hour, the first day, but now it seems an all too obvious conspiracy of forcing them to spend money in this fair southern city. She enjoys being able to explore the “book tables” without a crowd, limits herself to spending just under a hundred bucks, then goes back into the auditorium to read until the next panel begins.
On cloud nine with her bag of new books, she is a hundred pages into a great one when the room begins to fill again. She notices – could it be? Yes, it is! The author on which she based her graduating lecture is sitting two rows over, to her right!
The stage fills—a panelist is missing and being filled in by—you guessed it—Hot Epic Story Writer. Damn! She will have to take a mountain of notes to stay focused this time.
They read. Lots of great quotes again, more writers about writing. This panel is more idea-oriented, and she is proud to take down a great outline and some “prompts” she can’t wait to try out on her own. Hot Epic Story Writer is only mildly disturbing, but the Author-She-Has-Lectured-About is pulling her attention at an alarming rate. Finally giving in, she stops taking notes, turning to a clean page and hoping to compose the world’s most artsy, intellectual, heartfelt, authentic fan-letter ever written. She looks over at his profile; he’s a book jacket come to life, just sitting there, in a regular seat, listening to the panel just like she’s doing, or WAS doing, until she started this letter. She writes to him how many years she’s followed his work, how she’d given his books as specials gifts, how she built a shelf the perfect height for his earlier books, the short, classic hardbacks she’d recognize from across the room. She’s about to explain how she chose him for that graduate lecture, then is struck-down-as-though-naked-in-a-crowded-room, realizing what an idiot she is.
More than a half-century old, she thinks, yet she’s nothing more than an over-educated groupie. She takes a last glance at her would-be Mick Jagger, strikes through the page of over-written praise, and goes back to her notes.
She’s glad they’re talking about reading again. That’s the only time she feels worthy in this world she wants to be a part of but is fast losing hope to ever reach. But as always, the really good writers come back to the same conclusion. You become a good writer from reading: if this is true, she’s either already good or will die trying, because she reads more than anyone she’s ever known.
The summer after second grade, she’d read 150 books, earning her a pictured spot in the local paper. In her graduate program, mentors were always shocked when she read not only the ten chosen books per semester but two to three times that many. In the eight months since her retirement, she had no idea how many books she’d read, but Amazon had a clue, and she hoped that info was never leaked out to anyone, fearing it might be grounds for being committed somewhere. There was certain addictive behavior she associated with herself—if she liked an author, she simply couldn’t stop until she’d read everything they’d published, and if possible, their favorite authors as well.
She closes her notebook as the session draws to an end, exiting and heading for her car. She sighs with her last look back at the stately old building, smiling slightly at the other book-lovers who flock to such events. She wonders if they are more “normal” than she, attending Falcons’ and Braves’ games, tractor pulls, Civil War reenactments, celebrations not based on secret lives and crushes-from-afar, known only to the reader. Perhaps some of these people were at the last reading she attended, maybe even more than one. She will never know, nor does she wish to—this is HER secret. If one day she publishes something that puts her on the “other side of the table,” she’ll laugh and joke with Great Southern Authoress, Hot Epic Story Guy and the rest, but she will never turn her back on the nameless book-lovers who fill the room. Is it possible that her heroes were once just one of them? She hopes so. Just believing it makes it all still seem possible.
But so much for that. She pulls out from the parking lot and turns up the current audio book in her CD player. This will speed up the ride, since she can’t wait to get home – and READ.
Until the next conference…