On How (Not) To Talk to, Or Tackle, Important People

For the past few days, I have been thinking a lot about what posessed me to briefly contemplate tackling the poet Marie Howe in the lobby of the Marriott Wardman Park hotel in Washington DC.

Two points of context: first, I am a great admirer of Howe’s poetry. Second, I, like she, was at the Marriott last weekend to attend a gigantic annual conference of writers and writing programs.

Also, when I use “tackle” I use it in the most affectionate possible way. And I didn’t, actually, in the end, come close to any sort of contact with her. I didn’t touch her. I didn’t even attempt to speak to her.

Which, in the end, is my point. Because after five days of completely enjoyable, often debaucherous, sometimes successful and sometimes embarassing hobnobbing with varyingly successful writers, I do not know the answer to this question: how in god’s name are you supposed to interact with them?

Considering my professional background, I should probably be a heck of a lot less clueless about this. Lately I’ve been joking that I possess very few practical professional skills, but that–thanks to a few years working in journalism–one of them is getting ahold of Important People. (Aka, as one former colleague and I recently joked, I know how to use a telephone.)

Often, I can be reasonaby charming with these people, too. But it’s a lot easier when I don’t particularly care why they’re important. No offense to Tom Friedman or Meghan McCain, but put me in an elevator with them and I’m fine.

Put me within two hundred feet of Lorrie Moore, however, and watch me have eighteen consecutive panic attacks.

That happened about a month ago, when S and I got to attend a reading and subsequent dinner for the writer in Santa Fe.

I discovered Lorrie Moore in college, about the same time that I discovered sex and bass players and vodka sodas. My girlfriends and I would later compete about who came upon her stories first–stories full of single women so insecure they can only write about themselves in the second person.

The point is that I feel connected with her writing in a manner intensely, singularly personal. Except, of course, for the fact that there is nothing singular about it: in MFA classrooms around the country, she’s probably the best known female name.

So, between panic attacks, as I considered what, if anything, I could possibly say to her, it seemed that anything along the lines of “you made me want to be a writer” or “I really love your work” would be like walking up to Brad Patt and telling him I think he’s good-looking.

By the time I got up to have her sign my book, the only language I could produce was a response to whether I spelled my name with an “s” or a “z.” According to my projection, she looked at me with pity.

The lesser known writer who, somewhat pitifully in fact, sat next to her with a pile of books and no one interested in her signature, broke the silence. “Love your scarf!” she said.

“Oh, thanks! Twenty bucks at Anthropologie!”

Moore glanced up and gave me a once over.

“I suppose you’re skinny enough to shop there,” she said.

In retrospect, the appropriate response might have been something like, “so are you!” or, I don’t know, “thanks”? Instead I tried to be cute and told her it didn’t matter because I’m a graduate student and therefore can’t shop there either.

“Oh yes, I was thin too when I was in grad school,” she replied, wistfully, handing back my book.

I’m not sure how to describe the feeling of being called thin by someone you admire, in part, because her feminine insecurities echo yours. Bizarre is the word that springs to mind.

And bizarre, it turns out, is often the appropriate adjective in these writerly/celebrity interactions: the ones in which the imbalance of fame and accomplishment seems to immediately undermine any possibility of genuine connection. The ones in which you find yourself considering minor acts of violence, simply to get someone’s attention–only to realize you have no idea what you’d do with said attention once you’d, violently, found it.

Or at least, so it feels from my perspective. After getting hit on at the conference by a well-known writer who I initially assumed would rather stare at his shoes than talk to me (dutifully, or perhaps stupidly, I told him I had a boyfriend), I can safely state that I have no clue what those on the other side of the interaction think.

The other day I told a colleague about the wierdnesses in Washington.

“Well, I guess that’s gonna be us in a few years!” he said.

I looked at him with startled skepticism.

“I mean,” he went on. “We’re gonna be writers! We’re gonna write books! That’ll be us!”

Bless his enthusiastic, optomistic soul–I’d love to think he’s right. In which case I’ll be here in a couple of years telling you exactly what one thinks on the other side. Here’s hoping.

 

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6 Comments

Filed under Odyssey

6 responses to “On How (Not) To Talk to, Or Tackle, Important People

  1. ep

    I was going to reply to the content of this post, but then I realized that the only thing I really wanted to tell you was how much I loved it.

  2. The ol' danner

    You know, old pal, our interactions with successful writers are probably awkward because writers are awkward. They’re often bitter, social stunted, emotionally damaged, outcast, or politically outraged–or all of the above. They sit in rooms all day writing things. They have relationships with their own selves that get so intimate that they preclude small talk with others.

    So, it’s probably not all your fault.

    Anyway, thanks for the blog!

    • Oh, old pal, you are so magnanimously correct! Writers are generally socially inept folk. And the whole contrast between the main thing that makes us writers, which has to do with sitting alone all day, and what we’ve got to do to be successful writers, which involves being obnoxiously, shamelessly shmoozy…well, it’s just bound to be uncomfortable! Miss you out here, come back soon!

  3. Susie II

    I think your spontaneous response to Lorrie’s comment was much better than your second thoughts. Trust yourself! Once I thought I made silly comments in response to one of Jeff’s favorite professors. When I lamented to Jeff he said, no, he’d much rather hear someone say something out of the ordinary than pat answers.

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