This doesn't happen every day.
You attend a reading of a writer you have admired for a long time, and the next morning, she sits down with you for a half hour, ready to answer anything you care to ask. And -- since earlier in the week, you, your instructor Barbara Hurd, and the others at the table read and discussed this author’s new book – a lot comes to mind.
I’m talking about Katha Pollitt, who read from her essay collection, Learning To Drive and Other Life Stories, one evening lat week at my MFA residency in Freeport, Maine. Her humorous recollections of a long-ago copy-editing gig for extra cash was perfect for an audience of writers. Pollitt really enjoyed her reading; she smiled, laughed, engaged with the audience, and generally had a blast at the microphone. (Can’t we all recall dozens of readings at which the author never smiles, much less enjoys himself?)
Next day, Pollitt visited the manuscript workshop in which five other MFA students and myself had been participating for three days. She was open to any question, any topic, and her answers were fresh and candid, sometimes thoughtfully meandering and other times gracefully succinct –just like her essays. Here’s a small sampling.
On how she approached the personal essay form (as opposed to her usual social/political commentary pieces for The Nation.): “I thought of the essays in Learning To Drive as stories.”
On whether or not she will write another collection of personal essays: “I don’t know. If you have any ideas, call me.”
On what keeps manuscripts from winning contests and/or getting published: “The person has insufficient literary talent. The language is boring. The writer does not use language in an interesting way.”
On what she looks for when judging contests (more on this later): “Prose is the thing for me. Is the writer in love with the English language?”
On what makes a compelling text: “Manuscripts that are interesting to read are those where the writer is pulled along by a long thread.”
Pollitt was in Maine partly to present the first Stonecoast Book Prize, which she judged last summer. The contest was won by Maine writer (and my new friend and Stonecoast MFA grad) Penelope Schwartz Robinson, for her stellar essay collection, Slippery Men, and includes publication by New Rivers Press in September 2008.
Like any good author surrounded by writing students -- Pollitt had a book recommendation: My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum, which she said avoids the essay collection curse of featuring a handful of stand-out pieces among others easily identifiable as filler.
That must mean it’s like Pollitt’s excellent Learning To Drive: Everything moves forward, from start to finish, never pausing in neutral.