Tuesday, May 14, 2013

In the company of my tribe

I’m writing this blog late because I am still exhausted from Saturday.

On Saturday, I cleared my schedule except for two engagements—getting some emergency last-minute business cards printed up, and driving umptyfratzmumble miles across huge swaths of Los Angeles to a little town called Beverly Hills for a grad-school reunion. Now, I don’t think of myself as a Beverly Hills kind of person. In fact, thanks to a childhood spent among the children of much wealthier families (my parents sent me to private school despite not quite being in a private-school tax bracket), palatial houses make me itch. I always think I’m going to breathe wrong and break something that costs more than my car. I just about had a heart attack when I rang the doorbell and it was opened by a tidy woman in a serving uniform. (My immediate thought was “butler”, but I was too nervous to ask.)

I was wearing black combat boots with my best jeans and a button-down shirt because it was too hot, miserable, and hilly to bother wearing a dress and heels. Try talking to a polished domestic servant while you’re wearing combat boots and hoping nobody notices; it’s quite an education.

But once I got over the heart attack and was escorted inside, past some statuary that wouldn’t have been out of place in Wayne Manor … once I’d introduced myself to the group and tried not to stammer … once I’d politely explained to the well-dressed woman, in a whisper, that I was serious about not drinking the champagne and plain old ice water would be just fine … I was home. Because among the dozen or so alumni sitting in the professor’s Beverly Hills living room was at least one guy who hadn’t come in combat boots, but had come wearing green sneakers, red pants with blue plastic spikes sticking out of them, a black shirt printed with neon orange chili peppers, and what appeared to be a crown made out of dark-blue felt with rhinestones hot-glued all over it. Oh, and a black vest, but I found my eye tended to slide right over that unaccountably drab piece of the ensemble. 

Oh, right, I thought. I am among writers.

My graduate school happened to be the Master of Professional Writing program at the University of Southern California, and while I don’t often go out of my way to attend USC alumni events (like this one, they’re usually held far from where I live and are full of people who dress a lot better than I do), I would probably set myself on fire and crawl over broken glass to hang out with Professor Gina Nahai. She taught one of the most useful classes I took in grad school, a fiction workshop, and helped me learn not only basic workshop skills but also a rule that I still quote to my own students and any newcomers to any workshop I’m in: “Ninety percent of the feedback you will get in this room is crap. Your job is to find the other ten.” 

A wise woman, Gina. I will never forget the evening when one of her students suggested to me, with a straight face, that Masks would be a lot better if I just changed the ending so that it turned out Rae was an inmate in an insane asylum and had hallucinated the entire story. Horrified and not sure I’d heard right, I stared at the student and asked, “So, you’re saying that I should have it turn out that it was all a dream?” “Yes!” the student replied, without a trace of irony, as our classmates looked on in disbelief. And Gina, bless her heart, said nothing about it—she just quickly called on someone else to give me their notes, and shot me a look that said If you think that advice is in the ten percent, then you are an even bigger fool than you think you are. 

A wonderful woman.

So I spent four hours on Saturday afternoon chatting to other members of the Gina’s Kids club, networking and exchanging contact information and swapping story ideas and attempting to eat the delicious food spread out on a nearby table but totally failing because I was talking too much and there were too many other people in the way. (Somebody once told me that the way to get reporters to show up for any press conference, no matter how pointless, was to announce that there would be free food. Writers have elevated munchie-mooching to an art form, but I’m strictly an amateur.) I met several lovely new people—alumni from other years—who asked to be added to an online writing circle that I’m starting up. Other people took my cards and promised to use or recommend my services as an editor. A high-school teacher in the group asked for Masks bookmarks. We made jokes at the expense of Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, and a number of much more obscure books. Gina looked on, smiling. She’d beat her students with sticks if she thought it would get them to network. I even stopped compulsively monitoring the location and structural stability of nearby statuary.

The guy with the spiked pants turned out to run a comic-book company called Graphation, and he invited everyone to his zombie dog walk the following day. Writers!

We scribblers are a solitary bunch, for the most part. The most important part of what we do takes place in quiet rooms, or in corners of coffee shops, and always inside our own heads. I sometimes think we write to break the isolation—to try to communicate to the world all the astonishing things going on in our brains. But when we get together and support each other, we’re better for it. We find out that the writer in the next chair isn’t drinking the champagne either, and was equally embarrassed about it until she found out she wasn’t the only one. We find out that the writer we’ve been swapping editorial notes with is actually writing a novel with a plot that parallels one we’re writing, but with a completely different take on the subject that both precludes any possibility of plagiarism and reassures us that we’re not so crazy for chasing this idea after all. We find out that other people also wonder whether a zombie dog walk is a dog-walk for zombies or a walk for zombie dogs. (The answer, as far as I could tell, was yes.)

We find out we’re not alone. That’s worth driving umptyfratzmumble miles any day.

And the shoe situation turned out fine, too. Combat boots are hilariously clever when someone wearing stilettos accidentally steps on your feet …

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