Friday, December 14, 2012

The Washington, DC Writing Life

To make up for quoting the Dalai Lama a few posts earlier, here's something saltier, a quote from geeky cult-hit web series "The Guild."

"When did this guild go from playing a game together to talking about feelings and holding each other's vaginas?" -- Tink, "The Guild"

I'm using this quote here because it sums up what I sometimes worry this blog might become: just another online journal in which I'm whining about touchy-feely things that, while perhaps cathartic for me to write about, aren't that much fun for other people to read about.

So here's a fun, positive, action-oriented one. (And by "fun," I mostly mean it's not about being under-employed and alcoholic.)

In addition to finding a stimulating job that pays me what my skills are worth, and not clinging to trunk booze as a social crutch, and tons of other topics I haven't even gotten around to here -- I would love to finally get my creative-writing act together, level up technique-wise and meet other writers like me and share my stories with a broader audience than the three or four loyal folks who click on stories I post on my writing site.  

I never knew how to do this before. For a brief, blessed moment I knew a fellow writer in DC named William Pham. This guy's the real deal -- he's ridiculously talented, he's been published on the McSweeney's website, he's done open-mic poetry readings at Busboys & Poets, a restaurant and bookstore with space set aside for formal readings and branches in DC and Arlington. I met him through the sort of kismet that's unique to the Facebook era. I'm Facebook friends with a guy I used to work with at the Georgetown Barnes & Noble, during that brief spell after I came home from San Diego and bombed what seemed like four thousand job interviews before getting an editing job with a nonprofit. (I only worked at the bookstore for a couple of months, just long enough to get through the pay-my-dues stint in the cafe section and move out onto the book-selling floor.) One day I happened to see that my former co-worker had left effusive praise in a comment on the posted writing of his pal Will Pham. Naturally, being a voracious writing nerd, I read the writing, too. Then I found Will's website, and read other stuff he'd written. And kept reading, and reading...

His writing blew me away; I saw immediately that his talent was leagues beyond my amateur level even though he's a good several years younger than I am. His vocabulary arsenal was staggering, formidable (in fact, I believe he had a paying gig as an SAT tutor). He's told me since that he's "not a fan of the melodrama," and his work is indeed impressively restrained. His words were crisp and precise, perfectly chosen, yet they burst forward with volcanic force. I sent him a message, we became Facebook friends, he invited me to his next open-mic poetry reading.

I showed up just as it was getting started, finding a seat way in the back of the packed room. The emcee was joking with the audience. I ordered an alcoholic beverage then looked around to find Will. It took all of two seconds to spot him; Will is a slender Asian guy, everyone else there was black. He was wearing a suit. My first impression was of a kid about to perform at a recital, and I wondered how the crowd would react to him. The first few poet-performers were big and bold, charismatic, defiant and loud. These were no mumbling wallflowers in elbow-patched tweed jackets reading from their lovingly scrawled-up notepads; these people all felt like revolutionaries. I remember thinking that I would find this environment completely intimidating for sharing my writing, that I would probably tremble and choke and maybe get some pity applause.

The announcer called out Will's name. I made sure to clap extra loud for him; a friend of mine had also shown up for the show after I'd posted about it on Facebook, so I told him, "That's the guy I came to hear." Will made his way up to the mic and I felt scared for him. I hoped the crowd would be kind.

And then Will spoke. He spat words out as if they were ammunition. He spoke like a person possessed. He spoke like a nerd who has finally had enough of the ignorant haters and bullies and is letting forth decades of pent-up vitriol. His words were angry, and sexy, and often teasingly opaque. He didn't water anything down, didn't dumb it down, didn't tone it down. The word "merciless" comes to mind. I could tell he was winning the audience over. I could tell he had their respect.

After the reading, I made my way over to him and he joined my friend and me at the bar. We drank and chatted about all the publications in which we dream of seeing our bylines (for me: The New Yorker, of course, and Harper's, and I wouldn't say no to The Paris Review or one of The Atlantic's Fiction issues). He named many publications and writers whose names I knew well but that my non-literary-nerd friends (which is most of them) don't really know about, and maybe wouldn't like if they did know about them. Talking with him felt a little like meeting a fellow member of a tribe that had dispersed long ago, that had scattered to different continents. Or like having a rare genetic condition, and finally meeting kids like you at a special summer camp.

