Deborah Eisenberg and Antonya Nelson
Last Monday marked two years of writing essays for Reflection and Choice, so I went and celebrated by hearing two writers who are far better than I am do a reading at the Wortham Center in Houston. Two words: Lucky. Me.
Honestly, all day the two words ringing in my ears were “Columbus Day,” since it was Columbus Day, and a certain anxious part of me that really wants readers is always seduced by exploiting bank closures for hits on the site. More people are available, and, weirdly, people want to read stuff about Columbus on Columbus Day. But last year I already wrote about him in an essay on writing for ONE year, and it was starting to feel a little cheap wracking my brain figuring out how to redo that essay. In an irritating addition, I had to hope that no one platonically recollected my first stab at getting people to get on some figurative ship that will change the world forever.
Sometimes, a voyage is just over.
Plus, a lot of things have happened since then: death, love, trips, books, retail therapy at the Chanel counter, love, writing, books, chauffeuring my son Christopher to orchestra practice, nature, religion, poems, love. The super shallow that gets us through, the profound that lifts us up.
You know, the usual.
Plus, if after another year, you are the same kind of writer, with pretty much the same message, the same turn of the phrase, something is wrong. You aren’t moving, you aren’t going anywhere. People will start leaving you behind. You start to parody yourself, wear a costume that maybe you should have put in the back of the closet, and not for Next Year, but for Never Again.
I don’t know if you have ever been to the Wortham Center in Houston, but it is beautiful. Opera and ballet are usually performed here. The ceiling, cathedral-like, sends your eyes upward. It is soaring. You can’t believe it. The reading is through my favorite reading series in Houston: the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series, which is executively directed by Rich Levy. I see Rich as we cross the street to get our tickets. I met him at a reading after my friend Sarah Gish sent him a piece I did when George Saunders came and read for the same series. I sent the piece to George Saunders, and he miraculously wrote me back. I was so excited. I know it is cool to be cool, but I can’t do it: I was so on fire to write about George Saunders, hear back from him. It was a very nice note. I could tell he had really read the piece. I tell Rich I wanted to bronze that email and post it all over town. Rich laughs, says, “Well, sure!” and meets my mother, whom I have brought for the reading in Cullen Theater. People love meeting my mother: she looks at least a decade younger than she is, is Texas-friendly, and will go to readings and plays with me even if she has no idea what might happen. You can be adventurous without leaving town: it’s a gift.
I also tell Rich that I cannot wait for Michael Cunningham to read on the tenth of November, and I mean it. I have taught his novel The Hours with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and I even had a student do an honors thesis on it. The Hours is one of the most important books written in a very long time, and even the movie was good–Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Ed Harris. Nicole Kidman won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf. I don’t know why some universities complain about “popular culture”–which, sometimes, is absolutely highbrow when you think about it. If Michael Cunningham can reach more people through that book and film to help them out with Virginia Woolf, then I am all for it.
I can’t wait to tell my students to go hear him read: it’s not just the reading, it’s them telling me how right I was about him and his writing after the reading. In an era when higher education is basically under assault, it makes me deliriously happy when a professor is actually right about something. But that is how good this reading series is: they know what they are doing, know whom to bring, and then they actually do it. But the thing is Inprint has been doing this for years, and yet they are so casual about it, as if this happens all the time in a big city. I assure you, it does not. Houston is a good place to be if you want to hear not just writing, but literature. There is a difference.
Tonight, it is short fiction by two women writers: Antonya Nelson, and Deborah Eisenberg. Even though there is a great turnout, I am excited because I feel like the bill was put on the schedule just for my mom and me. I am still on the Alice Munro high–loved that she won the Nobel Prize–which usually goes to novelists–and yet, she won, writing short stories. When you do things downtown, it is always thrilling, and you feel like the crowd is just following you around, riding on this great thing you have decided to do on a Monday, which is usually a boring night for others, but not for you. If you can feel this way most of the time, it will save you a lot of grief.
The reading features Nelson first, but they call her Tony, she is well known in town. She looks younger every time I hear her read: she has some aging painting in a closet somewhere, and it kind of makes me sick. She is a hometown favorite because even though she has written seven short story collections, and four novels, and is nationally known, she also teaches at the University of Houston. She is the Cullen Chair in Creative Writing, and she is reading in Cullen theater tonight, so how about those Cullens?
She wears this really cute tri-colored tank-top swingy shirt thing, like it is a party, which is exactly how it should be. Nothing is more fun than a literary reading: you hear something new, figure out what your anxieties are as you listen to the piece, buy some books, get them signed, breeze out into the October night all amped up. Just like someone won an award or something, and, yes, these authors already have and so you really do feel like celebrating. I love her outfit and realize that most days I default into all black–the first sign of a limited imagination–and since I can’t stand cigarettes or wear a beret and have terrible crow’s feet because I smile a lot, I cannot really pull off the all black melancholy thing. So it is great seeing an author who doesn’t seem all depressed about everything, and she is very funny. Later, in the Q and A, she even says she really doesn’t believe fiction that lacks humor, because life is funny, and I just think about how hardly thirty minutes can go by without something being funny, even if grazed by the disastrous. As one of my students said when we were studying Oedipus Rex: “So, Dr. Wilson, he never once looked at Jocasta and thought: we sure look alike. Maybe she is my mother? Now THAT is funny.” Not to be disrespectful about the canon of Western Civilization, which I teach every week, but he had a point.
