Put yourself in the way of your fate, I tell my students, on the last day of the Wesleyan conference. It’s advice I got from a horoscope back when I was either getting into or out of graduate school. I don’t remember when. I tell them about community, about my experiences with the Asian American Writers Workshop, and how formative they were: how I met friends there that are now established writers, how I met my current agent there after reading a story at a reading there organized by Regie Cabico, after I got out of grad school.
Find other writers, I tell them. Find readers. Go to readings, buy the books, the magazines. Write and send your work out. Be where people can find you.
A few days later, I am in Maine at the house my family has rented at Goose Rocks Beach, and my brother-in-law and I read our horoscope online. Both of us face different challenges that are, nonetheless, similar in our lives structurally. Both of us are Leos.
Put yourself in the way of your fate, the horoscope reads.
It’s not the same astrologer, I’m sure of that, but I experience a short chill. I remember how so often what I am teaching my students, I am also in need of reminding myself about, as if in order to talk to myself I need to first tell 15-100 people and then let a few days go by. But all the same, whatever you think of horoscopes, finding your advice to someone else in your own horoscope is more or less one definition of the uncanny.
No one would say I’m hiding.
The narrative from the evening at the AAWW with Guernica picks up with how no one can believe Jin Young Sohn is only 19. As he begins reading he says, “I think I’m the youngest person here.” Light laughter. He reads a beautiful excerpt from a longer piece inspired by his grandmother, about taking care of her as a little boy, making her rice, in place of going to pre-school, as both his parents worked and couldn’t take him. Elaine H. Kim reads a story about two straight men in a gay bar in Seoul. Cathy Chung reads her excerpt, from her novel-in-progress. The entire editorial staff of Guernica attends, some of my Amherst students, some of my former students from Wesleyan, people I went to grad school with, and my agent’s assistant, and then people I don’t know. The very handsome and incredibly nice men of the Dari Project are there, for example, and they say hi afterwards, and one of them buys my first novel and has me sign it, which I always enjoy.
When the party closes at 9, I head downtown to Sweet and Vicious with my friend Meakin Armstrong, who tapped me as guest editor to begin with, and Cathy Chung, and friends of hers from MacDowell, where she made everyone read my novel while she was there.
I am trying to catch up to my friend Laura, who’s out with Wendy Lee, who also read that night downtown at McNally Robinson, from her debut novel, Happy Family, a novel I happily blurbed that is, as I put it, about some of the actual taboos of this culture. I still like it. Wendy gamely offered to come up but it’s her night and I said we’d come down and find her. We find her in the dark back beer garden there with her editor, a very nice man who thanks me profusely. My friend Laura is with a woman who tells me how much she loved my book, when she was an editor at a paperback imprint of a large publishing house and one of the bidders. She also tells me it makes her night to meet me, and all of this is a pretty incredible thing to hear from a stranger. We leave and go to eat at Public, where I have the most beautifully made scallops and talk to Wendy’s lovely boyfriend, and Laura, an old friend from when I trained as a yoga teacher.
I wake up in New York on Thursday morning in Laura’s apartment on 14th St. and 6th Avenue. The night before, someone said it looked like the apartment in La Boheme, and it does, except with Mac computers and me. My friend Laura’s room-mate, who I’ve not yet met, emerges from her bedroom to go to work, and she’s very nice, we have an awkward cordial moment and then she leaves. Laura comes out. We talk about Facebook and global warming. As we do, I briefly have a vision of an enormous wave of water behind her, sweeping down from the Bronx, out of the Iowa floodplains, and then she says, I’m glad you came, and I say, Yes, me too, and then she leaves and I stay to take a shower, before getting on a train back to Wesleyan, to finish the conference.
The themes of my teaching there this week via the consultations I have with students directly are women’s invisibility, invisible narrators who are characters and are supposed to be in there and yet are not, and missing narration–events that collect and the reader cannot feel why they are with each other. The students seem mostly to think, unconsciously, that if they are a woman they should not quite be there, and this is troubling. One student tells me he thinks first person is too common and third person sets his work apart, even though I think third person keeps his story too constricted and thus confusing and frustrating.
The course meanwhile is full of some of the warhorses of creative writing classes: start on top of your story, and nowhere else, for example. But the theme I decided on for the week was excitement. I’d been at a friend’s dinner party and we were talking about what we read that we liked. Her friend and literary agent there said of something he’d just read, It ended where you thought it would. It was okay but I wasn’t transported. As I headed to Wesleyan, it seemed to me like a signal to follow into the week’s class.
I leave Wesleyan to drive to Rhode Island for the Ocean State Writers Conference after a quick dinner with Kit Reed, my friend and mentrix, and her husband Joe Reed. They are skeptical of my chances of getting there. It’s clearer to them than to me that I’m tired, and sure enough, I make ridiculous mistakes while driving, and a trip that should take an hour and a half takes almost three. I feel like a bag of other people’s ideas and language, after the constant pace of readings and consultations, and it’s almost like being drunk. This moment is what most writers fear when they teach, but I know that the brief suppression of my own thoughts doesn’t last, and what happens next is usually a great deal of writing, as if in response to the suppression of it. Last year I wrote most of a new story the week after Wesleyan, in two days. For now, though, I just want to go to bed.
I get to my dorm at URI with the help of my friend Amity Gaige, who’s also there, and she helps me get settled. When I ask for an internet connection at the front desk, she says, What are you going to do? Blog? And raises her left eyebrow authoritatively. I feel vaguely ashamed even though my sole desire is to check email, to see if, as a friend says, anyone loves me today. Instead, I lose track of my car and wander the campus for an hour in the dark, looking for it, as it has my toothbrush in it, before finding it in the fourth of the three directions I search. I sleep the night in a cement-walled room that feels like a hospital, and the next morning get up and teach 63 students about how to figure out plots for stories and novels from the scenes you write that come to you and you don’t know what they are. Then I go to some panels, I have lunch. I go to my room and do yoga and then give a reading with Peter Covino and the other faculty of the conference. I talk about what I’m thinking about, which is how I knew Peter when he and I used to be poets together in the East Village of New York, and read in dark gay bars on stages.
Go to open mikes and read at them, I tell the audience, by way of summary. And then I read my excerpt.
I leave after the reading to go to Maine, and stop at a hilariously huge Italian restaurant off the highway called The Chateau. When I leave, I still don’t know why the name is French. It’s the only French thing about it. I drive for hours and get to Maine before 1AM, fall asleep and wake up to the singing of my nieces and nephews down in the kitchen.
Part of it being your fate, of course, is that you cannot know it until you are in possession of it. Here in Maine, surrounded by pancake mornings and beers at the beach and margaritas at night, I don’t know if I’ve managed to be in the way of my fate and I won’t know. And if the message for me from me is about excitement, then perhaps that’s covered by how I go to Greece next, next week. All I really can think of to sum up the aftermath of the week of writers and writers conferences came to me from a former student, who wrote to me after being rejected this year from all the MFA programs she applied to. This shocked me, because I thought she was a shoe-in. She had the single greatest reaction to being rejected, perhaps ever, in the history of writing:
The Iowa letter said something about having over 800 apps for 25 spots. I can’t even imagine. The numbers are baffling… I’m probably overemotional and tired on this Friday evening, but I also weirdly feel buoyed by the rejections, like it confirms for me how important writing is, whether or not I have an mfa.
Thank you to everyone I met this week at Wesleyan and URI. Good luck to us all. And if you are a fan of my friend Paul Yoon, go check out his story at StorySouth, and if you like his, vote for him. He’s a contestant in their Million Writers 2008 contest.