During the 10 years I worked at Hugo House, the second largest writers' center in the country, I met hundreds of writers, from nobodies who have always been somebodies in their own minds to best-selling authors your aunt's book club has read.
I started at Hugo House as a 22-year-old intern who couldn't get into an MFA program and worked my way up to program director, holding other positions along the way. Whatever an MFA would have taught me about writing, I like to think I got just from Hugo House, and I didn't have to take out any student loans or read undergrad papers on the meaning of the black page in Tristram Shandy.
More than a year ago, I left Hugo House to write a book of my own. Sometimes I miss those days, though. The stories alone made the 60-hour workweeks—half of which were spent hungover—worth it. Here are a few of my favorite stories. Everything is true, but everyone remains anonymous because, in all honesty, maybe I'll need a blurb from one of these writers when my book is finished.
The Ex—Weather Underground Feminist Poet
It was my first big event, and I was in charge of "taking care" of the writers. I had visions of Raymond Carver and John Cheever shotgunning bottles of wine and giving me swirlies in the bathroom. That would have been more exciting than what I actually did: make name tags, stuff programs, order lunch, things no one else wanted to do.
My boss asked me to schedule the Ex–Weather Underground Feminist Poet's flight. The Ex–Weather Underground Feminist Poet didn't have e-mail—didn't believe in the stuff—so I had to call her.
The problem was, whenever I did, she never answered. She lived on the East Coast, three hours ahead. Every morning I dialed her—and no luck. Of course, the poet who didn't believe in e-mail also didn't have voice mail.
One day I tried her late at night, and she picked up around the 15th ring. She didn't say hello. The ringing just stopped, and the line clicked on. I could hear her breathing, a beautiful whisper, the breath you'd expect a poet of her caliber to take.
"Hello? Is this the Ex–Weather Underground Feminist Poet?" I asked, using her actual name.
"Who wants to know?"
I introduced myself, said where I was calling from, and explained that I'd already booked her ticket, an early flight, nonstop, because I couldn't get ahold of her.
"That won't work," she said. "Because I sleep naked."
Suddenly I felt uneasy. I was ready to talk about anything—couldn't we talk about her poems?—but I was not ready to talk about her nude sleeping habits. I didn't know what to say. I tried to change the subject, but she interrupted me.
"I have a medical condition. I have to sleep naked and bathe every morning."
I didn't understand how sleeping naked meant she couldn't take an early flight. Wouldn't that mean she'd need less time to get ready? She wouldn't have any clothing to take off in the morning! I didn't argue that point.
Instead, I mentioned the ticket was nonrefundable.
"Would a doctor's note help?" she asked.
I ended up talking the airline into a partial refund, and months later, at Hugo House, I met the Ex–Weather Underground Feminist Poet during a break. She was eating a sandwich. I asked her how the flight was, and just as I did, a slice of tomato slipped from between the slices of bread and fell on the carpet. I reached for the tomato, but she beat me to it. How come she didn't answer the phone that fast? Then she dangled the thing over her mouth like a dog treat before dropping it in and swallowing it in one bite. The whole time she stared straight into my eyes with a confidence I envied. It made me thankful I'd changed her flight.
The Drunk Memoirist
The event with the Ex–Weather Underground Feminist Poet also featured the Drunk Memoirist. She and I had e-mailed and talked on the phone a few times before she arrived, but when she got to Hugo House, she had no clue who I was. That changed as soon as I brought her a glass of whiskey. By the time she finished the second one, she recognized me from somewhere. She was sure she knew me.
"Maybe it was in another life," she said without a hint of sarcasm.
I hadn't read the Drunk Memoirist's work, but once we met it was all I could read. She lived what I thought the writers' life was—what I at 23 thought writing was all about, drinking and loving and suffering. She was also the first author who took an interest in me and asked about my work, what I dreamed of writing some day. She made me feel like a real writer, not some depressed kid grasping for meaning by writing knockoff Bukowski poems. I'll never forget the last thing she said to me before she stumbled off that night: "Fail better."
Four years later, after I learned that that wasn't her line but Beckett's line, the Drunk Memoirist killed herself. She jumped off the bleachers of a college football stadium near where she lived. Reading the obit, I wondered if that was the price of greatness, and if it was, could I do it?
The Young Writer, Rejected
Every writer has been the Young Writer, Rejected—a twentysomething with a Moleskine, a dog-eared copy of Jesus' Son, and a dream. In this case, the writer sent me an irate e-mail after we rejected him from a fellowship program. I recognized his name as someone Facebook suggested to me I might want to friend. I had no clue who he was. He knew who I was, though: an elitist MFA'er "shunning lower-class writers of quality fiction" and "condemning this country to a literary future of Jonathan Franzens and, God help us!, David Foster Wallaces." Nothing could be further from the truth, obviously. If his work sample had been as compellingly written as his e-mail, he might have actually received the fellowship. Facebook hasn't suggested we become friends since.
The Critically Acclaimed Writer You Probably Haven't Read but Should
Of all the writers I got to meet, I was most starstruck when I met him. Like me, he grew up in Queens, was abandoned by his father, and struggled with his weight—and still he'd made it in the literary world.
I picked him up at the airport myself, a task usually given to interns, and took him out for drinks after the event. I wanted to get to know him, impress him, but more than anything, I wanted him to sign my books. I owned everything he'd written. When I finally had the nerve to ask, he signed each dutifully, joking that I should start a fan club, until he got to the last book in the pile, his latest in hardcover. He opened the book and half the pages were chewed up.
"Didn't like this one?" he said.
