Sunday, July 13, 2008

Berkeley Bliss

I'm having a grand time, as I usually do here.

The fun started with my trip into the city on BART last night. I love public transit, because you see everything and everybody, all crowded together (like the ER, but healthier). There I was, knitting, and next to me was a guy covered in tattoos who had his bicycle with him, and across the car were an elderly couple in black-tie formalwear -- she had a corsage on her wrist -- and cattycorner to me were three lively women who sounded Jamaican, and various of us were trying to help a tourist family who weren't sure where they needed to get off the train. BART always presents a kaleidoscope of skin colors and a medley of languages. It's just delightful.

Dinner before the reading was a lot of fun; we wound up talking about emergency medicine, of all things. One of the dinner guests is engaged to an ER doc, and Jay Lake is getting over some serious medical issues and has done more than his share of ER time. He's brilliant, by the way; I intend to read his books, and recommend that all of you do the same.

I enjoyed the reading; I'd planned to read something fairly light (or as light as I get, which isn't very), but our MC, Terry Bisson, semi-goaded me into reading a complete short story rather than excerpts, so I decided to read "Sorrel's Heart," which is certainly one of my darkest tales. Several people in the audience responded very enthusiastically (one man, an eighth-grade teacher, wants to include the story in his Holocaust curriculum, which blew my mind just a bit), but there was a notable lack of comment from other people. Oh well. It was an experiment, and it may not have worked, but I'm glad I tried it anyway, even though two of the folks in the audience were my college roommate Ellen and her mom, Sonia. Ellen tends to avoid anything dark or graphic, and I'd warned her about the story beforehand, but I hope she wasn't too green around the gills. I couldn't see her face from where I was sitting; I did have a good view of Sonia, who was staring at me with a Good lord, I thought I knew this woman! expression. They had to leave right after I finished, and I haven't gotten feedback from them.

Jay read a story almost as dark as mine, but funnier, which I think the audience found a welcome relief.

After the readings, we took a short break before the Q&A session. A tall, bald man walked up to me, grinning, and handed me a chocolate bar, and I recognized another old friend from college! David had been in a local SF bookstore, seen a flyer for the event, spotted my name, and decided to come. We were both members of the college science-fiction club, and we shared a house one summer with a group of other friends.

David also has the distinction of being the first gay person I ever met, or at least the first one who talked about it. When we were catching up, he told me that he and his partner of thirteen years are getting married on August 23. God bless California for legalizing same-sex marriage! He invited me and Gary to the wedding, and we're planning to attend even though the logistics are complicated; I'm preaching the next day, and school starts the day after that. Because of tight timing, we'll have to fly instead of driving. Still, I wouldn't miss it, especially since other college friends will be there.

David and I talked through the whole break, so I didn't even have a chance to get up from my chair before the Q&A session. But that was fine! The Q&A was lively, but I felt a bit disjointed, and -- as at WisCon -- I think I was coming across less well than I might have because I was being more personal than analytical. (Oh well.) Terry asked us to talk about our writing processes, and both he and Jay responded with disbelief when I explained that I'm a formalist and that I plan out projects according to length, not plot. (My outlines consist of knowing how many pages each chapter will be and who'll be narrating it, in what voice and tense, rather than dealing explicitly with which character does what.) "Oh, come on," Terry said. "Nobody does that. You don't really do that. You're making that up."

But I do do it, and is it really so strange? Is it any different than a poet knowing that each line in a sonnet has ten syllables, or than a journalist knowing how many column inches need to be filled?

Jay, meanwhile, talked about how he'd trained himself to increase his "span of control," the amount of story he can keep in his head at any one time: he's increased that from about 2,000 words to about 20,000, which I found as mind-boggling as he and Terry seemed to find my method.

The moral of this story is: use what works!

Terry had planned to give me a lift back to Berkeley, but David offered to do it instead. We're going to have dinner sometime this week. He wanted to stop for coffee or dessert, but the coffee place near the PSR campus was closed, and I was too tired to schlep all over Berkeley. So we'll see each other in a few days.

I slept late this morning. I had a leisurely breakfast in my room (I'd brought power bars and a coffee maker) and then walked around town and did some desultory shopping: a t-shirt on Telegraph Avenue, groceries at Andronico's. The find that delighted me came at the Elephant Pharmacy, which was selling inexpensive rock-and-metal sculptures that look like bodies with heads: very stark and primal. Remember back when I said I wanted to knit a depression doll? Well, I think this sculpture is my depression doll -- she's certainly heavy and misshapen enough! -- but I'm going to knit her a miniature prayer shawl. I also bought a lavendar-scented candle, so now I have a small shrine on my desk. I don't have my camera with me, but I'll post a photo of the sculpture when I get back home.

One of the things I'd forgotten about Berkeley is how many dogs there are: both the PSR and UC campuses are prime dog-walking spots, and last night David and I saw a lovely young cat on the PSR campus, so I'm getting my critter fix.

Tonight I went to a local restaurant for dinner and wound up eating with two women who'll be in my class (I'd met one of them earlier, as she was getting off the airport shuttle). So that was fun.

And now to bed, so I'll be rested for class tomorrow!


  1. Wow! Nothing nicer than meeting old friends. You seem to have been doing that a lot these past few holidays you've taken. Can't wait to hear further reports.


  2. Anonymous6:50 AM

    I'm glad you had so much fun! the reading and old friends sound fabulous.

    I had no idea you plan your story structures so precisely! and here's me, trying to move away from that and let things fly until editing time (luckily, I adore editing and can be pretty vicious with myself).

    Re: the analytical vs. the personal viewpoint -- we certainly need both perspectives in the world to make things work. I wonder if increasingly seeing things from the individual human viewpoint comes with the practice of compassion, which for you and me both (but of course not for everyone, and there are MANY paths) has in our later lives been Christian based; Jesus' greatest compassion was for individuals, not precepts/theories. What do you think?
    Happy b-day to your dad, too!

  3. Thanks, Lee! And Inez: yes, that sounds about right. Also, in the Christian tradition, narrative tends to transmit theory -- think of Jesus' parables -- but people who aren't used to that way of reading can be baffled by why someone's telling an apparently unrelated anecdote.

  4. Jay Lake is a very cool guy; I'm glad to hear he's doing better. You'll like Mindspring and the sequel Escapement which just came out: more to follow...

  5. Camille7:52 PM

    Just wanted to say that I have been attending SF in SF for almost a year, and Sorrel's Heart was by far THE BEST story I have had the pleasure of hearing. (And the event is always great!)

    My husband and I bought your short story collection and have begun reading GI Jesus aloud to each other. I must say we are hooked.

    Hope to see you again in the Bay Area!


  6. Thank you very much, Camille!


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