A few months ago, my Sunday night Creative Nonfiction workshop hosted a special evening with essayist John D’Agata, whose books (Halls of Fame and About a Mountain) we’ve read and discussed together in past sessions, and whose absolutely amazing anthologies (The Next American Essay, The Lost Origins of the Essay) have inspired so many of our thoughts about the practice of essaying. John was in California that week teaching a workshop at Tomales Bay, and I’d contacted him and persuaded him to come to Davis after the conference to meet the most heartfelt, invested group of reading writers he’d ever find. Even though we’d never met, I’d had this feeling I should just make it happen.
First of all, for many who attended, this was the first chance they’d ever had to talk freely and at length with a published author whose work they knew intimately about creative process and production, and about the kinds of questions artists carry around with them perpetually. The evening made authors into real people, and real people into authors.
Secondly, for me, this evening was a mini-culmination of the work I’ve been pursuing for the last eight years – the business of building and sustaining intensive, ongoing workshops for practicing writers, making a home for writing where I live. That night, I watched my students discover that one of our favorite essayists was a human being who essays, realizing that this is what I most want to show those who feel themselves outside the realm of creative life and the business of ‘really’ writing. This is one of the more significant things those of us who’ve been ‘inside’ (the academy, the world of professional authors, the conversation about new literature) are lucky to have seen, and (I think) can serve our communities by sharing.
We ate a glorious potluck feast, talked forever, listened to John read a bit, had our books signed, and went home changed. I was trying to arrange platters of leftovers in the back of my Prius so that the remaining quince buckle wouldn’t spill all over the seat when John noted, just as he was about to turn on his heel, that he’d never seen a community like ours anywhere else, and that he thought it was really quite extraordinary.
This was just a few days before my birthday, and my 32nd year on this planet had already proven itself to be the best one I’ve ever had – but at that moment something came into focus and into being on a level it hadn’t been before then. When you invent your own work – as all creative people do, as the self-employed do, as the off-the-grid do – it’s easy to go for long periods of time feeling like the world you work for is visible only to itself. Call it inventor-mind. Finding recognition and appreciation for the work that you’ve got the vision to pursue is the stuff of a truly remarkable wow.
We’re hoping to make these evenings-with-our-authors into a semi-regular series once or twice a year – on May 1, essayist and editor Brenda Miller will become our second invited guest when she joins us for dinner, discussion, and a reading. (Anyone who’s been in one of my CNF workshops past or present is welcome to attend – for details about how to register, just drop me an email.)
A special thanks to Lauren Cohn-Frankel for coming to take the only pictures in existence of my beloved CNFers – all photos in this post courtesy of her studio, Cohn Frankel Photography.