What the Writers Read

A few weeks ago, I had the unique privilege of attending two readings and one lecture at Tin House’s annual Summer Writer’s Workshop. As a current editorial intern at Tin House Books, I was able to “sneak” in to events normally reserved for attendees of the week-long workshop held at Reed College.

The first night I attended a reading by poet Melissa Stein, fiction writer Elissa Schappell, and novelist and essayist Steve Almond. I went to the reading for Elissa Schappell, I stayed for Steve Almond. The readings occurred every night in an outdoor amphitheater in a centralized location on campus. The benches were uncomfortable and the mosquitoes overzealous, but the view of Reed Lake and the verdant trees surrounding the hilly seating area was spectacular, exactly the kind of place you would hope to find yourself on a balmy July night.

I had never heard of Melissa Stein before as I’m not an avid poetry reader. I found her funny and lovely, and the same went for her thoughtful, beautifully rendered writing. She read in that “poet” voice; you know the one–deeper and a bit more sensual than the fiction writer’s reading voice. Her poetry and voice were like a lullaby that soothed the audience before Elissa Schappell took the stage and snapped us to attention. Elissa Schappell is a scene-stealer, an attention grabber, with her fiery hair and lightly graveled voice. Her story about young women and the mistakes they make in college was both funny and deeply sad–a reflection on gender, sexuality, and wrong choices. Her last line managed to give hope while at the same time made the audience squirm in our own memories of college days long gone.

I knew who Steve Almond was before I came out for the reading. I had almost seen him at the Get Lit Festival in Spokane, Washington this past spring and knew of his reputation as a hilarious writer who also touches on deeply important issues of our times. He managed to accomplish both at his reading, which covered three different pieces. The first was a short story about a psychologist with a gambling problem and the second was an essay he wrote for The Rumpus about Mitt Romney.

Before he read, Steve Almond explained to the audience–a crowd of writers eager to gain some wisdom from Almond and the rest–how he and his fellow readers could relate to us. “We’re struggling with you and here are some things that might make your writing less imperfect.” This was some astounding humility from a prolific (and quite accomplished) author. He continued the humility with his last piece, in which he read a poem/essay hybrid. The poem had been written years before, when he “still thought” he “could be a poet.” The essay that followed proceeded to tear apart the poem and any notion of his that he was a poet. This was hilarious and acted as a relief for all of us writers in the audience who had ever tried our hands at a genre we were no good at. If Steve Almond is bad at something, then there’s still hope for the rest of us.

The air in the amphitheater carried a strange scent. The first night, I thought it belonged to the perfume worn by the woman next to me. The second night, I realized that was just the way the air smelled around Reed–soapy and fruity at the same time, like floral laundry detergent. The second night, I didn’t have to sit on the worn wooden benches. I volunteered at the merchandise table, peddling t-shirts and books and sitting in a stiff metal chair. From my spot on the top of the hill, I could barely make out fiction writers Anthony Doerr and Jonathan Dee. Unfortunately, it was hard to connect to their readings from so far away.

But sometimes a story is told that is so profound, so deeply moving, you stop and listen no matter what the circumstances. This is what happened when author Ann Hood stood behind the podium. The first two-thirds of her time were spent telling a story–not reading a story, but telling it from memory, The Moth style. She spoke of her relationship and history with literature, of how when she was a child she “read to escape the world and wrote to understand it.” As she progressed through her story, I thought, “this is helpful and inspiring, but isn’t she going to read something?” It turned out this history was a prologue to an essay about the loss of her young child.

I doubt I was the only person in the audience taken aback by this personal and heartbreaking story. What I had thought was going to be an inspiration piece about what it means to be a writer, turned into a piece on how to be a writer in the midst of everything else, specifically how to be a writer when you’re having a hard enough time trying to be a person. The essay Ann Hood read was the first complete piece she had written after her daughter died in 2002. It had taken her a year to return to writing. What she felt after losing her daughter is a real fear for all writers. “Language is gone,” she remembered. Imagine telling that to a group of writers.

Writing is vulnerable. Reading in front of a crowd is revealing something of your secret self. Ann Hood, Steve Almond, and the other readers at the Tin House Summer Workshop are not just incredible writers. They are brave writers.

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