At the heart of Chérie lies a paradox. I am a profoundly social, extroverted person, and yet at any given moment I want nothing more than to be left the fuck alone so I can write. This contradiction worsens every spring, when the outdoor patios of Brooklyn’s fine drinking establishments begin beckoning me with their shady umbrellas and cold, cold beers. Come, Chérie, I hear them [and the Rejectionist. --ed] whisper. Let’s have ourselves a rumspringa. To ensure that the month of June would not be lost within the bosom of the Gowanus Yacht Club and the Brooklyn Ice House, I leave town for the annual writer's conference of a small liberal arts college a short train ride from New York. Conveniently, this is also my alma mater, and I am delighted by the prospect of spending five days working on my novel and attending various lectures and readings in this familiar and idyllic setting. I promise myself that except for issuing the occasional communiqué to Le R ("NO ONE TOLD CHERIE SHE WOULD HAVE SUITEMATES") I will refrain from contacting anyone at home. Mayhap Chérie has watched Wonder Boys a few too many times, but any expectations of raucous afterparties are snuffed out the first time I see the attendees assembled in full at breakfast--the vast majority are edging-past-middle-aged women ("NOT A SINGLE TASTY MORSEL FOR CHERIE") and I take this as a sign from the universe that I am indeed here to focus on my writing, not to socialize.
In typical Chérie fashion, of course, I immediately take this notion to its extreme, and by the end of my second day I realize I am actively hiding from the other conference-goers. Being familiar with the campus helps considerably in this regard, as I am easily able to ferret out the one event-free building that remains unlocked after 8pm and sequester myself alone on its top floor. Only when I find myself turning off the overhead lights to avoid drawing attention to my hideout do I realize that I am behaving strangely. I can’t help it. Everyone I meet is exceedingly friendly and interesting, but every question posed, to every panelist and author present, is basically a thinly-veiled manifestation of a writer’s deepest and most basic insecurity: Am I doing this right? This is something about which I actively avoid thinking, as in my experience dwelling on it more often leads to fear-induced paralysis than any sort of satisfactory answers, and therefore in the afternoons while other people are attending lectures about craft, I am holed up in the library, listening to the same Titus Andronicus album over and over and trying to decide if I should add Oxycontin to the list of my protagonist's obstacles.
I do attend some events, the most notable a panel featuring Richard Nash and four self-proclaimed Luddites. While the other speakers bemoan the loss of the printed word, waxing sentimental about pancake-batter-stained cookbooks and the memories evoked by such items, Richard speaks at length, articulately, with passion and patience, about—holy shit, are you guys ready for this?—-how to make the changes in publishing ACTUALLY WORK FOR THE AUTHORS. I am mesmerized (“OMFG INSANE VISIONARY GENIUS RICHARD NASH MELTS CHERIE’S FACE”) as he talks about what publishing might look like in the future and ways we might monetize the reader-writer connection beyond just the sale of words printed on paper. During his tenure at Soft Skull they were forced to use cheaper and cheaper paper until eventually they were printing on a 45-lb bond that turned yellow if left out in the sun too long—-does this do the author and the reader justice any more than an e-book? He goes on to say that if we want to make books that are also beautiful objects, e-books can free us to do that—-a publisher can publish an e-book, and, say, a gorgeous limited edition letterpress version for the same or less money as a regular print run, and everyone—Luddites included—can be happy. I leave the talk wanting to throw him a fucking parade, but settle for following his blog.
Strangely, the biggest lesson of my brief sojourn has nothing to do with the conference. I walk into town one morning to eat at a diner run by a man named Brian who is to breakfast food what Richard Nash is to publishing. There is an item on the menu called Brian’s Breakfast, and the description simply reads: You have to believe! (Available only when the time is right.) I sit at the counter, and the waiter informs me that this mystery meal is being served today, but he has no idea what it will actually be, as Brian never makes it the same way twice. I go all in, happy to be at the mercy of Brian’s imagination. When this plate of food is set in front of me, I almost start to cry—-it is so beautiful, it has been made just for me, and there will never be another exactly like it. While I am eating, Brian himself emerges from the kitchen to grab a Coke, and I tell him how phenomenal this meal is. No one asks him where he gets his ideas or how he knows what will make a great omelet or how many times he has revised the recipe for his Hollandaise sauce. He is sweaty and grumpy and has been, quite obviously, working his ass off on the line. Gesturing to the vast expanse of food, I say, “I’m going slow and steady,” and he says, in a warm, gruff voice, “Atta girl.” Something about his approbation makes me glow. Here, thank Christ, is one thing I know I’m doing right.