It took me a moment to remember my puppy Lulu had gotten into my books.
"Oh, that was my dog," I said. "I'm sorry."
"Critics," he said. "That dog's tougher than Michiko."
The Author Behind the Greatest Literary Hoax
I was introduced to the Author Behind the Greatest Literary Hoax through the Editor of the Alt-Weekly That Put Tao Lin Dressed as Franzen on Its Cover. He had been talked into the event by the Small Press Editor from the City That Thinks It's Cooler Than Seattle but Isn't. Minutes after the editor connected us by e-mail, I got a call from the author. We were on the phone for more than an hour. In that time, I said maybe a dozen words. She didn't just tell me her side of the story—she told me her whole story. Born in Brooklyn. Raised in group homes. Worked her way up writing anything. The books came. Then the celebrities. The controversy. (She'd never call it a hoax.) The lawsuits. A memoir was forthcoming now that she had settled with a production company that had initiated legal action against her over the controversy.
In the meantime, this was what she wanted to bring to Hugo House: the truth.
For some reason, I thought it was a good idea. For some reason, the Editor of the Alt-Weekly That Put Tao Lin Dressed as Franzen on Its Cover thought it was a good idea, too. We were wrong.
The Author Behind the Greatest Literary Hoax was a bomb. She rambled onstage for almost two hours, as if the more she spoke the more we'd be badgered into believing her. People walked out. Some demanded their money back. It was my biggest failure at Hugo House.
The next morning, she showed up with a gym bag. She hugged me and explained that she usually touched people's crotches she wasn't sure of but didn't have to do that with me because I was "a kid from Brooklyn like her." (I'm from Queens.) Then she reached in her bag and handed me a pair of tighty-whities, except they were orange. Tighty-orangies.
"For all your hard work," she said.
Then she asked about covering her travel expenses. I said we needed a receipt, and we'd put a check in the mail. The next day, she called. Again, I asked for the receipt. After that, she e-mailed daily. She didn't send the receipt, but she sent e-mails. She left voice mails. She Facebook messaged me so many times I had to block her.
Some weeks later, the receipt came, and we put a check in the mail. I still have the underwear. I've only worn them when dared.
The Best-Selling Literary Novelist
I was at a conference in Portland when the Best-Selling Literary Novelist asked to borrow some money. He's one of my favorite authors, someone who's taught and read at Hugo House a number of times. Earlier that day, we'd bumped into each other right after a phone meeting with my agent where she basically said my manuscript was absolute shit. The Best-Selling Literary Novelist could tell something was wrong. When I explained what happened, he put a hand on my shoulder and told me a story about Houdini.
In the story, Houdini performed a magic trick where he jumped into a frozen lake through a hole in the ice handcuffed with an anvil tied to his legs. Nobody knew, but he had a key hidden on him. As soon as he'd sunk far enough, he unlocked himself and swam up. Magic. But while Houdini was underwater, he drifted away from the hole, and when he reached the surface, there was a thick layer of ice. He tried to break it but couldn't. So he paddled along, taking in pockets of air between the ice and the water until he finally found the hole.
The Best-Selling Literary Novelist said that's what being a writer is like: You drift along, sucking in air bubbles—publications, grants, residencies—trying to stay alive until you find the hole in the ice. At the time, it was a story I needed to hear.
Later, when I ran into him again, he had the same desperate look in his eyes as I had that morning.
"Brian, do you have a few bucks? I just ordered a pizza, but I'm short."
I opened up my wallet and forked over all the cash I had, five or six bucks.
"You have the number one book on the New York Times best-seller list, and you're asking me for money?"
"What?" he shot back. "You think I made anything off that?"
Together we stared into the distance waiting for the delivery guy to show.
The Best-Selling Dog Novelist
I asked the Best-Selling Dog Novelist, along with the Prolifically Brilliant Lesbian Small Press Author and the Guy Who Broke the Internet with That Essay About MFA Programs, to speak to a group of young writers. The three of them discussed process, agents and editors, and the secrets of the publishing industry. At the end there was time for questions. One of the young writers wanted to know what the authors were working on now.
As soon as the question was asked, the Best-Selling Dog Novelist took a deep breath and went on a rant. He was tired of being known for writing a dog novel. He'd written a couple of books before then, quote unquote literary novels. That's what he wanted the book he was working on now to be, but all his publisher wanted was another dog book. Either way, he was keeping the advance.
"What the fuck," he said. "Maybe I'll write a cat book next."
The Prolifically Brilliant Lesbian Small Press Author rolled her eyes and slapped her hand on the table.
"Oh, come on! I've written 17 books. Do you know how much I got in advances? Nothing. Let's be honest with these kids. The reality is a majority of writers don't make any money. None. At all."
The argument spun out from there: money, big house vs. small press publishing, goals and aspirations. Both of the writers had their points. But this wasn't a normal panel—they were going at it. The Guy Who Broke the Internet with That Essay About MFA Programs was sitting between them. A fleck of spit from one of their mouths landed on the table in front of him. He leaned back in his chair and smiled.
Finally, while packing up his things, the Best-Selling Dog Novelist said, "Every writer wants to write the Next Great American Novel. I haven't done it. I may never do it. But when I sit down at my desk, you better fucking believe that's what I'm trying to do. What editors want, what publishers want, what readers want, that's out of my control."
It's still some of the best writing advice I've ever heard.
Brian McGuigan is the cofounder/curator of Cheap Wine & Poetry and Cheap Beer & Prose, which happen at Hugo House. The next one happens September 24 at 7 p.m. He's currently at work on a memoir. Follow @iambrianwithani on Twitter.