Thursday, July 2, 2009

Writers’ Conferences and Politics

There’s nothing quite like being in a room full of people who actually care about books. It’s why I like writers’ conferences, though in truth I’ve only ever been to one: the Aspen Writers’ Conference, which takes place right here in my adopted hometown.

Last week Ron Carlson, Ishmael Beah, Colum McCann, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chris Merrill, Luis Alberto Urrea and many others gathered in the mountains to talk about (and in some cases teach) things literary. There were many great moments. Here are a few: Carlson’s observation that the book will survive, but perhaps not the conversation, what with cell phones, tweets, texts, etc.; Beah chiding Adichie for how the Nigerians had screwed everything up in Sierra Leone (as if Sierra Leone needed any help); McCann leading Joe Hurley’s band (or maybe it’s McCann’s band) in drunken Irish songs (as a non-Irishman I leave open the possibility that there might be other types of Irish songs); local Cody Oates’s story of stopping to help Beah change a bike tire en route to meeting Lance Armstrong. (Ah, the Aspen life.)

If you caught half the events you received enough literary wisdom for a masters degree, all of it from an unbelievably talented group of writers.

I sat on the “how to get published” panel, as though I really understand anything about that. This subject is of burning interest to many conference attendees, who lead literary lives of quiet desperation. Indeed, conferences can be overwrought with desperation. My advice is to read a lot, and—if you want to be a writer—write a lot. A lot. It’s how you give yourself a chance.

More advice: buy books. It’s the only way they’ll flourish, and if you’re reading this you care that they do.

Careful if you invite Nic Pizzolatto over for a drink, as I did. Somehow, at his insistence, we soaked up a half liter of Talisker before the before-dinner drinks. Later, he questioned my manhood, this after I had to drag him, post-Talisker, up a mountain in a thunderstorm, this being a hike he said he wanted to do. His story may be different, but, I warn you, he’s a fiction writer.

On to politics. These past several weeks might go down as the golden period of American political scandal. (I understand that with the news coverage of Michael Jackson’s death you might have missed it.) Let’s look at a debacle or three. First, there is the holier-than-thou governor of South Carolina (Mark Sanford) who felt it improper to use stimulus money to help his state’s unemployed, but seemed to have no trouble traveling on state expense in part to schtupp his mistress, not to mention the Republican party. Then there is the (very) junior senator from Illinois (Roland Burris) who, it now comes out, did promise to do Blago’s bidding. Chicago rules, I guess. I’ll finish with the Detroit councilwoman (Monica Conyers, who is married to one of the most powerful men in the US House of Representatives), who took a paltry bribe on a sludge contract. Sludge? Couldn’t it at least have been a casino? The city, where I spent my formative years, has image problems already.

Together these infractions are so pathetic they could almost be funny, but in the end what I feel isn’t mirth but outrage. I’d like to let it go, but I can’t: I love this country.

(I’ll go back to books next time, I swear. I just needed to vent. This is a blog, after all.)