Stories from Literary Sojourn 2018

September 11, 2018

 

I woke up after midnight, when John was just coming in from his celestial observations. “It’s today,” I told him, muffled by sleep.  “It’s Literary Sojourn.”

 

After that, I was like a kid on Christmas, wide awake until two o’clock, wondering what magic awaited me in the morning.  In this little spit of a town called Steamboat Springs, the Literary Sojourn is the best thing that happens all year.

 

People will say, you’re wrong: Steamboat isn’t so little anymore. But those people have been in the valley too long.  They’ve forgotten what it’s like to be in the world, how big some places can be.

 

And people will also say that Literary Sojourn doesn’t compare with the hundreds of inches of Champagne Powder™ that fall on Mount Werner every winter, or that it has nothing on our sweeping mountain vista views at sunset.

 

But for this writer, here in remote Northwest Colorado, Literary Sojourn is it. The main event.  My very favorite day.

 

Literary Sojourn is when six bestselling authors come to Steamboat Springs, and we spend the whole afternoon listening to their stories: how they became writers, what their process is like, how they came to write their books.  We spend all year reading their books, participating in books clubs, and awaiting their arrival, and then we spend the next year thinking about what they said.  This year, the authors were: Colum McCann, Tayari Jones, Charles Frazier, Claire Messud, Kamila Shamsie, and Alice McDermott.

 

John and I were ushers, so we had to arrive early.  He was all dressed up handsome, and Jennie even put us working in the same section.  “You trust us together?” I asked her.

 

“You missed each other,” she said.  And she is right; we did miss each other, for fifteen long months, while I was in France.  And even though John doesn’t usually go to Literary Sojourn, I was glad he did this year, because I liked looking at him across the aisle, when I was supposed to be ushering people.  Maybe we won’t be allowed to be in the same section next year.

 

And at the end of the day, I have to tell you—it was even better than Christmas.  One of the things I love most about Sojourn is how there are certain themes that echo through from one author to the next.  As usual, there were so many threads to tie together.

 

How writing process varies:

 

Charles Frazier, who wrote Cold Mountain, writes with coffee and a cookie in mid-afternoon.  He took a long time becoming a writer, he said, but it was in Colorado (which, in his accent, sounded like “CAHlarada”) that he came into his ritual.  The muse visits him at around 3pm, which is not convenient for dinner, he admitted.

 

On the other hand, Tayari Jones bangs out her books on a typewriter.  She feels like she’s really working, she said, “Making all that noise.”  She also admitted, almost controversially, that she doesn’t write every day; she writes several times a week, for a few hours at a time.  “Don’t think you have to write every day,” she told us, with all our eager little faces turned toward her, as she made us laugh and held us in the palm of her hand.  She talked about what a luxury it is to write, and how it’s understandable to have a life outside of writing, people that need you.  “A page a day is a book in a year, and a page every other day is a book in two years,” she said, and the audience sighed with her truth.

 

Writing a page a day can sound easy, but in reality, it’s daunting.  Alice McDermott spoke about how she “must be working too hard,” when she heard the other writers talk about their processes.  “I’ve always had to treat it like a job,” she said, sitting down every day for eight hours at her desk, rereading what she wrote yesterday, plodding along and adding a little, revising over and over.  “Groping in the dark, hoping the language will lead me to a story,” she said.  It has made for an impressive career.  

 

Of writing, she said, “It’s painstaking.  Don’t do it.”

 

“A different geography”

 

As a writer who focuses on place, I kept noticing a thread through the presentations that had to do with geography.  Frazier, for example, talked about a friend who lived with Gary Snyder, writing and working for a while, when one day, Snyder told him to “go home.”

 

What it really meant, he said, was, “Go home and write about what you really know, deeply in your heart.”

 

And Frazier’s home, in the mountains in North Carolina, became the setting for his best known book.  One day, he had a picture in his head of two women standing outside in men’s clothes by a campfire.  He didn’t know where it came from, but he couldn’t get it out of his head.

 

“Listen to ‘that stuff,’ to the things that rise out of some place you don’t know, and let them live with you for a while,” he said.  Those things that are the homespun stories and culture buried deep inside, and they lead you to the story.

 

When he introduced Kamila Shamsie, Colum McCann quoted Borges quoting Melville: “A man ought to be a patriot to heaven, to feel that the whole world is our country,” he said. For Shamsie, place is a central question of her work, situated as a Pakistani-British writer who writes about cross-cultural issues.

 

She has never seen having two countries as a divide, she said, but rather an multiplicity, increasing her ability to empathize and understand.

