Archive | Literary Idols

Waiting for McInerney

adelphi hotel

Photo credit: Flickr/Dougtone

Philadelphia was closing in on me. Parking tickets turned into court notices which turned into a fleet of traffic police and tow trucks looking to clamp a boot on my wheel. I came across the Writers Institute while tooling around the Internet at work. It took place through the month of July at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. The list of instructors was daunting. Intermediate Writing was led by Jay McInerney, the novelist and wine critic. I wondered if I could be considered an “Intermediate Writer.” I was young and inexperienced but I felt I had important things to say. I wrote about the groggy heat of my attic bedroom, the bottles of tonic water that littered the floor, my stack of sticky, dog-eared yearbooks.

I usually wrote on the train on my way to work. I had recently met some Penn students and they seemed like an interesting topic, but I was still mired in the research phase, staying out late at night, going to the bathroom when the bill came, helping them finish whatever was around. I had an idea for a modern re-imagining of The Decameron, taking refuge in a Gothic frat house while a plague ripped through the city, entertaining girls vetted via social media, resigned to the task of reinventing humanity after we dared to peek our heads out the heavy doors and surveyed the blasted scenery.

I had taken a writing class before. I enjoyed the way the group grew around our shared vulnerabilities. The tip-toeing around truly atrocious stuff, the refusal to indulge the cocky resident genius who already had a story published, the way we hung on the words of our teacher, even though none of us had read her books.

I packed up my car and what I couldn’t cram in the trunk I left on the sidewalk.

Skidmore is hidden from the road, surrounded by woodlands. The buildings are largely modern and low. It maintained an equine feel, a lingering delicacy that I attributed to its history as a posh women’s college. My dorm was in the tallest building on campus: The Tower. Bathrooms were unisex. There was a lounge on the top floor, offering panoramic views of the countryside and the town. I moved into my room quickly. A hand-me-down laptop, wrinkled Oxfords, a handle of Dewar’s, a sleeve of plastic cups. I cranked tunes, propped the door and searched around for an ice machine. In between colleges at the time, I tried to look casual.

Sophomore year was beginning two years behind schedule, after a disastrous freshman experience in New Orleans. Down there I followed every lead into dark corners and came up short on friends and low on credits. The muddy grime of the city was still stained on some of my clothes. I was forced back home, worked menial jobs and volunteered in hopes of buffing my tarnished resume. Jay could fix it, had fixed it, would show me how to live the life and wake up early the next morning without guilt or handcuffs. Jay was going through a transition as well. That summer he had split from his girlfriend, a South African publicist. He had supposedly just finished a book that was going to prove to the literary world his relevance as a post-9/11 novelist. I assumed that he was looking forward to a relaxing month upstate as much as I was. I imagined running into him on campus, maybe in the fitness center steam room, before relocating to a watering hole to clink glasses, exchange notes, plot and scheme.

The campus was quiet as writers reviewed their drafts. Classes started in two days. I decided to go and see the town.

Matthew was from London. He had graduated from Skidmore a month earlier. His friend Bailey was a junior and she had a summer job in a lab, dissecting the brains of fetal animals. We talked about Jay. Matt had met him once at the track. He said Jay loved Saratoga, the horse races, Caroline Street, the old hotel. They shared a few apocryphal stories–sleeping with students, doing drugs with students, breaking into the college pool with students–you know, classic McInerney.

The story I had planned to submit for workshop was slim and so I spent the night before our first class trying to punch it up, adding dialogue and a mysterious man-about-town father figure. I found a ‘80s mix CD in an old Case Logic and played it on my sister’s computer. I walked around the campus at dusk, keeping my eye out for a suave guy in a summer-weight blazer.

My class was scheduled for 3 PM and so at 2:30 the next day I found a seat on a wooden bench outside our building and tried to look busy with registration papers and cigarettes. Three o’clock came and went and there was no sign of our instructor. I walked upstairs to where our class was supposed to meet and found it empty, humming with florescent lights. I went back to my dorm room and illegally downloaded an “Enjoy the Silence” trance remix.

That night there was a reading by an African poet and afterwards there was a reception in the student center. I dressed up and walked down there, shaking my head and smiling. Jay was late, but I understood. An early morning at Elaine’s, a demanding new fashionista, a forgotten deadline. I had found a kindred spirit, a literary outlaw, the Peter Pan of American letters. I laughed to myself. Classic McInerney.

