Oct 24

Respect (Just a Little Bit)

I was the least distinguished guest at the dinner party. It was a great honor to be asked to dine among the stars. So I detailed myself and was on my best behavior, enjoying a glass of wine and listening to the chat. I did not smoke, swear, or do card tricks. But then dinner was ready. The host's dining table seated only 8 and there were 10 diners. What to do?

The solution: Put a little table off in the corner and seat there (with place cards) the least distinguished guest and the second-least-distinguished guest, both unescorted females. We could neither see nor be seen by the diners, who had their backs to us, nor could we take part in their conversation. We were told with an apology that this arrangement was by lottery. Forgive me, but I doubt that one or two of the nationally and internationally famous would have been seated at the kids' table, lottery or not.

I'm from an ethnic subculture that loves to host and treats even the most extraneous guests as royalty. We would rather face a firing squad than set a few human beings apart as if there were not several alternatives to this arrangement, to wit:
1. Serve dinner buffet-style.
2. Buy or rent a larger table.
3. Use smaller chairs. (Accommodating guests is more important than matching or having to move your furniture.)
4. Dining room too small for the crowd? Move the table to the living room.
5. Have the hosts (or at least one of them) seat themselves at the second-class table.
6. Have the hosts buzzing around serving and refilling and ascertaining that all invitees are well taken care of (the hosts can eat later).
7. Move the event to a restaurant (doesn't have to be expensive) and write off the cost as a business expense and as a way to head off even a whiff of an idea that they sort their guests by importance.

I was so embarrassed at being thus Jim Crowed -- regardless of status I am still a human being -- that I had to try not to cry, asking myself grimly and repeatedly, "What would Eleanor Roosevelt do?" She famously said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." I wonder if anyone else was embarrassed by this arrangement. (Nobody said anything. I considered leaving. My parents would have seen the score, excused themselves and left. I thought that might embarrass the hosts in front of their other guests, and politeness required I should be embarrassed rather than they; and finally, I did not want to leave my poor tablemate twisting in the wind.)

As fate would have it, this happened to the only one who would ever write about it. It is what I have always done to stay sane.
Oct 08

Sic Transit Gloria

I'm an elder now among writers. The younger ones who have the positions similar to what I had, or used to want, do not know me, and haven't heard or read anything I've written; in fact they're not sure I am published at all. I haunt the fringes at readings or workshops, but what they see is a middle-aged woman, a local, who never published in Shenandoah or snagged a big prize, at least that they know about, or any honor that still matters. Maybe I was somebody once, but I made mistakes, missed the boat, and now I'm a member of the old-school. That's how it goes, the way the cookie crumbles, sic transit gloria mundi; anyway, their own lives occupy them quite completely, as they ought to. I have been where they are now.

I have learned that a middle-aged female no matter how distinguished isn't granted that halo of success and prominence the younger are sure that they will have when they reach middle age. Rather, the middle-aged female is a nonentity. The goosey voices of her kind get tuned out. People remark only on the way she dresses: a too-exotic scarf, a funereal black suit, maybe boots (groan), or microfiber flats that too clearly accommodate her bunions or bunionettes. But the clothes might as well be empty. She is an embarrassment; it is feared that her nothingness is contagious. That she might have accomplished notable things doesn't matter. Her fee might be twice what you make in a month. She might even be Secretary of State. But no halo.

It's a gleaming platinum halo; I have seen it around others, around the young, gifted, royal, and hopeful.

I wear it in my hair.

Jul 21

What Finally Drove Me to Enter a Poetry Contest

28 January 2009

I'll admit up front that I want two things from contests. One is money. My car skidded and is in the shop. (On me, not a scratch. God protects writers.) But when the repairs totaled $4000 I asked myself, where else does a poet have a chance of getting money? So I'm a-going for the green. Knowing very well the odds are long: estimate is between 800 and 1200 to 1. BUT NOWADAYS THAT'S ABOUT THE SAME AS THE ODDS OF GETTING A JOB. (P.S.I already have a second job.)

Next, I want honorable mentions, something nice to put on apps for writers' colonies, grants and the like. We all know good work is not enough. Publication is not enough. Someone from the outside has to declare you special. A fiction writer I knew turned "second place" and "finalist for the Umpteenth Named-After-Famous Writer Award" into a resume so awesome people in a neighboring state were talking about her in hushed tones two years later. Of course it takes a fiction writer to do that.

Collateral benefit: getting the work revised, updated, and in order. Somebody stop me, please, if I try this again.
Mar 27

Scary Me: I Get a Clue

Yesterday spoke to a roomful of women over 50, my favorites, interested in starting to write. Advised them, as I would advise anyone:
  • 1. Take a writing course, in person, not online. You will have an instructor and deadlines and meet other writers, leading to--
  • 2. Have a network. Join writers' organizations. You are never too much of a beginner or a pro. Don't shun a support system. Especially if you begin to write in mid-life your family will freak out.
  • 3. If you want to publish and make money, learn the business end. It's very complex. Learn it anyway.
  • 4. Do not give up.
  • 5. Buy reference books on "How to Publish," "How to Write a Novel," "How to Format a Manuscript.," "Be Happily Self-Published." These will answer so many of your questions....
I wore my current Sunday best: a black long-sleeved dress (I gained a few pounds over the winter and nothing with a waistband comfortably fits.) Black nylons. Black low-heeled pumps. That's a lot of black, but I wear a lot of it because it all matches. Big pendant of smoky quartz (a stone that gives me great power) on gold chain. Pearly earrings my mom gave me. Of course my glasses. But this is the thing:

A participant told me afterward, "Your presentation was so informative. You were so funny and delightful! So glad I stayed for it!" (The people who come up to me after a talk are almost always representative of the whole audience.)

Thanks, I said, secretly surprised because I thought my presentation had been insufficiently linear and organized. And I worried because I had said I liked my writing more than I had liked my husbands. (This generated laughter.) I didn't want the audience to think they had to jettison their husbands to become writers. Knowing I had to be vulnerable so they could connect with me, I also had given them a list of secrets I don't tell anyone.

She added (This is my CLUE): "When you walked in and I first saw you, so overdressed, I thought, 'Oh no,' it's going to be a dull presentation,' but you surprised us! You were so funny and delightful!"

My CLOTHES? I have heard "overdressed" before. On occasions where I'm looked at, I want to look good, not as if I'm about to clean my bathroom. I honor my work and respect my audience by dressing for it. (Or is that an olde-fashioned or working-class notion?) Furthermore I like the contrast between how I am dressed and what I say, particularly when I do literary readings. My usual business-casual pants I might have worn yesterday temporarily do not fit. I need a red or pink or yellow dress for these occasions! If I buy one I can write it off as a business expense! Golly, I don't want people to dread me when I walk into a room.