Stories, Art, Food, Teaching, Travel, and the other Loves of my Life

Stories, Art, Food, Teaching, Travel, and the other Loves of my Life
"Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?" Mary Oliver, "The Summer Day"

Monday, October 18, 2010

Writing: On Community

Positively buzzing after tonight's reading.

Yiyun Li, writer extraordinaire, who I was lucky enough to study under, who taught me a couple hard lessons about fiction, read tonight at the independent bookstore down the street.

The Vagrants


Yiyun Li grew up in Beijing and came to the United States in 1996. Her stories and essays have been published in The New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, O Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships and awards from Lannan Foundation and Whiting Foundation. Her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, and California Book Award for first fiction; it was also shortlisted for Kiriyama Prize and Orange Prize for New Writers. Her novel, The Vagrants, won the gold medal of California Book Award for fiction. She was selected by Granta as one of the 21 Best Young American Novelists under 35, and was named by The New Yorker as one of the top 20 writers under 40. MacArthur Foundation named her a 2010 fellow. She is a contributing editor to the Brooklyn-based literary magazine, A Public Space. She lives in Oakland, California with her husband and their two sons, and teaches at University of California, Davis.

I gathered up all my serious students and told them she would change their lives. We sat and listened to her read from her new book. We sucked in our breath when she paused and got goosebumps. We heard her read a story we had all read before and walked away with a completely different impression than we had before. I nearly cried. I hugged her and she signed my book and misspelled my name and I asked about her kids and she told me about the call she got from J's kindergarden teacher and I told her about the time G said she had a sperm donor not a dad and we laughed and I missed school and workshop so, so much.

Then, a bunch of my students went out for dinner and we talked about the story and the amazing experience of hearing an author read (when it's a good reader) and our own struggles with our work and how inspiring it is to hold hands with this little writing community, how rare it is to talk over a plate of taquitos and enchilladas, and be able to explain your delight at the way two images speak when situated next to each other correctly, and the way certain words can pull you out of a story and others can push you right back in, and the way sometimes another voice entirely takes over, and it's impossible to go back and edit thoughtfully without thinking you might be just a little bit crazy. We laughed. The youngest of us was 17 and the oldest was 66. We shared our favorite stories, exercises, and classes. We compared battle scars. We collectively wondered why, of all the things we could be doing with our lives, we are so compelled to write.

It was an amazing night. After grad school, I lost such a huge sense of my community: everyone thinks they're a writer, and sometimes they are, but it's so nice to be able to exchange work with people who actually feel the same way about writing that I do: it's not fun, it's not therapeutic, it is simply necessary for my existence.

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