I wrote this piece a while ago. I’ve been sitting on it. It’s about the Tin House summer workshop and it names names.
I went to the workshop last year. It had been the dream of twenty years and the flight, or flights, from Sydney, took twenty hours. I left on a dark Sydney morning in the dead of winter, where it was 8 degrees Celsius, and I touched down at 6 pm in Portland where it was a bright 90 degrees Fahrenheit. I must have picked up a bug in transit because by the time I walked into the dream, it had become a nightmare. Coming home can do that to you. I’d caught a hell of a cold. Except it was more than that.
The short story workshop group to which I’d been assigned was run by this guy called Wells Tower, some Wunderkind, I’d gathered, googling him from Sydney. He’d sold his first story to the Paris Review and had won the Plimpton Discovery Prize for it. Named as one of The New Yorker’s 20 under 40, Village Voice 2009 Young Writer of the Year. Blah blah. I was pretty ready not to like him. I bought his breakthrough collection, and read it on the plane and by the time I got to the title story, ‘Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,’ I was smitten. The story, a gobsmacking riff on masculinity, involves a Norse torture ritual called the Blood Eagle in which the lungs of the still-living victim are pulled out through his chest cavity and laid to rest on his shoulders, where they flutter as he breathes his last breath, like crimson wings. What’s not to like?
And he turned out to be a fox, which doesn’t hurt. And everyone else in the workshop was young and brilliant and pretty too, and mostly under thirty. There were a couple like me, on the wrong side of forty—a sartorially inked raconteur, a charming Navy vet—just as sweet and fiercely talented as you please, none of them respiratorially challenged. All babes.
The place was crawling with babeness. I mean aside from the instructors—I’m talking Aimee Bender here, people. Antonya Nelson. But the delegates glowed too. The little memoir-writer in his white golf hat, and the tight, brittle New York poets and the sandaled Opus-luggers. They all shimmered, you know. Maybe it was gold of the river running through campus, or the green of the lawns, or the printed Tin House bags we carried. It all shimmered and it cloaked us in the dream, and in its hope. But my group, the Wells Tower group? They were the babest of the babes.
Here’s the thing. I’ve lived in Sydney twice, once when I was a teenager and this time with my own kids. And it’s still one of the hippest towns I know. You pretty much can’t leave your house in jeans and sneakers for fear of being obscurely insulted by every ironically bearded hipster within a three mile radius. So when my mother saw me packing a pair of toeless black suede wedges (which make me look kind of like a lesbian, but whatever), she warned me that they’d never come out of my suitcase. It’s Portland, she said. They’re writers. Think jeans and sneakers. My mother was wrong, and I thanked the goddess of shoes that I’d brought the wedges. Except by Tuesday it was pretty clear that she was right, too, and I’d never get a chance to wear them. I made it to my first couple of workshops and to most of the opening panels, but barely. My cough had become a conversation stopper and I was running a high fever.
By Tuesday I had managed to get myself to the Zoomcare Clinic on Hawthorne Street where I spent most of the day waiting for the doctor to see me. I had the chills. I was burning up. I was hallucinating and I was paranoid, dead to my craft. Because my name starts with B, my story had been first to be workshopped and I was still reeling from the experience. I’d cried FaceTime tears with my husband, exchanged panic-stricken emails with my nurse sister. I’d come all this way for nothing. The disappointment was more than I could bear. The fear of being sent away, of being discovered as unworthy of the dream, all encompassing. Because it was a dream and now it was choking me.
Literally. My lungs felt liked waterlogged and broken wings. Breathing was a massive effort. It turned out to be pneumonia, but mild. And the meds would help, the Zoomcare doctor reassured me, over time. I liked the way the meds all ended in ‘in.’ Robitusin, Azithromycin and Ventolin. Like an incantation. I sampled them, chanting voraciously in the cab back to Reed. In, in, in. Bits of me floating through the long shadows and over the dark river, across the bridge blue-lit like something out of Tron. Delegates sat under the trees, spilled out from the bar, strummed on guitars. There was a reading down at the amphitheater that I was missing. Bits of me floated past, missing everything.
