Saturday concluded another year of attending panels and soirees at the Montana Festival of the Book. This is something I look forward to every year, and it never disappoints. The title of this particular post is a one-liner the excellent author Jess Walter dropped in response to a question about the “what is the ‘x’” in fiction (I don’t remember the specifics, but you had to be there — it was hilarious). It was one of the best panels I attended, and also featured my friend David Abrams, as mighty a champion of books as there is (who also dropped a line, something like, “There’s nothing funnier than fellatio on a coke bottle” in the same panel), who has recently released his debut novel, Fobbit.
My goal here isn’t to review the event, or even talk about the many excellent people I spoke with. That would probably be boring to everyone but me (though I should shout out a big, “Thanks, Mom!” for being a great companion for much of it, for the however many-eth year in a row). Instead, I want to talk about a strange, and disturbing, phenomena, totally in my own head, that I encounter whenever I attend a similar event here in my home town. It’s a confidence thing, really, but I suspect I’m probably not the only writer who struggles with it.
See, the writing folks in and around Missoula really aren’t “my people.” I don’t mean that disparagingly at all. The town is crawling with writers, and the University of Montana has a fantastic writing department that draws, and has produced, scores of excellent and renowned authors. I’m pleased with that. I’m happy that a small city in a barely-populated state has such a thriving arts community. And the reason I go to these events is not only an effort to support that community, but also to spend time with folks who share similar interests. It doesn’t come easy, because when it comes to small talk and butting in on ongoing conversations, I’m not too skilled. But, as the legendary James Lee Burke said when asked about how to start a new project, “You walk up to the door, and you kick it down and jump through it!”
I shouldn’t have even been here this week. I should have been in Cleveland, OH, where Bouchercon 2012 was being held. Especially considering I’d been invited to a special event as a forthcoming Dead Man author. The stuff I’ve written, and the places it’s been published, are all known to many of the folks who were there tweeting pictures from the heart of the mayhem. I suspect there were easily a score or more of folks in attendance who would know me, at least by name and reputation, small as it is, because we’ve interacted, or been published in the same places, sometimes in the same issues. A handful of those folks I’ve even met face to face. Basically, I am known more as a writer outside of Missoula than I am in it.
But I chose Missoula, and the event pushed many of my buttons of insecurity. The social aspects of it did, at least. After the events of Friday, on reflection I was torn by equal parts exhilaration and discouragement. At the evening event I mentioned, at one point I was standing in line to fill my fist with another beer, and I could hear snatches of conversation with things like, “– was here for my MFA — ” and “– yeah, that was during my dissertation — ” etc. All the feelings of “not belonging” were preparing to bum rush me. MFA? Hell, my training consists of a couple workshops and 40 years of reading, only recently with any level of critical eye. When folks would ask if I write, and I would answer, talking of the stories I’d published, and that I’d signed my first significant book contract a couple weeks ago, I almost felt embarrassed because none of that work is particularly “literary.” My work isn’t appearing in some [insert foreign city or college] Press/Review/whatever publication. And no one there had ever heard of any of it.
For example, I went to a panel where Gregory Martin, a smart, well-spoken, excellent writer, was talking about his new memoir, Stories for Boys:
In this memoir of fathers and sons, Gregory Martin struggles to reconcile the father he thought he knew with a man who has just survived a suicide attempt; a man who had been having anonymous affairs with men throughout his thirty-nine years of marriage; and who now must begin his life as a gay man. At a tipping point in our national conversation about gender and sexuality, rights and acceptance, Stories for Boys is about a father and a son finding a way to build a new relationship with one another after years of suppression and denial are given air and light.
It was a powerful discussion, and clearly tells a story of deep meaning and emotion. And I thought to myself, I’m sitting here trying to think my way through a story about a guy who can’t die and travels around fighting evil with a woodcutter’s axe. I also thought, That’s why he’s up there, and I’m still out here in the audience, feeling sorry for myself.
Looking at the crowds of people chatting away, and milling about all the tables laden with all kinds of books, except the kind I write, I didn’t feel like there was anyone there who would have any interest at all in the writing I’ve done, or that I’m doing. It was disheartening, and I kind of moped out of the building.
Funny what a good night’s sleep will do for you.
Saturday morning I was back at the Fest, feeling renewed, my spirits higher. Conversations continued. New acquaintances were made, and reflections broadened. I realized that passing judgments on the people in attendance was hardly fair. After all, am I the only one equally thrilled to pick up the new David Quammen, or chat up Pam Houston because I love her work, even as I get an equal kick out of reading the new Christa Faust? If I should be ashamed of anything related to my petulant attitude, it should be at the sheer arrogance in imagining only I could be the one with such broad tastes.
Sure, I have a goal of placing something in The Whitefish Review. Or High Desert Journal. To do so will require a different kind of writing, in content, but it still has to kick all kinds of ass. It has to take the reader somewhere, with relatable characters, and hit all the points discussed in the panels I attended. Which are the very things that will make my Dead Man novel succeed to the degree I hope it will.
I’ve spent the year reading tons of fiction I’d never had read five or ten years ago, and I’m better for it. It’s taught me just how much higher I need to raise my game in order to get it where I want it to be. Regardless of what the stories are about, they need to captivate. They don’t have to be for everyone either, but, if I like them and they turn out the way I hope for them to, they will definitely be for plenty of people.
What more can a writer ask for? See ya next year, Missoula. . . .