Conference Envy: A Survival Guide

Sad Web SurfingYesterday I was running around the park in a T-shirt with a birthday party full of seven-year-olds. Today, I walked downtown through a flurry of hard, tiny pellets of snow that I couldn’t escape from. It was a little like the experience of going to bed a happy, underpaid writer and waking up the next day as a miserable, underpaid writer who is staying home while everyone else you know is traveling to a conference.

No matter where you look online, you’re getting smacked in the face with these niggling little reminders that you’re here dealing with laundry and kids and deadlines and your friends are off brown-nosing editors and eating dinner in absurdly large groups and developing inside jokes and memories that you’re going to be outside of the next time you get together.

You can complain to and commiserate with the three or four other people you know who aren’t at the conference, but you’re aware that it’s petty and fruitless, so you stop after a few hours and just try to avoid the Interwebs for a few days—which means that, no, you didn’t see that video of Trump as Lex Luthor or whatever it was. [Read more…]

George Scialabba and the Problem of Critical Distance

gospel_matthewGeorge Scialabba retired from his job this October. He had worked at Harvard University for thirty-five years. But not as a professor. Scialabba was a clerical worker and building manager. A piece in the Chronicle Review about Scialabba’s career as a writer and book critic described his day job as “low level.”

Scialabba has, more even than most writers, kept to the sidelines of public life. He worked at the very margins of academia. He has written critical essays and book reviews from a position that is self-consciously “unaffiliated.”

Why?

Because Scialabba wanted to be free, of course. He wanted to think and write freely. This, Scialabba thought, has gotten harder and harder to do.

That’s because (as he put it in an essay entitled “What Are Intellectuals Good for?”) we are facing, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, a general truth:

Intellectuals have indeed been incorporated en masse into the power elite, making the “transparent social relations” Merleau-Ponty looked forward to that much more difficult and distant. [Read more…]

Autistic Lives Matter

4121837708_b3d12f0f30_oWhen I first met Daniel Bowman Jr. at the Festival of Faith and Writing, we both experienced that you’re-not-how-I-pictured-you-from-Facebook moment. While he may not have felt self-consciously compact, I became quite aware of my own awkward, lumbering stature that banged into a book table or two. Still, I tried to make a good impression while obsessing over the fact that I wasn’t wearing earrings twenty minutes before my appointment to read a poem at the chapel.

“I’ll feel naked up there without earrings,” I told him. “Wanna come with me to the campus store to find some?”

Nice to meet you. I’m neurotic and say inappropriate things.

Dan, on the other hand, was fighting a whole ninja army of thoughts: What do I say to de-escalate the anxiety rising up from standing in the middle of a conference with hundreds of people? How can I be endearing and likeable? If I’m witty will she want to get to know me better?

We not only survived the encounter, but over the next couple of years, grew in our friendship. We shared our writing, spent time with mutual friends at retreats and conferences, and even set up a co-reading at a local coffee shop in my area. Meanwhile, I began to observe some quirky patterns in Dan’s behavior—nothing too worrisome, since we are, after all, poets. But he often avoided eye contact or had trouble transitioning to hellos and goodbyes. Sometimes he became agitated during unpredictable social situations. [Read more…]

Brush With a Famous Writer

By Ann Conway

airportI was walking down a concourse in the Philly airport when I looked up to see the Famous Writer staring down at me. Actually at first glance I was sure I was looking at the British actor, Bill Nighy. But it was not. It was him, a well-known literary writer who had moved to Maine ten years ago.

I was stunned, but kept on walking to the food court, where I ate a seven-dollar hot dog and thought about the writer. It was strange to see someone famous, especially someone from Maine. I was already back there in my mind, feeling safe with all the stolid types waiting at the nearby gate.

I knew he traveled far and wide; his writing was all about looking for something—the American soul? About this, I was not sure. But I knew the search was his concern.

I had considerations about him. I had last seen him at a reading I attended years before when I lived in Portland. Perhaps that was how he remembered me, although the reading was full of other middle-aged women. Later I read one of his short stories, in which he remarked, “Women who go to lectures always want something.” [Read more…]

Life-Saving Moments of Art

Drawing of a nesting hen In August, the musical duo Alright Alright, composed of husband and wife Seth and China Kent, performed in our living room for their last house concert in a series of a dozen across the country.

As the musicians (described as “piano-based folk Americana with a healthy measure of art-song/cabaret”) set up their lighting and cigar-box guitars, a number of children played outside in a tree house garlanded with flowers. Cicadas electrified the maples. Adults drank cheap pinot and dipped pretzels in hummus. For many, the next day would be the first day of attending or teaching school. Already, it was a bittersweet, beauty-haunted evening.

And then the couple sang.

With her rich, soulful voice and his tender harmonies, China and Seth filled our small space with songs about quirky lovers, a dying father, child soldiers, and Mary, mother of Jesus. Our usually empty living room couch and chairs radiated with an unlikely assortment of friends and neighbors who just minutes before had been strangers. The immediate, shared intimacy of participating in this music together was palpable: communion, healing, and worship.

[Read more…]


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