A Day at the Oakland Book Festival

The clouds swirl above city hall, swept at the edges into mist. The breeze is icy, the sun warm. Smiling faces in every shade sit in grass, books in hand, heads bobbing to rappers crisscrossing the stage. I look up at the banners stretching between columns at the top of the stairs.

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I step into a crowded room and the flow of poet Will Alexander draws me in. His hand moves in circles to the rhythm of his words. I do not understand most poetry. Today is no exception. Maybe poetry is not meant to be understood. Maybe it is meant to be felt. His words sound beautiful, his beat hypnotic.

A poetry student raises his hand.

“How do you know when a poem is done?” he asks.

Matthew Zapruder answers by quoting another poet.

“I know a poem is done when both me and the poem have had an orgasm.”

I walk to the bookstore across the plaza. A choir of African-American girls sings a capella. I imagine Jack London calling for a socialist revolution at this very spot. I remember watching Barack Obama speak on these steps. I recall the humanity and energy of Occupy Oakland. The sun warms my face. I feel love for this city. I feel like I have returned to my home.

I sit on a metal folding chair and listen to authors from Oakland read from their books. Novella Carpenter tip-toes through the crowd to the front of the room. In her hand is a box of cucumber and zucchini starters she plans to give away.

“Sorry I’m late,” she says, “no bike parking around here.”

I read her memoir about starting an urban farm on an abandoned lot in west Oakland. She tells us a story about how once she was dumpster diving in Chinatown for fish guts (to feed her pigs) when a homeless man offered her a dollar for food. “Even the homeless of Oakland are openhearted,” she says.

There is also Zac Unger, a firefighter from Rockridge and Rod Campbell, an entrepreneur from west Oakland. Both wrote memoirs.

Campbell’s wife commends all three for embodying and celebrating all that is good with the town. Then she asks what can be done about all that is bad.

Unger says, “the most political decision a family can make is where they send their kids to school.”

I feel a pang of guilt.

I walk back to city hall and queue up for a reading/discussion with Ayelet Waldman and Akhil Sharma. A middle-aged Asian lady with short spiky hair and long pink bangs stands behind me.

“What a great turnout, huh?” she says. “Who knew this many people still love books?”

Sharma is one of my favorite contemporary authors. Waldman is obsessed with him too. “I’ll only read a little bit,” she says, “so we can listen to more of him.”

I admire Sharma’s sparse yet piercing style. I feel compassion for the suffering he endured. I admire his dedication to craft. He spent twelve and a half years writing his novel. He wrote seven thousand pages for what became a two hundred and twenty-four page book. When he finished the end of one draft, he opened a new document and started typing again.

Waldman can’t believe he revises this way. “I think you’ve inspired me,” she says. “I’m going to try that tomorrow.”

Sharma sits at a table in the loud and white hallway after the reading. He is hidden by a line of people waiting for a panel on gentrification. I introduce myself to him. I am nervous.

“I also wrote a novel drawn from my own experience,” I say. “I’ve written four drafts so far and I signed up to do an intensive workshop with Tom Barbash.”

I know him and Tom are friends.

“Oh, good for you,” he says. He is sincere.

“I’ve yet to try rewriting it from scratch,” I say.

“Try it, man,” he says.

I like that he calls me “man.” He makes a mountain climbing analogy I don’t really hear because I’m so nervous. Something about carving out a more direct route to the peak.

“Try it for like two months,” he says.

“I think I might,” I say. “It’s taken while, but I’m finally embracing the long game that writing a novel demands.”

At home, my wife tells me I networked.

“I’m glad you went,” she says.

“Me too,” I say. “Just seeing all those authors in the flesh and listening to them speak and interact with each other, it struck me that these are not the superhuman people I’ve idealized in my imagination. They’re all just…”

“Regular people,” she says.

“Yes, exactly. It just made the prospects of me becoming one of them seem more plausible.”

She nods.

“I have to believe in myself to make this thing work,” I say. “If I don’t believe in myself, I might as well stop.”

“Well I believe in you,” she says, “so even when you don’t believe in yourself, you’ll always have that.”

I almost start sobbing but I don’t. I make a caprese salad. I think about my short story. I am excited to get back to work.


Stopping and Starting

I spent the last ten months rewriting my book.

It took a while to bounce back from the blunt and unfiltered feedback of a professional editor but I eventually settled into an enjoyable stretch of joyful creation without attachment. The days were ends in themselves. I worked in the moment, for the sheer pleasure of stringing together words, playing with rhythm and dwelling upon the mind-blowing revelations that drove me. I blasted electronic dance music in my headphones, ran and hiked the mountain and made beautiful memories with my family. The down times came and went like always, but I didn’t resist them nor did I convince myself that they were my reality. I tried to not identify my reality with my thoughts about reality.

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I countered rainy days with blankets and hot cups of tea, deep breaths and good books and celebrated sunny days with hikes and adventures with family and friends. I wrote everyday and I didn’t share it with anyone. A few weeks ago, I reached the end of the book. Again.

I shared it with eight readers. I felt good and was happy with the book’s progression but this pause in the creative process in anticipation of feedback really disrupted the whole creating without attachment thing. The truth is I am not actually creating without attachment. I am writing this book with the intention of selling it, with the intention of it becoming the foundation of my writing career. There is a sense of urgency burning inside me, fueled by my desire to provide for my family but most of all to connect with people, to share ideas, images and moments that inspire presence, gratitude, vulnerability, love and compassion.

I received feedback from six of my readers. I heard some of the most touching and validating praise I have ever received as a writer but I also heard specific and actionable issues, deficiencies and suggestions for improvement. The praise felt good and the criticism stung but both feelings faded as they usually do into the only constant, steady truth of this life: the present moment.

My editor told me ten months ago that it often takes several years to write a good book and that mine “is particularly complex and ambitious.” I had coffee with a local fiction author a couple weeks ago who said the same thing. When I asked him if he thought it was a good idea to start querying agents, he asked me how I make my living.

“I’m really nice to my wife,” I said.

“Oh, well then it sounds like you’re in a good place,” he said. “I think you should delay it as much as possible. Agents are eager to find any possible reason to reject. They just get so many submissions.”

He said at some point I would get to a point where there is nothing more I can do with the book, but I am not at that point yet. I still have beta reader feedback coming in. The more I write and rewrite and let this story marinate in my subconscious, the more complex and nuanced it becomes. Obvious thematic connections that I never remotely contemplated are starting to manifest. My voice is ripening, embracing more humor and confidence. I have made progress as a story-teller, grounding the reader in scenes, weaving in description, dialogue, mood and theme, but there is definitely more work to be done. I don’t know if this book, as a concrete and finite entity in this world, will ever approximate my visualization of it, but I do know that, right now, there are specific and concrete things I can do to make it better.

Thankfully, the spring sun is beginning to dwell upon our patio for a few hours each morning. The creek is still babbling from the sparse winter rainfall. The mountain and ocean beckon always to humble and inspire. I will continue to write, to add layers of complexity and richness to my story, to seek the truth and try to convey it in beautiful ways. I will endeavor to do this as an end in itself, without attachment to results, until there is nothing more I can do.