Since I seem to be making a habit of attending literary readings, I thought I’d better come up with a snappy (or at least cheesy) title for posts about them.
Some time ago, I happened to pick up a free bookmark covered with free reading dates at the Stegner Fellowship office on Stanford campus. Now, since I don’t have Powell’s down here to provide me with readings, and since Palo Alto is only a jillion miles away – which passes for convenient in my life at present – I popped all those babies right onto my calendar. The first so popped was that of Lorrie Moore.
Duly, I chose respectable yet not-overwarm clothing and printed off three views of the Stanford campus map along with a set of directions carefully sanity-checked against same. I set off forty minutes earlier than the map site recommended, and felt sure that such a cushion of time would allow me to navigate the Stanford Maze.
The Stanford Maze is an effect of Stanford’s size and wealth coupled with certain human factors. Not only is the campus huge and laid out with organic whimsy, as the growing wealth of the institution and the ambitions of its managers allowed, but it apparently maintains for itself the illusion of intimacy. I infer this from the fact that all the winding byways of the campus intersect at four-way stops. If you have never attempted to use an all-way stop in California, I do not recommend it—even if the ways stopping only contain one lane each, which is not always the case at Stanford. This utter inability to remember who has right-of-way is one human factor; another is confident undergrads striding about without looking at cars, often at night in dark clothing (in the day they wear bright cheerful colors, but a few like to wear dark colors at night just to keep the drivers on their toes.) Throw in many cyclists and the occasional activist against turn-signal use, and you still have only the slightest understanding of the Stanford Maze.
The final effable ingredient is construction. Also an effect of the Stanford Wealth, this construction is everywhere and detour signs are, to put it generously, few. Thus it was that I squandered 25 of my 40 extra minutes driving back and forth in front of a construction fence which concealed not only the road I needed, but its curbcut, sign and existence. Finally realizing this, I moved on to trying to park and become a dangerous, dark-clothed pedestrian, which took the other 15 minutes, as I couldn’t find a single non-permit-requiring parking spot. At last I trusted to luck and parked in whatever an “EA permit” spot might be.
At this point I was some distance away from the auditorium, with only three minutes to find it lest I become an embarrassed latecomer mouthing ‘sorry’ as I scoot my butt past those in more convenient seats (which would have been extra-mortifying when I found out that Tobias Wolff was doing the introduction. Tobias “Bullet in the Brain” freakin’ Wolff.) Luckily, by dint of fast walking and ignoring the cryptic names of buildings on my map in favor of their cross-sectional shape, I managed to squeak in one minute before anyone said anything, if, in all probability, one minute after nominal showtime. I found myself in one of the larger readings I’ve ever attended, dreadfully thirsty, surrounded by people I didn’t know and arriving just in the nick of time. This is no way to acquire the secure air of the lone sophisticate, but luckily one of the four people I know at Stanford was there, so I did not have to sit alone and look clever.
Lorrie Moore read the first chapter of a novel she has almost completed (I have no idea if it’s the one she was working on in this Ploughshares interview, but it didn’t seem to be about hate.) It proved to have a self-deprecating narrator with a distinctive voice (Moore excels at voice) and a fund of odd observations about the world. She had us laughing out loud a great deal. As The Believer’s article on her says, “Moore’s hallmark has become the inextricability of humor and pathos, which she explores with rare understanding.” I look forward to reading the rest of the novel. She has an idiosyncratic reading style; she places emphasis and pauses in very different places than I would expect. I wonder if this means that she ‘hears’ those emphases and pauses when she’s writing, as well? I think it’s easy to assume that the way you yourself hear sentences is ‘normal’, but in all probability everyone is a little different. The individual ear is probably informed by the literary sponge effect.
At any rate, I enjoyed the reading, and utilized my patented Lurking Skills to haunt the author afterwards so I could get my copy of Like Life signed. I was only the second or so person to approach her in this vein, and she didn’t have a pen. Luckily, I have a messenger bag instead of a purse, so I whipped it open, noted with amazement that I had TWO of my preferred rollerballs as well as my fountain pen, and handed her one of the rollerballs. (Not only is the fountain pen all cherished and stuff, but it was loaded with aqua ink AND I have handed it to two faculty authors in my program only to discover they are left-handed and fountain pens are a hindrance more than a help.) Anyway, she foolishly said this was the type of pen she liked herself, whereupon, flushed with the competence of having 2 of them on me, I offered to abandon it to her. There was, after all, a line forming, books in hand. There is a certain wordy bashfulness common in writers, and in the depths of same we clashed, courtesy upon courtesy, until I told her my name and that she could owe me a pen and dashed away.
It’s not much of a distinction, being owed a pen by a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, but that, and no ticket on your windshield, will get you home happy and warm. That ain’t bad for any adventure.