In a few days, I will be sitting in the shadow of the Grand Tetons, collecting nuts and bolts in an imaginary pail labeled “Writing Advice,” basking in the glow of literati humming like engines all around me, and generally getting my ass handed to me during a one-on-one manuscript critique session. I am both excited and scared spitless at what awaits me during the 2011 Jackson Hole Writers Conference.
Technically-speaking, I won’t be in the literal shadow of the Grand Tetons since the conference will be held in the Jackson Hole Center for the Arts 15 miles away in Jackson, but it sounded way cooler to start the sentence like that—implying conferees would be sitting cross-legged in a half-circle surrounded by a blaze of purple and red wildflowers while Brady Udall tossed handfuls of nuts and bolts at us—behind his head, the purple mountain majesty of the Grand thrusting its granite bosom toward the clouds. Most likely we’ll be sitting on chairs in windowless rooms, our pale ivory-tower faces illumined by fluorescence, rather than in a plein air field with hawk-screams and river currents pulling our attention from Mr. Udall’s stories of how he went about researching Mormonism for his latest novel The Lonely Polygamist.
I will have enough to distract and worry me without all that eye-candy landscape.
You see, I’m battling my writing anxieties on two fronts during this three-day conference.
First of all, this is my first. Writer’s confab, that is. I’ve been to my share of book festivals—complete with author readings, free bookmarks autographed by Joyce Carol Oates, and mime performances of Ulysses—but I’ve never devoted three days (and $400 of my hard-earned salary) to simply sitting in a room and soaking up how-to writing tips from published professionals. You see, I'm not really open to being on the receiving end of advice (but because I’m a father three times over, I’m a frickin’ professional when it comes to dispensing advice). I chafe and bristle when I think someone is trying to tell me what to do. This is one reason I stopped subscribing to Writer’s Digest years ago—the other was the dull parade of “inspirational” stories of writers’ humble beginnings (I mean, c’mon, how many times do I need to hear about Tom Clancy’s early days as a insurance agent writing The Hunt For Red October at 2 a.m. in his boxer shorts?!). So when someone formulates the creative process and tells me how to get from A to C by way of B, I stopper my ears and flee in the opposite direction. This is one of my greatest failings as a writer (the other is my slipshod use of the passive voice in my sentences).
I hope to change that this week. I hope to sit in the Jackson Hole Arts Center “all ears” as they say. I hope to come home with a bucket full of nuts and bolts thrown my way by the likes of Mr. Udall, Brad Watson, Cristina Garcia and George Singleton. As Dr. Phil would say, I hope to “get real with myself.”
I will even be open to hearing what they have to say about the short story, “Jesus and Elvis Have a Little Conversation,” I submitted for a critiquing session. I promise I will not stopper my ears and I will take notes on how to improve my fiction, even if I’m staring at my ass which has just been handed to me on a silver platter by an author/editor/agent who can smell a dangling participle at 500 yards.
The second prong of the anxiety attack is this: I will be, against all Thomas Wolfe-ian caution, going home again.
I grew up in Jackson--from fourth grade through high school graduation--and it, more than anything in this life except my wife, made me the person I am. It was the place where I fell in love with my first dog, my first girl, and the movies of Steven Spielberg (in that order). It was where, three weeks after moving to town in the mid-winter of a school year, I was badgered and baited into my first fist-fight by a fourth grader named Duane Fairbanks (who, sadly, passed away a few years ago). Never mind that we didn’t come to blows, the seared memory still remains of Duane, a future local rodeo star, repeatedly smooshing me behind a glass door at the elementary school, taunting me with, “C’mon! C’mon and fight! What are you, a pussy?”
Jackson is also where my solo career as a trombone player peaked when, standing at the 50-yard line during the 1980 Homecoming football game, I blared out the pep-band version of Donna Summer’s “On the Radio.” Here, in Jackson, Wyoming, is where I kicked autumn leaves all along the three blocks between the Teton County Library and my house with Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes, and Nancy Drew tucked under my arm. This is the place where I tap-danced and sang on a stage in front of audiences night after night for two summers in a row in the misguided belief that I was the next Al Pacino (albeit a singing! dancing! Pacino) and that summer stock melodrama was my ticket out of small-town ennui.
Jackson is, in many ways, the center of my universe as a writer. All of my joys, my fears, my sense of standing on the fringes of groups, of finding solace in my loneliness, of leaping alive with hope when my high-school English teacher, Mr. Don Simpson, urged me to read John Updike and I saw the possibilities of fiction—all of that pulls into the molten core of my inner writer with centrifugal force.
Jackson Hole, in short, was my petri dish.
And now I am returning there, the taproot of my literary life, in order to make myself a better writer. The past has snapped a bear trap around my leg while the future tugs me forward. You can see how I’ve been tormented with pleasure and pain these past few weeks.
On the other hand, maybe there’s no reason for me to get all worked up like a box of snakes, overwhelmed by thoughts of how great a writer I’m not. Maybe the conference will be a low-key, friendly gathering of artists (some of whom know each other in that back-slapping “How ya been, Joe?!” sort of way) who have come together for the greater good of the arts. Maybe it will be three days of inspirational sermons, surefire paths to publishing success, and campfires and Kum-ba-Yahs.
Or maybe it will fall somewhere in the middle of all that.
All I know for sure is this: you’ll probably find me standing quietly at the fringes, nervously sipping from a water bottle, rolling and unrolling my short story manuscript into paper trumpets, and avoiding the backswing of doors so I don’t get smooshed by the Duane Fairbanks of the literary world.