Foot in Mouth, Pen in Hand

I’ll be leading two sessions at the Whidbey Island Writers Conference, on October 24th and 25th, including a Saturday morning workshop, “Humor and Heartache: Injecting Levity into Serious Stories.” The faculty members were all asked to write a blog post on a variety of topics that give advice to attendees, and I chose My Most Memorable Writers Conference Interaction from their list of suggested prompts. (Read it on the WIWC site or below.)

Pam Houston looks great, while I am of course talking with my hands
Pam Houston looks great, while I am of course talking with my hands

To convey the spirit of my class, I wrote about my most embarrassing conference moment. It’s important to remember that conferences are fun, and teachers are human and approachable. This story is more about personal humiliation than heartache, and it illustrates how our own missteps are often the best fodder for humor.

Speaking of Pam Houston, she gave a terrific lecture on dialogue at the Richard Hugo House (she takes the stage about 3:30 into the video). For more great dialogue tips and prompts, I love Anca Szilagyi’s post on Ploughshares (I highly recommend all of Anca’s posts).

Foot in Mouth, Pen in Hand

One of my first writing teachers was Pam Houston at the Taos Summer Writers Conference, where she was an intelligent, perceptive, generous mentor.

At the welcome dinner the first night, I sat across from a charming man. He was from Seattle, too, and he was an actor, so we discussed Seattle theatre. In the course of our enthusiastic conversation, I mentioned that I wasn’t a fan of the Book-It troupe, where thespians recite the book exactly as written while acting it out: no adapting the narrative for the stage. So, a character might say, “She sat,” while she sits. Or, “She walked across the room,” while she walks across the stage.

“I thought the three-hour performance of the first part of Cider House Rules would never end,” I said to my dinner companion. “The whole book took nine hours total, though you can bet I wasn’t there for parts two and three. Can you imagine sitting through that? I could fly coach to the Galapagos in that time and be less fidgety in my seat. I mean, what’s the point?”

“Huh,” he said. “I’m a Book-It actor. That’s how I met Pam. She was in town for our performance of Cowboys Are My Weakness. I’m her boyfriend.”

My foot-in-mouth disease had flared up again, as it often does whenever I part my lips, which is one reason I prefer to write, because then I can make sure to offend the intended party and not a hapless dinner companion, such as an actor unfortunate enough to be stuck in a room full of writers. I nearly fell off my chair apologizing. “She nearly fell off her chair apologizing,” I said to the Book-It star.

“It’s okay,” he assured me. “Book-It either works for you or it doesn’t.”

“Like Worldwide Wrestling,” I said.

“Or calamari.”

“Or Chihuahuas. You know,” I suggested, sticking my napkin in my water glass in order to dab at the spaghetti sauce on the front of my blouse, “when Pam does her workshops, you ought to do some coaching with the writers on how to give better readings. Because we’re mostly so awful at it. We’re only good at one line.” I did my lousy Greta Garbo I vant to be alone. “We could use some pointers from a professional performer like you.”

“Great idea!” he said, most likely displaying his fine acting talents.

I think he and Pam are no longer together, and she’s now with a writer. Which is a relief to me. Actors make me nervous, especially ones I’ve insulted.

If he told Pam that I was an idiot, she never let on. She was encouraging in her critique of my story, which she called “ambitious”—probably a kind way of saying it’s a failure. But I went on to publish that story, and I also published a piece first drafted that week as a result of one of Pam’s assignments. The point is that I went back and rewrote both of them. And rewrote. And rewrote. And finished. And sent them out. Which is my biggest advice to writers: rewrite it, finish it, send it off (and rewrite again if enough rejections come in).

And, you’re going to end up offending someone you didn’t intend to slight, usually the person you least suspected would be affronted by something you wrote. Learn how to apologize. It will serve you well as a human being and writer. Also, for food stains such as tomato sauce on cotton, pour hot water from a height onto the garment (but not while you’re wearing it).


3 thoughts on “Foot in Mouth, Pen in Hand

  1. I love this story, Jennifer. What helpful advice! Thank you, also, for the very kind words about my prompts.

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