|This is the author "photo" from by book of stories, The Smallest People Alive. Antonio Adams drew it. Not sure what it means, but I kind of know what it feels like.|
This summer I went to the Sewanee Writers Conference at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. It was sort of an ordeal, but not really, and yet it was. That's the only syntax I can use to describe it. I wanted the experience to reacquaint me with the magic I used to find when I wrote stories. I also wanted to finish a draft of novel. I didn't understand what was about to happen because I didn't really think this thing through.
I'm weird. No two ways about it. I'm socially awkward and a great big freak. So when I get into embarrassing and/or awkward situations I retreat. And by "retreat," I don't mean being quiet and going on with my day. I mean I pull back to the point I eventually just have to vacate the premises.
When I arrived at the conference, I drove around the campus and it felt like deja vu. Fifteen years before, when I was 32, I took a chance and attended the Kenyon Review Writer's Workshop at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Back then, I was four years out of grad school, and truly did not know what the hell a writer was supposed to do. At Kenyon, I met a writer named Nancy Zafris who changed my life. Her teaching style was what I needed somehow: she hurled complicatedly great writing prompts at the workshop attendees. You'd have to write in class often and read what you wrote aloud. This fusing of exhibitionism with something you always do in private really somehow freed me up, and I wrote several stories, and even the beginning of a novel that eventually would be published by Knopf in 1999, thanks to Nancy introducing me to her agent. The book is titled The Life I Lead, and it was not a success, although it got some okay reviews, along with some very mean-spirited ones.
The whole experience, of going to Kenyon and getting somehow touched by the writing angel, and then publishing a novel with a big publisher and then having the novel come out and nothing really happening, was soul-crushing and brain-expanding. Again thanks to Nancy, I got hired to be a teacher at the Kenyon conference in 2000. I taught in 2001 and in 2002, but in 2002 I was feeling this eerie disapproval in the air, coming from Nancy, as well as from the starchy, prissy director of the whole gig. Because my novel was not a big deal, and because I was seen as sort of a country-bumpkin-weirdo who lucked into having his novel published but then didn't have the talent or will-power strong enough to make the damn thing a success, I got the feeling they wanted me to just go away. Nancy kept hinting around about how the workshop needed "big names" to keep the people coming in. I could have been the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop mascot, but basically I became a fired janitor in the end. I left a day or so early, sick of the whole crappy ordeal. Haven't spoken to Nancy since, or anyone there.
No two ways about it.
The Life I Lead came from a prompt in Nancy's class involving merging your intimate sensate childhood memories with the consciousness of a reprehensible character. Nancy gave a great example of how the writing should look and feel: Eudora Welty's blistering short story about the dude who shot Medgar Evers, "Where Is This Voice Coming From?" I had an uncle in my family who molested his sons, and who it turned out had been molested as a child. He was always mentioned in whispers around the house. I decided to try to "figure out" my uncle's situation by using Nancy's prompt. So basically from that little exercise came a full-on disturbingly in-your-face novel about a child molester and the child molester who molested him. It was told in voices, that way Eudora told her story. Writing it was liberating. I didn't feel morally repulsed at all. I felt spiritually enlightened, to tell you the truth, because I felt as I wrote it I was getting to know people who everybody else would like to have executed. I had access to the human part, as well as the monster part. It's in that eerie realm of castigation and curiosity that I think a lot of great writing happens.
And when the book was published and it didn't exactly set the world on fire I felt slighted and pissed, but I moved on. I wrote short stories, one of which got published and was awarded an O. Henry Prize, "The Smallest People Alive," which I bundled with a bunch of other stories and was able to get published through Carnegie Melon University Press because Sharon, a teacher I taught with at Kenyon, was the editor there. That book got published in 2004, and it was a better experience, even though it didn't really cause that much of a stir either. Except it was a favorite of one Donald Ray Pollack, who in 2008 emailed me that he liked my work, and that he was publishing a book of stories called Knockimstiff, and he wondered if I had an agent. I did, but she hadn't really been able to do a lot for me. So he introduced me to his agent. I went with the new agent, sent him a new collection of stories I was working on. The agent sent it around to multiple publishers. No deal. Wrote a novel in 2010. He sent that around. Nobody wanted it. Started working on a new novel in 2011.
And now, here we are: Sewanee Writers Conference, 2012.
That's the backstory I need to include so I can make sense of the experience, mainly for myself. Once I arrived and toured the Gothic-building-dominated campus at the University of the South, got my nametag and my dorm room key, unpacked and walked around a little, I wound up at the dining hall. The place was jumping with all kinds of writerly types. I know how stupid "writerly types" sounds, as if I truly am the country-bumpkin-weirdo like those other writerly types thought back in the day, but that is exactly what I was confronted with. Lots of horn-rimmed glasses, prematurely-balding pates, librarian sweaters knotted over pale clavicles, NPR tote-bags, khaki shorts and university tees, eccentricity and preciousness personified. Stereotypes, I know, but damn there they all were on display, just like on the Sewanee Writers Conference website and you think when you look at the website no fucking way, but yup.
