I’ve had four book events in the past four weekends, with two more to come in October. Pausing to reflect on where I’ve been before I go forward, I’m thinking of the places I traveled to: Memphis & Little Rock, Columbus, Georgia, Fairhope, Alabama, and Nashville. I feel so lucky to have gotten to a point where I get to go places and talk about my books in particular and writing in general: what a gift. As a budding writer, I wrote a poem in which I described my hope of achieving “a place on the shelf,” and now I have.
I’ve been publishing books since 2003 but I find I still get excited about getting to wear an author badge and get up in front of people to read and talk. When I’m nervous about my performance or afraid no one will show up, I always remind myself that there will be at least one person who gets something he or she needs, whether I hear about it or not, and that at least one good thing will come out of my being there. I’ve never been wrong yet.
As I think about the past month, it’s details and moments that stick in my mind: the woman at a salon in Memphis who choked up a little bit talking about one of my stories and what the main character meant to her, and how I choked up a little bit hearing her and responding. In Little Rock, at the Farmers’ Market, I read my story “Sandra” about a young writer who develops a kind of friendship with a homeless woman via the baked goods she buys her every day, and as we sat around afterwards a man came up asking if we had any work he could do because he was hungry, and no one did but I asked if he liked granola bars and when he said yes gave him some.
In Columbus I met friends for a drink and then zipped off to the public library to hear two poets read, poets whose work I hadn’t known before but loved, and loved that pure sitting-and-listening feeling that sometimes slips away in the conference buzz of arrangements and acquaintanceships. An elderly, physically bent couple sat on the front row of the reading, having gotten themselves there at night when it was probably not easy for them to drive, or to walk from the parking lot to the auditorium, but they were there to be fed by poetry, so it was worth it. I was having dinner in the hotel lobby afterwards when another writer came in and I asked her to join me, and over wine and flatbread pizza we discovered how much we had in common and I knew I’d made a new friend. The next day I was asked to join a discussion panel right before it started, and even though I hadn’t prepared I was still okay with it: I had things to say. In fact I’ve been preparing all my life.
In Fairhope I sat in a friend’s cottage and listened to a song that had been written from one of my stories for the Trio project. A song. Written by Mary Gauthier from a story I wrote. I’m pretty much still tingling. (You can listen to it at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3WCZ_7EeDg). At the Fairhope festival of art and books I wandered over into the birding festival going on next door and saw a presentation on owls—the white-faced barn owl named Luna, so unearthly looking, is going to find her way into a poem or story, I’m sure.
And this past weekend in Nashville, I came full circle and was on a panel with a writer who lives in Memphis and would’ve been at that salon a month ago if she hadn’t been teaching that night. Our panel was at the same time as Pat Conroy’s session—the second book festival at which this has happened—so I was grateful anyone showed up at all. The great thing about being on at the same time as Pat Conroy is that you then get to sit at the signing table at the same time as him, and watch how he greets every single person freshly, totally at ease and totally himself and enjoying being there, talking with his readers and getting his picture taken with them, cracking a joke, hearing the hard stories people bring him. When you’re sitting next to Pat Conroy at the signing table and he takes money from his wallet and asks you to go buy your book and sign it to him, and you’ve been admiring his work since you were fourteen and saw Conrack at the Heights Theatre in Little Rock and then read the book it was made from, The Water Is Wide, you don’t need anything more. Nor do you need a better model for hard work and bigheartedness, as you go forward with your writer’s life.
(My thanks to Sonja Livingston for pointing out our amusing view of the backside of the sculpture “Victory” at the Legislative Plaza in Nashville.)