The reception had an open bar and so I met some more students. A girl from Florida, a brooding guy named Ben, a community college English professor from New Jersey named Dennis who spoke openly about how excited he was to be away from his wife. We traded more Jay stories. Ben pointed out a girl from his floor who told everyone that she and Jay were an item, that he had been delayed in Nashville and was driving up from New York that night. I eyed my competition closely. I figured soon I’d have my own hangers-on, after Jay took me under his wing and got my as-yet-unwritten novel published.

I drank fast. The reception ended and we went downtown to the grand hotel. We milled about the back patio, talking, drinking, waiting. By 2 AM I was discussing rat brains with Bailey. I told myself that I had missed Jay’s arrival somehow in the crowd. Our next class was Friday. I checked Page Six the next morning, after I woke up on the top floor of The Tower, where I guess I was keeping watch, like a love-sick light-house operator.

By Friday everyone knew. Jay had met someone special. Again. He would not be able to make it up this summer, but he wished us the best. There was a plug somewhere in the email for his upcoming book, The Good Life. Details were scarce, rumors flew. Our new teacher, a pleasant lady whose name I see from time to time in journals and magazines, struggled to get us caught up to speed. I deleted the changes I had made to my story. I finished the bottle of Dewar’s with Dennis and thought about visiting Bailey in the lab.

At the end of the summer I received a phone call from an uncle. He had heard some scuttlebutt, thought I might be interested. Jay was marrying Anne Hearst; socialite, publishing heiress, a friend from the scene. The good life had finally arrived. I thought back on my summer–horses, martinis, literary conversation–and I hoped Jay might recognize it from his own hazy memories, back in the good old days before the game changed and he got tied down.

-Mike

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Words After War Reading Series “Danger Close: Writers on War”

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Our first public event, “Danger Close: Writers on War” will begin at 4 PM on November 2 at ACME Studio, 63 N. 3rd Street, Brooklyn, NY. Tickets–which you can purchase HERE–are $10. If you can’t make it to the event, please consider purchasing a ticket for somebody who can, or make a ticket-sized donation!

We are very excited and a little bit nervous. We have somehow managed to land a trio of excellent writers and an extremely accomplished moderator:

Brian Castner

After leaving the active military, Brian became a consultant and contractor, training Army and Marine Corps units prior to their tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. His writing has appeared in a number of national and regional publications, including The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Foreign Policy, Publisher’s Weekly, and Garry Trudeau’s The Sandbox anthology. Brian lives outside of Buffalo, New York with his wife and four sons. ”The Long Walk” is his first book.

Katey Schultz

Katey Schultz grew up in Portland, Oregon, and is most recently from Celo, North Carolina. She is a graduate of the Pacific University MFA in Writing Program and recipient of the Linda Flowers Literary Award from the North Carolina Humanities Council. “Flashes of War: Short Stories” is her first book.

Matt Gallagher

Matt Gallagher joined the U.S. Army in 2005 and received a commission in the armored cavalry. Following a fifteen-month deployment in Iraq, Gallagher left the army in 2009. He is the author of “Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War” and the co-editor of “Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War.”

Moderator, Quil Lawrence

Quil Lawrence is an award-winning correspondent for NPR News, covering the millions of Americans who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as they transition to life back at home.

“Danger Close: Writers on War” is the first of an ongoing reading series that will include both veterans and civilians whose work engages with war and its aftermath. Lawrence, Gallagher, Castner, and Schultz will share personal stories of documenting and researching war, as well as the complications of writing war in the 21st century.

We sincerely hope to see you there!

Best,

Brandon and Mike

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Weekly Round-Up: Green Monster Edition

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Credit: Charlie Walker/Flickr

Welcome to the Words After War Weekly Round-Up: Green Monster Edition. In this space we share seven links relevant to our mission of improving the veteran-civilian dialogue through high-quality literary programming.

Baseball games are way too long. Everyone knows this. And it has been a problem for a while now. I once had to withdraw from a Medieval Lit class due to absences accrued during the 2004 ALCS. These (classic) games were stretching to 2 AM. And once they finally wrapped you still had to walk off the adrenaline, zap an Elio’s, decompress with whatever was on TNT.

Anyway, by the time 10 AM class rolled around I was in no shape to discuss Scott Baiowolf. I sent a chummy email to the professor after the first missed class (this was the dreaded Monday-Wednesday-Friday formation) and he responded in a somewhat understanding tone. But by the end of the week his tone had changed and once again I was forced to visit my buddies at the registrar’s office.

Brandon is off the grid this week and you know what they say, when the cat’s away, the mouse…buys frozen dinners at Rite Aid.