 

And like Frazier, Kamila Shamsie talked about that guttural knowledge we possess.  Her new book is a retelling of Antigone, and when she described Antigone’s choice to bury her brother, she asked us pointedly: What would you say, if they told you that you could not bury someone you love?

 

You would say no, of course.  A no that comes from the very gut of things.

 

And geography can’t dictate that—so much of human experience is universal, that geography doesn’t matter at all.

 

Metaphors & similes for writing

 

To speak about her latest book, Shamsie talked about how we circle a story the way we circle a building, looking for a way in.

 

She recounted the time she met Phillipe Petit, who was a central figure in Colum McCann’s best-known novel, Let the Great World Spin.  She said that when she met Petit, he was unlike anyone she’d ever met—and that he told her to visit a particular building in a new city.  “Is it open to the public?” she asked him.

 

And he said he didn’t know, that he has a habit of breaking in.

 

She used this idea of breaking in as a way to talk about finding the way into your story, that you are circling a building for a long time, sometimes without knowing it.

 

Claire Messud, on the other hand, said that writing is like being a magpie, stealing whatever you can get for your story, “or like composting,” she said, to laughter.  She was bright and candid and funny, moving quickly across subjects.  “We are lucky,” Messud said.  “Racine only had 8,000 words.  Shakespeare had 24,000 words.” She stressed that the elasticity of English is a great tool for making books.

 

She also quoted Stendhal: “A novel is a mirror walking down a road,” she said.  Just trying to capture what it’s like to be a human on this planet Earth at any given time.

 

Myth & empathy

 

Finally, myth was an important motif throughout our day.  McCann started talking about myth in the first few minutes, about his novel Dancer and the myth we have about Romani people.  He talked about how he came to crystallize his philosophy around writing, which is that we are still capable of myth.

 

Claire Messud talked about combatting the myth of the American teenager girl with her new book, Burning Girl.  

 

She (I think it was her, anyway) mentioned the way we grow up believing in stories without questioning them, how people can turn into swans in myths, and children don’t stop you and say, “Now, wait a minute—that doesn’t happen,” but rather they accept it.  They enter the story.

 

And this becomes harder to subscribe to, as we get older.  Yet every author talked about the radical empathy that’s possible when we inhabit the mind of another person, which is the genesis of writing a novel.

 

It goes to the heart of literary experience, McCann said.  Jones talked about her empathy for all three of her characters in her newest novel, An American Marriage, where she said that she could understand all points of view equally. 

 

For Messud, it was about understanding our younger selves, and having empathy for young people, whose minds are changing so rapidly.

 

And for Shamsie, it was about empathizing with a story that was written 2400 years ago, yet that rings true today in many contexts.  To reach across such a great expanse of time and to create a story that inspires empathy in people of many cultures, to understand how much we feel is the same.

 

A day for reading

 

As a writer, Literary Sojourn inspires me because I get to learn about other writers and feel that I am not so alone in my strange profession, here at the table hour after hour.  

 

But it was important for me to remember this year that as a reader, the day is equally important.  We learn the secrets behind some of the stories that have captivated us this year.  It’s good for me to stop trying to suck the knowledge out of every talk and to just sit back and listen, to be told a good story.

 

Stories are all we have.  “Culture is what is left when we’ve forgotten everything,” Messud said, and culture is stories, handed from one to the next.

 

Maybe like Antigone, they last 2,400 years.  Maybe they are shorter-lived, speaking only to one cultural moment. But Literary Sojourn is its own story, and for me it’s one I keep telling myself again and again: there was a day when I saw six authors speak, and everything was perfect.

 

As we packed up the auditorium afterwards, recycling programs and empty cups, I could hear the echoes of the brilliance that had graced the room all day, and the eager ears upon which it fell.  I thought of the people who had traveled all those miles to be here, who had made special t-shirts as if it were a rock concert.

 

Three weeks ago, I left Paris and all its intellectual stimulation and ever-rotating string of exhibitions, and if there were ever a way to soften the blow of returning to the Rockies, it was Literary Sojourn.  I was even proud to be here, where people really love their library (and their librarians), where people care about stories.  Where we welcome authors with open arms and appreciate them.  One day, I plan to be one of those authors.

 

In the meantime, I'm happy being a reader, still learning, listening and paying attention.  And I'm happier still that we can come together, from many places in the world in different lives, to such a strange and unique place as Northwest Colorado, to share a love of writing and reading and books.

 

For some, Literary Sojourn would just be another day, but to me and many people in this region, it means a great deal.  And we can't wait til next year.

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© 2019 by Jamie Lynne Burgess