And the overall atmosphere was so chummy and cliquish it made me want to retreat automatically, even while I wanted to join the ranks. I wanted to use that atmosphere to get inspired. I wanted to, well, get into a time-machine and return to 1997, if you want to know the truth.
It was an Indian food buffet, of course. I made a plate and sat down with a bunch of prematurely balding, horn-rimmed-glasses-wearing gentlemen. They were talking about teaching, writing, their poet-wives, great writers they knew, where they teach, how they got their teaching jobs, who they know here, etc. They were networking. I tried to converse, but everything that I thought about saying sounded goofy and egotistical and pathetic in my head, so basically I just ate and nodded, until one guy who was a dead ringer for Jason Schwartzman saw my nametag and said: "Keith Banner. You're the guy who wrote that one story. 'The Smallest People in the World,' right?"
He was being nice. I felt thrilled in a way but mainly just terrified, like an impostor except I was impersonating myself and that never goes well.
"Yeah," I said.
The guy said that he was in a class that Mary Gaitskill taught, and she used my story as an example of greatness.
"Thanks," I said.
I guess I was supposed to feel more comfortable now, but I didn't. Then it got around to me having to explain what I do for a living. I teach creative writing sometimes at Miami University here in Ohio, but mainly I'm a full-time social-worker for people with developmental disabilities. So I said that.
The Jason Schwartzman guy smiled and said, without any sense of irony at all, just pure sincerity: "Oh yes. That kind of work is important and hard."
The tone was a little hushed, a little pointed somehow. It felt like a joke, even though I knew he had not meant it to be. The other Jason Schwartzmans at the table moved on to talking about David Foster Wallace's The Pale King.
It was as if they were pitying me and then forgetting me, kind of confused by my presence. Why was I here if I wasn't a Professional Writer wanting to network with other Professional Writers? What the hell?
That dinner experience threw me for a loop, and for most of the rest of my time there I hid in the dorm room and in the computer lab at the library on campus. I never went back to have my meals at the dining hall, even though the cost of tuition covered those. I was just done with it all somehow. That little stupid conversation, completely meaningless, was an epiphany for me. I don't get a lot of those, so I'm writing this post to figure out what the epiphany actually means. I think it's time for me to figure out how to keep writing without feeling like I don't belong to the Writing World, like I'm always a transient in a roomful of residents, the homeless guy who agitates everyone because he does not have a house, and they all have mortgages and property taxes out the ying-yang.
I don't know how to act. I don't know what to say. It's always been this way, and I'm sure I'm not alone in these functional deficits, but because of the way I end up feeling and acting I always am alone.
For two weeks at Sewanee, I hid from people. I would go to the class I signed up for (taught by the sweet and very intelligent Alice McDermott who gave one hell of a lecture that I still cherish), but ran away from other participants after the last word in class, always back to the basement of the library, typing in my novel, working on a story. Even sometimes in class I would feel the urge to talk, but mainly I would hear what I was about to say in the recording studio inside my soul and it would sound either horribly lackluster or mordantly stupid. Throughout my tenure there at Sewanee I also attended a lot of the lectures given by incredible writers, and would be inspired, but then I would sink back into seclusion. The inspiration was calming, but still felt a little sad.
I wrote this in my journal, explaining how the whole ordeal felt while I was there in the midst of it:
That loneliness today. A heady blast of it, a knowledge that no matter what you do you're still what you are. Everybody here is nice, and since I want to be invisible to them they are kind enough to let me. Do I hate them? No. I just don't know how I am supposed to act. I keep thinking back to Kenyon 1997, 15 years ago, drafting my novel from a Nancy prompt. It's not like that here. It won't ever be again anywhere. Something happened as I got older? But I've always been like this: overjoyed and too passionate and scared and mean. How do you move forward? I guess I needed these weeks here to learn how to proceed and basically all I've come to is this: you don't belong here. I'm half-way into my life now, oh hell more than half-way, and no easy answers. No answers at all. I just don't know. That loneliness is a quake of air. It's where words limit themselves to the point they become insects hitting a window. It's that burnt-looking dog walking around Wendy's I saw yesterday as I ate in my car because I didn't want to go to the dining hall and bull-shit with all the bull-shitters. That dog listless but full of hunger, dumbfounded but also always on the lookout for whatever it can find.
I finished the novel at Sewanee. Sent the novel to the agent. The agent did not like it, and basically said it was time to end our professional relationship. I emailed back: "Totally understand. Thanks for everything you've done."
So now I'm here. January 1, 2013. The epiphany at the Indian-food buffet at Sewanee I think was this: you just do what you can. You're free; you may be a mangy, half-dead mutt in pursuit of god knows what, but still you are free. And it's not terrible or wonderful to be free; it's just what it is. You write if you want to write, and you keep trying to get it published. Or you don't. Nobody gives a crap either way. And whether or not you can network with the Jason Schwartzmans of this world or not truly is unimportant.
Just keep trying. That's what the mutt does. Keeps sniffing out whatever it is he can find and is probably happy with it when he finds it. Possibly even overjoyed.