Here we go with the links:

1. An impressively comprehensive compilation of writerly advice, via Brainpicker.

2. A Bookriot reading list of coming-of-age war stories. Got something to add?

3. An interview with Donna Tartt. Her third novel, The Goldfinch, dropped this week.

4. Which states are best for student veterans? Check out this map.

5. This guy trained pigeons to smuggle cigars out of Cuba.

6. The New Yorker opens up the Jack Handey archives.

7. Here’s what happens when writers get sober.

Will you be in NYC on 11/2? Come to our first public event, featuring some of our favorite writers! Honestly, we would love to see you. Information and tickets HERE. Can’t attend but interested in getting involved? Make a tax-deductible donation HERE.

Have a great weekend.

-Mike

Questions? Concerns? Follow us on Twitter and “like” us on Facebook.

Weekly Round-Up: First Prize Edition

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Words After War workshop hosted by Mellow Pages Library and led by Matt Gallagher.

Welcome to the Words After War Weekly Round-Up: First Prize Edition. In this space we share seven links relevant to our mission of improving the veteran-civilian dialogue through high-quality literary programming.

For the most part, being a writer is a pretty thankless job filled with long, solitary spells of slippery inspiration and storm clouds of self-doubt. But sometimes, if you grind it out for a very long time (or if you’re a genius), you’ll see some recognition. In the literary world, this recognition usually takes the form of one of a few well-known awards. Because most of these books don’t move huge numbers or make a mass cultural impression, these prize committees hold great power. And sometimes they mess up! There was no Pulitzer for fiction last year. The three-person panel made their recommendations (The Pale King, Train Dreams and Swamplandia!) and then…nothing. Now, some would say those were three odd, imperfect choices: an unfinished novel published posthumously, a novella that first appeared in The Paris Review some years earlier and a charming yet flawed first novel. But most agree that any winner would’ve been better than none at all. Plenty of prize-winning books have dropped in esteem over the years. No reason to spin thumbs.

Here we go with the links:

1. An interview with Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson, via Mental Floss.

2. Writers reflect on Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize in The New Yorker.

3. Feeling old and/or unaccomplished? The winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize is 28.

4. Here are the finalists for the National Book Award, including Navy veteran Thomas Pynchon. Who do you like? (BONUS LINK: Michael Chabon on Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge).

5. Read Words After War instructor Matt Gallagher on William Swenson’s Medal of Honor in The Daily Beast.

6. Maurice Decaul talks war poetry and jazz with MacArthur Fellow Vijay Iyer on NPR.

7. Former Navy EOD John Ismay explains chemical weapons.

Will you be in NYC on 11/2? Come to our first public event, featuring some of our favorite writers! Information and tickets HERE. Can’t attend but interested in getting involved? Make a tax-deductible donation HERE.

Have a great weekend.

-Mike

Questions? Concerns? Need to get in contact? Follow us on Twitter and “like” us on Facebook.

 

A Writer Retreats to Yaddo

writing retreats and tiny homes

A Tiny Retreat on Wheels

A writer meditates on walks though Yaddo, designing a writing retreat, the overlooked beauty of tiny homes, and how seeing your literary idols drinking martinis can make one a more productive writer.

I lived in Saratoga Springs for a year after college. In between working the copy desk at the newspaper and befriending bartenders along Caroline Street, I spent a lot of time at Yaddo, a residential retreat for artists and writers. I’d walk past the horse track, through the rusty gate, and down the long driveway, glimpsing the massive stone mansion through the trees. A small chunk of the property was open to the public. There was a fountain, a bench, and the Yaddo Gardens. The place would be imposing even if you were unaware of its role in American Letters, a sort of literary Hogwarts. I was never completely comfortable there, but I was an intruder, a potential distraction, a tourist, a pilgrim.

I have no way of knowing which writers were there during the year I spent wandering the grounds, but I certainly spent a lot of time wondering and imagining chance encounters. I asked along Caroline Street, but those conversations must have been protected by writer-bartender privilege. I did once see an author I greatly admire at a local martini bar, chatting with two beautiful women, which didn’t make my approach any easier. I let them finish their drinks and watched them leave with flushed cheeks.

I resolved to go straight home and get cracking on whatever creative project was most likely to result in threesomes and prestigious residencies. Until then, though, I have to be content with insider articles and novels like Jonathan Ames’ Wake Up, Sir!.

In many ways, those walks through Yaddo were an inspiration for Words After War. A very early vision of our organization involved a cluster of cabins in the woods behind my parents’ house. That plan is on hold (for now).

The genesis of our idea remains the same: provide writers with the time, space, and support they need to tell their stories most effectively. We just call it something else. It is our hope that Words After War will become a stepping stone to places like Yaddo, a key to all the mysteries and opportunities they contain.

–Mike