But of course I drank too much. We stayed at that bar until it closed, then we found another bar (empty except for the three of us, if I'm remembering correctly) there in the yuppie Arlington shopping center. I think we stayed until it closed, too, and all I remember after that is walking alone in circles for a long time trying to figure out which parking garage my car was in. Whatever conversation the three of us had, illuminating or silly or poignant or awkward and mundane, is lost to me. Most of that night post-reading is just a black hole in my memory, one of many such black holes.

Later there were some text and Facebook messages exchanged about my coming to see him at another reading, at the Busboys & Poets in DC, but for whatever stupid personal reasons I flaked out on him, and he moved back to California shortly after that, and that's the story of my one real literary friend here in the DC area.

I know there are others here, though. Over the years I've thought about how I could find them. But I haven't ever really sought out a writing group, local class, or literary magazine to get involved with. Part of it is that I seem to work so well solo, a little self-contained universe cranking out stories at my laptop computer (or on my work computer during lulls) and then sharing them with the motley handful of writer friends I've accumulated around the North American continent. 

There's Dave up in Canada who works as a janitor, and whom I met after poking around on an Amy Hempel fan page on Facebook; I had gone to her fan page specifically looking for kindred spirits. There's another David, down in New Orleans, the English professor/haiku translator and scholar/novelist who was my first lover back in 2006. (The story of how I met him would be too long and distracting here, but I assure you it's a doozy.) There's Oliver, who was in Pittsburgh and is now a professor in Texas, whose online literary magazine, The Moustache Club of America, I somewhat helped revamp after a dormant spell and to which I have contributed fiction that meets his "funny-sad" dictum: the stories must be jokey or funny on the surface, but must also be deep-down very sad. (A disclaimer: I submitted my writings to the editors at The Good Men Project, the bigger and much more well-known website that houses the MCoA, but it was the editors who posted the stories and selected accompanying images and pull-quotes. They also almost always changed my story titles to make them more attention-getting or straightforward. I don't mind that so much because I understand their purposes, but I don't consider those my "real" story titles.)

That said, when it came to finding a local literary community, I never knew where to start. I have participated in precisely one writing-group session -- and that was just because my engineer dad had sketched out an outline of a government-conspiracy science-fiction thriller and had a co-worker who was part of a writing group that met in a corner of a Barnes & Noble. I was there as an observer, thinking I'd maybe bring some writing to share next time. I know I shouldn't let that one dispiriting experience color my view of writing groups -- the group leader was an insufferable wannabe-intellectual who wore a T-shirt that said, "Careful: If you piss me off, I'll put you in my novel;" most of the writers were more sci-fi-oriented (not a bad thing at all on its own, just not what I do); and members' feedback seemed to have been cribbed from some textbook list of questions to ask at a writing group: "What was this character's motivation for doing this?" "You need to provide more physical description of the characters." Being more on the experimental side of writing, I am someone who will sometimes intentionally obscure or not reveal a character's motivation for doing something, and I often avoid physical description because I view it as filler, fluff, arbitrary clutter that can distract from what the story is trying to say. Bottom line: This was not the writing group I was looking for.

More recently, I've thought about getting involved with a literary magazine, maybe volunteering to edit stories or review submissions, just to somehow plug into the literary grid around here. A few months ago I submitted some stories to a contest held by Phoebe, a literary magazine put out by Virginia-based George Mason University. There are tons of writing contests going on, all the time, and a glut of small publications that print literary fiction (any issue of Poets & Writers has a massive back section full of this info). I went to the trouble of polishing and submitting (and paying the submission fee) to this particular contest solely because the judge was David Means, author of one of my favorite stories, "The Spot," a gritty and nihilistic piece that ran in The New Yorker and somehow managed to include a prostitute, pimp, and murder yet mostly leave the reader with this acute sense of the atmosphere, the tedium, the drone of eking out a life in the dreary industrial backwaters of the Great Lakes. None of my stories were chosen, of course, which is strangely fine with me; as I said, I still consider myself a longtime resident of Amateurland with no expectation of breaking my lease soon.

So here's where I finally get to the action part of this post. Today, partly to distract myself from a downward spiral of jealousy and self-hatred of my own making, I simply Googled "dc literary fiction," hoping to find mention of some community, some workshop or class (I have still never taken a single creative-writing class), some group where I could find kindred spirits as well as someone to help elevate me up out of Amateurland and into Realwriterville. I found this -- a supremely helpful list of literary joints and gatherings in the DC area. I'm going to go out into this literary scene that has surely been here the whole time, and see what happens. If nothing else, I can mine the experience for story fodder. That's the awesome thing about being a writer, or an artist of any kind -- no matter how good or bad something goes, it can always be material.

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