When we came out of the bar in Iowa City, there were still twenty people on the other side of the street.  They were holding signs and chanting in front of the Old Capitol.  We had had nice cocktails at an upstairs bar.  We had participated in a round of applause for the bartender called for by someone we thought to be a regular, a guy I would later learn had actually never set foot in the bar before.  It was still light outside.IMG_1469

We looked, we didn’t look.  Someone said, “It’s so complicated,” and we looked and didn’t look, and people wondered what each other were thinking, who might feel sensitive about this, and we were tired and cheerful and going to dinner together and a little in love with each other and ourselves since we had brought our novels and no one cares about your novel, but these people did, they read part of it and talked to you about it– if for years you had vivid, poignant dreams every night and no one, ever, ever wanted to hear about them, but then, someone asked and actually wanted to know, it was like that.

I can only speak for myself but I was not in the mood to deal with world affairs, in fact, I was pretty pissed that the people of the middle east could not hold off on their insanity while I was on vacation, goddamnit.

They chanted and chanted.  We waited to cross the street, but I don’t know why.  It is a college town, and three-fourths empty in July.  I wanted to go.

After Iowa City, I stopped in Hannibal, Missouri.  I looked at the river.  It was too hot to look at it under the sun.  I walked up and down the road by the river and the train tracks, looking for a place that would sell me an apple.  They were all antique stores and ice cream shops and empty places.  I went into one tourist shop and they did have “fresh produce”: ears of corn and tomatoes.

I ate a sandwich and corn chips on the deck of a restaurant that was closed and a wasp floated in a corner.

I asked a couple to take my picture in front of one of the preserved buildings, Mark Twain’s dad’s law office.  The man took my picture.  He put his finger over part of the lens.  He asked me to take their photo. I did.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Russia,” he said.

“Oh, far from home.  How is your trip so far?”

“Good,” they said, and immediately walked away.  I wondered what they knew about Mark Twain.

I went into the gift shop and while I was looking around, a man told the woman at the counter that they were going to open the floodgates tomorrow, and I realized I didn’t know what that meant, that it was a real thing to do, open the floodgates.  I took a book and some stickers to the counter and the woman asked where I was from.

“Brooklyn,” I said.

“Oh,” she said.

“But I used to live in Kansas City, so I was nearby.”

“Oh,” she said.

I took my book to the coffeehouse down the street along the river, ordered a latte which came in a handmade mug.  I washed my hands in their bathroom, and the sink was handmade pottery, too, a shallow round bowl with blues and browns.  I opened my new book and read this:

The human being, like the immortals, naturally places sexual intercourse far and away above all other joys– yet he has left it out of heaven!…From youth to middle age all men and all women prize copulation above all other pleasures combined, yet it is actually as I have said: it is not in their heaven; prayer takes its place.

I had to pee for a very long time of driving across Illinois, and pondered stopping and peeing in many, many cornfields and ditches, but finally came to a town barely big enough to have a gas station.  There were fifty motorcycles parked around it.  I rounded the corner to the bathroom and there were already six women in line.

The line for men was even longer, and a guy with patches on his leather vest that said Iraq, joked, “We knew that blonde lady would be coming in, and she really had to pee, so we all rushed in here and lined up.”

I asked where they were going.  He said they were on a ride to some memorial for someone who had died.  I was too shy to ask about this person who had died, but I liked that everyone there was in some informal community.

A little girl walked by, stood next to her mom, and the guy said, “You gotta get some on this wrist so you won’t fall over.”  He was pointing to her bracelets.  She didn’t say anything.  “You know, so they won’t be too heavy.”  The mom smiled and the girl didn’t say anything.  The girl walked away.

“Someday she’ll be like, what did he mean?” the mom said.

Eventually I got to pee and I thanked God that I had gotten to pee and didn’t buy anything at the Casey’s.  I just left.




Twain quote from Letters from the Earth, edited by Bernard DeVoto HarperPerennial, 1962.

Days 2/3 (Not two-thirds)

The important thing is that my teacher is nice.  You didn’t care about niceness, and then you do.  Then it’s really all that matters.

Coffee and work, lunch and reading, class.  Day two I snagged some people to have dinner with– long, easy, witty, long-lost relations banter we had over wine and martinis and food that never got to go nowhere but a few miles, field to table.  How sad for it.  We toasted our future fame and talked about how we all fantasize about our book jacket photos.  It was just so comfortable.  I’ve never felt like I was part of a group of serious writers without feeling threatened and awkward and self-conscious.  So just that was probably worth the grand I’m throwing at this.

Day three I went dreamier and wandered about.  Didn’t try too hard to pick anyone up, and didn’t.  Explored: junk shop, bookstore, river.  They have lots of fireflies here.  I think I’ve caught fireflies before, somewhere, sometimes.  Don’t remember.  Tonight I spent a good long four minutes up close and personal with one.  He was standing aloft a blade of grass like it was no big thing.  They also have ducks in the river, which pleases me a great deal.  Ducks are just precious to me.

We tried to show our teacher we were not dumb on day 2.  I tried to show I was brilliant, funny, and easy to get along with.  Check.  Today we “workshopped” (awful verb) the first piece.  We all watched carefully to see if our teacher would be kind.  He was.  I told Exhibit A why, personally, I connected to the material– her story resembles my father’s, and in certain ways, my own.  It’s kind of a girl thing to do, but seriously, why did you write something?  Not to have people tell you how to fix it.  People seem to want our teacher to “teach” us.  He seems to do only as much teaching as he needs to, maybe a wee bit more.  Mostly people should teach themselves.  He never makes us read our exercises, which is odd.  At Writing Project we HAD to read, right away, and it hurt bad, real bad, until I didn’t care anymore.  Like how guitarists get left-hand callouses.  Like how boxers toughen up.  It was ultimately good and incredibly quieting to the ego.  I wrote it.  Whatever.  I wrote it.

We jockey to see who gets to talk the most.  There are six of us.  Three of us barrel on (me included) while three are quieter.  I couldn’t be sure I’d be a loud one.  Usually it takes me a long time to get comfortable with new people, but I’ve worked with so many people on so much writing now, I think I know what’s helpful and how to do it.

Mostly here I am finding that I was right: getting an MFA, or studying your art in college, is expensive, and for me, would be a waste of time.  You would meet people.  You would get to drink with them, bond.  But I learned to write from reading, studying paintings, movies, my life, traveling, teaching, crying, screaming, my friends.  I haven’t heard anything here that was news to me.  It’s just about having company.  Here it is very normal to be sitting and writing, or marking up manuscripts.  It’s so normal, it’s kind of scary.  When I was younger, this much fitting in would really threaten my ego.  Experience managing the ego is critical here.  I’m glad I have a pretty solid leash on the sucker.  Down, boy.  Back.  Smile.