I tried to spend most of the next day in bed, convinced that I would prove the doctor wrong. The antibiotics would work sooner and better on me, I told myself, because I was a writer, huh. Well, I went with that one. Chugging on liquid codeine. So red. Finally I dragged myself up for dinner and the reading. I wasn’t going to miss this because it was Stephen Elliott. I’d been a Rumpus fan for about a year, had read everything else he’d written, and loved that zone he worked between fact and fiction, between loss and gain. I decided to keep a low profile, so I sidled onto a bench at the back and raised my face to the forgiving pines. Every breath was razorous. My head pounded and I was awash in sweat. I had bottled water with me, organic cough drops I’d bought from the book store, the inhaler somewhere. I had the red stuff, too, and I sipped on it surreptitiously. I wouldn’t cough. Elliott stepped up to the podium. He looked very small. Very restless. He began to speak. A beaver floated past behind him, flipped me the bird. I rasped for air and reached into my Tin House bag for the inhaler, but in my panic I couldn’t find it (beneath the notebooks and pens and wads of tissue and my copy of Happy Baby). I stood up, knew I’d been bested. All my airways were blocked. The bookstore was about twenty steps behind me; maybe there was a bathroom somewhere. I turned and ran, knocking a stack of The Adderall Diaries off the table and clutching my throat. The girl behind the counter took a step back. She didn’t look like she could handle a tracheotomy. I ran into the hall, wildly swinging my Tin House bag, and pushed into the unisex rest room. I emptied the contents of the bag on the floor, and scrambled for the Ventolin. A man stepped out of the cubicle and made a hasty exit. I found the inhaler, jammed it into my mouth and collapsed against the side of the bowl. And there she was.
I’ll call her Elle. We were both nineteen and she’d gone away with her boyfriend for a weekend celebration with his football team and she never came back. Severely asthmatic, and never without an inhaler identical to the one lying on the floor beside me, she’d accidentally eaten some peanut oil and died that night on a restroom floor. This was before Epi-Pens. But ironically not before platform wedges, which had made a comeback that year, and Elle’s and mine, like many of the things we wore over our intense seven year friendship, were matching. In fact people often thought we were sisters. Twins. How weird is that. The willowy blond and the bookish ex pat who lived in her shadow. Twins. You have to laugh.
So there she was beside me, and there we were sucking on our inhalers and one of us had to die.
‘Was this what it was like?’ I said.
‘What,’ she said. ‘Like a blood eagle? Pretty much.’
‘It’s so scary,’ I said. ‘Like not being able to breathe. In a unisex bathroom in Portland.’
‘Where no one can hear you scream.’
‘I know,’ I said. ‘What’s with that?’
‘You can try pounding on the door. I did. And look. I soiled myself.’
‘Yeah, but you can get away with it,’ I said. ‘Because you’re so tall.’
‘Don’t do that,’ I said. Her hand had been going for her tracheotomy wound.
‘It still hurts,’ she said.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said.
‘I always knew you’d make it back,’ she said, sinking back against the bowl. ‘This is your home.’
‘It’s not about me.’
She closed her eyes. ‘Yes it is.’
‘I can’t get up,’ I said.
‘One of us has to.’
I picked up my shit, crawling around the bathroom on all fours, awash in snot and tears and coughing up a whole flock of blood eagles. I made it to my room and there I stayed all night and all the next day. I wouldn’t tell anybody. I coughed and cried. I took hot showers and steamed it out. I slept and read and listened to the happy writers below. I missed my workshop and I missed Dana Spiotta and Antonya Nelson and Matthew Dickman. I didn’t care. I was beyond that. There was a student reading scheduled at the end of the week, dinner at a Portland restaurant with Wells and the group. I wouldn’t make it and I didn’t care. I just wanted to be well enough not to have to go back empty-handed. Not to be that woman, and there is always one. The sick one, or the weird one, or the crazy one. The one who has be sent away. I wouldn’t be that. I wasn’t going anywhere.
That night, I crawled out of bed and dressed in time for supper. As I approached the bar I heard my name being called. It was one of my fellow work-shoppers, a hellzapoppin writer from LA.
‘We missed you,’ she said. And she pulled me over to a table where they all were. The writer babes. Someone poured me a glass of wine that I pretended to drink, and I blinked the tears away, pretending that it was the smoke.
I made it through the rest of the conference. I went to my workshops and hung on every word. I got to hear Anthony Doerr talk about tension and Aimee Bender on breaking the rules, and how to roar with Dorothy Allison, and how to keep going with Ann Hood. Steve Almond read his extraordinary essay on Mitt Romney, and Wells waxed grotesque, and Robert Boswell, in a finale that brought us to our knees, reminded us that the secret to characterization is to ‘find the fictions to which the character clings.’ I even got to read (hoarsely) at the student reading against that insane backdrop of wet beavers and towering pines, and one of the babes videoed it for my kids. I made it out to dinner with the group and I wore my killer-lesbian wedges and I ate catfish and collard greens and thought about eating collard greens in Portland, and cooking my husband’s favorite dish, pasta carbonara, back in Sydney, and how in a lifetime past or yet to come, alone and friendless in a foreign country, I’d look across a strange classroom and spot her, the tall freckled blond in whose name I’d begin to write.
Well, I even made it to the famous Tin House farewell dance. So did D.A Powell. He can cut a rug, man. I mean writers can dance. They really can. But poets. It must be the rhythm or something. I danced in a circle with the work-shoppers and we sat under the maples talking until dawn. By now I was working my way through a bottle of red, of course, but I was booked on a flight out the next day to stay with my cousin in San Jose, where I figured I’d have time to recover.
But never fully.