The Search for Meaning

“Is this going to be the first time you’ve ever spoken publicly about your writing?” Cousin Mary Anne asked a few weeks ago.

“Well,” I admitted, “to adults it is.” This is true on account of the time I was asked to speak to some children at a local Christian school about the art of writing. The fifth and sixth graders were delightful and engaged, and the junior highers, later, sat there like sullen lumps and laughed at the fact that Mrs Jamaica’s real name was “Mrs Dix.” I’m not really sure why the potential for youthful sniggering at that never occurred to me until the moment that it happened, but it hadn’t. The fifth and sixth grade teachers ended up deciding to read my book to their class in a unit about “other cultures” or something, and then they had the children write me some fan mail (pretty much my first ever), all of which was highly complimentary except for the one letter written by a student who said, “My advice to you if you decide to write another book is to never write another book again. Or at least a different kind.” I’m not sure if that one became my favourite of the letters because it was the most memorable, or because it was so hilarious or because I secretly wonder if the kid was right, but anyway, it is.

KS-Christie picked me up promptly at 7.30 Saturday morning, which was tough because I was trying to recover from a migraine, but I got myself out the door regardless, and since it was the tail end of the migraine, some aspirin and a couple of cups of Seattle coffee helped, and by the time the alumni breakfast (which I got to attend by virtue of being friends with faculty present: i.e. KS-Christie) was over, I was feeling all right. The sun was shining gloriously again and I had a festival folder and a bright red Seattle University canvas bag and a badge that said my name and “Author” underneath it on one of those ribbony-type things that you get for field day events in elementary school. (Well, we did when I was in elementary school. Which was, admittedly, quite some time ago. I’ll bet they don’t even call it elementary school anymore. Or have field days.) Also there was an “Author’s Green Room” with tables and coffee and cinnamon rolls (I missed the cinnamon rolls, but that was because I was full from breakfast) and two really friendly and helpful faculty/staff people hanging out in it to make sure we all went to the right places and did the right thing and also, in my case apparently, to let me know where I could try unusual Washington beers later, if I were so inclined. (Probably that will be Sunday afternoon, with KS-Christie, when I will become likely the only person in Seattle to be cheering in public for the Patriots.)

We went to hear one of the presenting authors talk about “Cruelty and . . . Something,” and it was interesting in a slightly-beyond-me-at-9-o’clock-in-the-morning kind of way, and then we went to hear the poet Mary Oliver. Evidently I should have heard of her before because both Cousin Mary Anne and KS-Christie had copies of her books and were really excited about hearing her, but evidently I have to fly across a continent in order to learn about a poet who poeticises in my own home state. KS-Christie had learned a not very complimentary story about Ms. Oliver the day before, and I think she and Cousin Mary Anne were feeling disillusioned and I was feeling likely-to-be-unimpressed but that didn’t work because in spite of the fact that I often say I don’t really understand poetry and I can’t really write it, her poems were beautiful and astonishing. Plus she writes heart-warming and sad little poems about her “little dog Percy” who was a rescue like Oscar and small and “curly-headed,” too, apparently, so not only did I end up being impressed, but I also felt I could forgive the rather misanthropic story I had heard about the poet the day before.

The rest of the day, for me, was a relaxed sort of “hurry up and wait.” The authors had a choice of various boxed lunch options–I had a chicken gyro sandwich–and I spent the rest of the afternoon pretending to look over my talk but really talking to one of the friendly faculty/staff people about relationships and the aforementioned places to get Washington beer.

When I got to the room in which I would be presenting in time to set up, I still hadn’t fully decided whether I was hoping there would or wouldn’t be people there (besides Cousin Mary Anne and KS-Christie) to listen, but regardless of what I wanted, I was genuinely astonished to see three women walk in in front of me–women who appeared to actually intend to be there to hear what I had to say about displacement.

In the end, there were probably about 35 people in there, which gave the room a not-overstuffed but certainly sufficiently full feeling. KS-Christie introduced me and then I started talking. “I don’t think,” I said, “that people who plan events like this usually take into account that a writer‘s preferred medium is usually not speaking.” A couple of people chuckled, which I took as an encouraging sign, and after that, I turned most of my talk into a discussion. My PowerPoint I had made for the occasion turned out only to loosely fit in with what I actually ended up saying, in the order in which I said it, but I did get all the main points out that I had delineated for you in the previous posts, and the people in the room were wonderfully participatory. They asked good questions and made good points and offered a few stumpers and everyone seemed quite happy with how the event went–even me.

Afterwards I went downstairs to the long table in the atrium and found the spot at it where it said Jennifer Anne Grosser and sat behind the sign. I sat there for what seemed like a very long time, while the two much more popular authors on either side of me had lines of people waiting for them to sign their books. It was rather embarrassing. KS-Christie had me sign her copy of Trees in the Pavement, but that was before all those lines of other people got there.

Then I saw a lady approaching the table. It was kind of hard to notice her at first because of the lines of people waiting for the signatures of authors-who-weren’t-me, but I did recognise her as someone who had attended my presentation. She had been one of the few non-talkers. Then I noticed she had my book in her hands! She made her way through the crowds and came up to the table. “That,” she said, as I signed her book, “was the best, most interactive discussion I was in all day!”

Suddenly I stopped caring about the fact that she was the only person in my line. (Later, a guy bought a copy of my book and had it signed, too, which was a bonus.) It’s lovely to have your cousin and your friend from undergrad tell you you did a great job, but for some reason, in this context, there’s something more (or at least differently) validating about it when a complete stranger comes up to you and says something like that. I could have wished the stack of my books on the university bookstore table had decreased by a little bit, but the fact that a bunch of people and I had just had a really good chat and we’d all left happy and maybe even mildly energised by it was worth a whole lot, too.


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