|From Alan's website. He doesn't really look like this at all. He has much more beard, but also a bigger, more expressive mouth. Different hat and glasses too. He looks much younger than this photo.|
From finding out about the event to showing up to the event itself to the bar afterward to going home, working late, and digesting, I felt enriched. Aside from Alan's engaging candor, immediate sincerity, unabashed passion, which produced an easy familiarity of conversation despite the fact that I believe none of us, Alan included, are particularly gregarious people...aside from feeling like we'd been gifted a new friend, I felt I'd gained some important lessons.
Lesson (1): Pay attention to news sources in the local community. I heard about Alan's visit from my friend Lynn in Anchorage, and that's not the first time she's tipped me off to a Homer event. Because I'm the round-up coordinator for the literary blog 49 Writers, I tend to presume, nay, expect that people will feed me any literary happenings in town to put in the round-up. Turns out many people in town consider 49 Writers a source for statewide rather than local literary information. "Well, it's advertised on the radio, it's in the newspaper, there are flyers up at the Library," they say. I don't listen to the radio or read the newspaper; some days I don't make it out of the cabin and its immediate surroundings. I'm woefully disconnected to local newsfeeds, and I should have my feelers out for events to post, rather than assuming I'm at the center of the web and will be fed announcements, neatly cocooned like flies. Speaking of the web, the local newspapers are well represented online, so there's really no excuse. A new habit for me: pay more attention to what my friends are doing. So, be where you are, and pay attention.
But, lesson (2), be willing to expand from your "local" zone. Alan was raised in urban South Chicago, but he says that during his MFA, he received consistent feedback that his stories set there seemed inauthentic, largely because of reader bias insisting that he was not from that demographic. "Write what you know," they would always say. Alan performed his marvelous full-body face-scrunched-open shrug--well, it is what I know... But, he listened, and began setting stories in rural Indiana, where his mom was raised, and things began to fall into place in terms of audience response.
But (3) insist on your own sense of what is right--he gave some examples of instances in which he would not compromise, particularly in the context of a movie adaptation of a story, and also underscored the importance of knowing who you are, including your family of origin (he read some stunning excerpts from the journal of his great-great-great-great-great grandfather); of getting to know the pulse of your own creativity, the way things come out of your mouth.
Therefore, (4) be proud of what you send out into the world! He said it was easy, during his MFA, to feel like he was in a race, with huge pressure to rack up publications. So, he sent something off, and the thing got accepted, but when it came to galleys he was horrified. He had no pride in the story whatsoever, didn't want anyone to see it ever, is still ashamed of it, says "don't read this." Thereafter, he published just five more stories over the next dozen years. And now his collection Volt is out (and has won a Whiting award, which is no small thing, but which he barely mentioned). If he's going to publish a story, he wants to be so excited about it that he'll be standing up (again, with one of his wonderful physical postures) and proclaiming, "You gotta read this story!"
To get to that point, (5) when he's starting work on a story he tries to get all the words down asap, all the bare bones structure and start-to-finish through-line, and then he goes back and does the hard work on it so that every single sentence feels "correct." He doesn't analyze in great detail this sense of correctness; he keeps going back to instinct, which is also belief in and respect for oneself, which is about developing the most finely tuned ear, and a gut response to your own voice.
At the bar, we talked with more hilarity and less restraint about his writing habits and our own, and one additional message that struck me (6) was the value of getting into the piece of writing (no matter the genre) with your whole self. Full body, more than chewing a pen or scratching a hole in your head. As I've suggested a few times, one of the most impressive things about Alan is his full-bodied self, especially when he talks; even more especially when he reads. He moves with the narrative as if miming a map of the story. When he reads, it sounds like he's singing the Blues--his voice so melodic, the cadences of his phrases so much the theme and variation of a Blues riff--bo daa daa daa-bo daa daa -- bo daa daa daa-bo daa daa -- -- -- bo daa daa daa daa dabodabodaboda bo daa daa.
Yes, he said in explicit words that we're all "eggheads" (guilty giggles) but that we need to get into it in a more felt way. But the fact that he not only said it but did it was the amazing thing.
One final, wonderful lesson, (7), and this is about parenting, but is also hugely inspirational to anyone, parent or not. Alan shared that he has a sixteen-year-old son who is an extremely talented musician--jazz piano and singing, already somewhat in demand, likely to be competed for by the top music conservatories rather than the other way round. Family members are asking what his "fallback" career plan is, because music should just be a hobby, of course. Alan told (miming with his body, of course) of his absolute insistence that there is no fallback plan. If his son wants to be a musician, that's what he is aiming at, full body, full mind, full spirit, and that is what he is going to believe in, and that is what he is going to do. What are you talking about, "fallback plan?" He is, and is going to be, a musician.
I restrain myself from further comment, and offer, simply, a standing ovation.