I love it when Antonya Nelson describes reading as “the sheer aesthetic thrill of taking a walk through someone else’s brain.” I also love that she has a character named Hugh Panic, who is “trying to quit drinking…..so much,” and has begun taking classes during happy hour in order to improve. This is a good reminder to me: someone may not be sitting in my class to get a credit. She may be sitting there, Circe-like, getting over Odysseus. And why not? We all have our ruses for recovery, for “getting it.” One of my favorite lines of the night is when Antonya Nelson reads this: “She had been living in Wichita Falls for four months, and she didn’t get it.” Who among us has not been in that locale? It doesn’t even have to be Texas, of course.
Antonya Nelson’s story is about two people who ditch their creative writing class because they would rather spend time with each other, and so now when students ditch my class, I won’t take it so personally–they are just living their lives. Their relationship is interrupted by a dog having a seizure or something, and I mean, this is how it goes: the climax of your own personal drama is put on a permanent detour by traffic lights, medical malfunctions, saying the wrong word at the wrong time. You can picture her characters, and you know it is a good reading when the author reads an excerpt from something, and you make a note to yourself to make sure and find the time to read the whole thing.
I buy a bunch of her books, have one signed for my friend John in Chicago–tell her he lives far away–as if she didn’t already know that. I have her sign her new book, Funny Once, and I am already all wistful about the title, which says so much, in two words.
The second reader comes all the way from New York City. She teaches at Columbia, but she is in Houston tonight. Her name is Deborah Eisenberg, and I don’t know what kind of rock I have been under, but I have not read anything by her before. When I buy her book, The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg, and I mean almost 1,000 pages of them, I realize it must be a pretty big rock, and I feel vaguely ashamed. Where have I been? What have I been doing? What have I been saying about the American short story in my classes that is so wrong, way wrong? For heaven’s sakes, Elle magazine has proclaimed that she “simply writes like no one else” and if they get it, why haven’t I?” All I can say about this is if you are going to have some sort of existential meltdown, you might as well do it in a place as gorgeous at the Wortham Center in a cute outfit with your mother on a Monday. Aesthetically pleasing, your mother will limit your histrionics through her sheer unwitting presence, and it’s a Monday, so not too much press and all will be forgotten by the weekend. Plus, you have a new signed book and the thing with reading is you can always catch up–the words aren’t going anywhere, except for later, when you read them.
Eisenberg is very glamorous to me. Dramatic gray hair, pencil thin pants, the highest heels I have ever seen in my life. She walks up the stairs to the stage and it is a little tenuous for a moment in those towering heels, but when she gets to the podium she says, “Well, I made it,” and I immediately like her as that is exactly what I would have said. It occurs to me that we warm to people when they do something that seems so familiar and natural that we think maybe that we are not such oddities after all, but can understand each other easily because everything is pretty dicey when you think about it, and she acknowledged that universal truth in a funny way, broke the ice, let us in. It didn’t matter if we were in New York or Houston or Iceland or Amsterdam, it was all systems go. Defeating geography is what writers do every day, we just don’t realize it until we don’t care where we are, we just care what we are doing, who we are with, how the words sound.
Now Eisenberg has won all sorts of awards, and I was going to type them out, but really you just need to know that 1) she is a genius and 2) you need to read her. She reads this long story–excerpts it, and I realize she really does not Raymond Carver things–her stories are these long novella-esque things and that is how the stories of our lives are–they often take months, years, to really see them through. Henry James died and that should not have been the end of that, right? Her stories of contemporary manners are important because how we act is how we are, and sometimes, we are completely messed up. Good to know.
She has an unusual way of expressing what happens every day. One of her characters suffers from schizophrenia: “something leaked in her mind.” One of her interests is “the way the mind rejects information,” and I immediately think of a Few Bad Decisions I Have Made that are certainly connected to that kind of denial. I can’t wait to tell my students all about this phenomenon. I am reading an author who addresses this: their days of rejecting the information I give them are numbered. I like to do this with students–make light of something when I am not kidding around. You have to work a little bit to find the words to do that. Deborah Eisenberg writes about things that cannot be resolved, notes “how arbitrary” and “cruel” things can be. Yet the pill is not as hard to swallow: in the Q and A she admits that she “hears things funny,” and I think most people don’t, so it is a relief to hear that someone does.
Deborah Eisenberg believes in the power of a great sentence. You don’t need histrionics to have drama in a sentence. She says the sentence is “a gorgeous unit,” and that “we are lucky to have them.” You can feel her joy in writing. It is like hearing great music: you want to hear it again. You want to find out if you can do it too. You feel hopeful, even in the midst of the arbitrariness and cruelty of the world. You want to give those things order, form, compassion. You want to be good.
Two years ago, I started writing these essays, and I did not have that much confidence about it, because I wasn’t sure how to proceed. My first piece was called “The End of Something,” so there you have where I was. A year later, I couldn’t believe all that time had gone by, all those words had appeared. I wish I could tell you how another year rolled by, but it is a mystery. But there is nothing that is not interesting–even the phone book is interesting–all those exotic and boring names, between yellow covers, that will end up in a landfill, extinct. All those advertisements, the history of your town, what people did to make a living, what they had to do to live their lives.
So many of my students wish to write. I know how they feel. But it is not just the writing–it is all the other plates that have to be spinning in the air at the same time: the reading of new writers, the getting out of town, the crummy drafts that no one needs to see. But then you write a sentence that makes sense yet feels new–and you know you are getting somewhere. Sometimes, you need to do it for awhile, maybe a couple of years, before you start to feel legit. Maybe you need to go to a reading, hear two new writers, even if they are just new to you. Maybe you need to choose two words that won’t wear out: maybe “love.” Maybe “words.” Maybe “everything.” Maybe you need to lighten up, admit that you need more than two, get a little greedy for more of those words.
This piece also appears at The Houston Chronicle Gray Matters website: