A Writer’s Conference and a Burger King

I’m sitting in my hotel in Sioux Falls at the South Dakota Festival of the Book. There are a fair amount of heavy hitters here, as well as a lot of lesser names and just plain ordinary folks. It is an interesting gathering, made more so by the odd collection of psyches and strange patterns of interaction that such a venue produces.

By and large, writers are people who, if they are comfortable at all, are comfortable in front of groups or one-on-one, but not as social mixers. We were the ones who were hiding in the shadows at high school dances, or who spent most of our time at home alone in our rooms, who read books or ruminated endlessly on the nature of life, and were generally incapable of going up to folks and saying “Hi, how are you?” in social situations.

As adults and professionals, we haven’t changed a whole lot.

So, unless you happen to attach yourself to one of the few outgoing folks, you either find one or two other people with whom you can relate, or you spend a lot of time standing around alone watching other folks standing around alone.

In the last couple days, I’ve done a little bit of both.

What is so fascinating and so poignant is being in this situation of relative social ineptitude, yet knowing that to those non-writers who are attending the conference, you are the stars, the luminaries, the reasons they are there. Yet many of those people standing alone are the very “stars” the readers want to approach, yet are too nervous or hesitant to do so.

I am not a “star” in the general sense. I have my following, but I work on the margins of the great literary center. Readers know me, but I have no literary cachet. I can stand comfortably in the shadows and assume the “watcher” role with which I’ve been most comfortable in social situations since my junior high days.

But occasionally, someone who has read my books will cross the barrier that I, as a person, never have the courage to cross, and will come up to me and ask for an autograph or a few minutes of my time. I’m always happy to oblige. One of those moments came this afternoon, when a man approached with a copy of Simple Truths for me to sign. He was, quite literally, shaking. He held the book open and asked, almost fearfully, and certainly apologetically, if I would be willing to sign it for his wife.

“Of course,” I answered, once again in a position of social dominance. It was easy for me, because he wanted something from me, and it made me feel good to be able to give it. Yet, put me in his situation, and I never would have had the courage to go up and approach a writer I respected. I admired him for crossing that barrier, and did what I could to make him feel valuable and affirmed. It was the least I could do in response to his act of social courage.

What a strange thing social expectations are. Just after the man left me, I drove down the road to a Burger King. I went inside, and the sixteen year old girl waiting on me began bantering and chattering. We passed a few moments talking about her school work and the conference I was at.

“You’re a writer?” she said. “That’s cool. I write, too.”

She gave me my order, took my money, and we parted. To her, I was just another customer.

Yet, this morning, at the hotel restaurant, the woman to whom I had to pay my bill saw my name on the credit card and also on a book I was carrying, and exclaimed, “You’re a writer? That’s so exciting!” As I walked away, I heard her telling her co-worker, “I just talked to a writer! It gave me goosebumps.”

These are true encounters — or, in some cases, true lacks of encounter. And such illusions they are. I only wish I could that I could find that shaking man and the waitress at the restaurant and say, “Come on, let’s go out for a burger.” Yet, in some ways, it would take the luster off. I would be the approachable person they want me to be, but they would find out I’m just the ordinary person they don’t want me to be. The reality would not be large enough to fit the image and the fantasy and the expectation.

Tomorrow I will give another session. I will be on stage with another author, Mary Rose O’Reilley, who I met for the first time yesterday. She, too, is far from a social butterfly, but because we were set at a table together we got to know each other a bit. In just the few minutes of contact, I could see that she has a wonderfully humble sense of self and a deeply poetic relationship to the outside world.

We will sit up there and the good people in the audience will look upon us as omniscient purveyors of wisdom who live magical lives, when in fact we are nothing more than two people for whom illuminating ordinary moments in life is our stock in trade. When the session is done, we will go back to our ordinary lives — hers, teaching at a college in Minneapolis and dreaming of buying some farmland in Wisconsin; mine, sitting in a messy cabin with a confused Labrador, drinking too much coffee, and trying to squeeze out a bit of meaningful prose. And all the audience members will go off to respective lives, some exalted, some tawdry, but mostly all ordinary, just like ours.

We will have spent some time doing an awkward dance whose steps were defined by our social fears and expectations. And we will all leave, wishing we had been more graceful and more confident, and better able to cross those social spaces that we were too timid to navigate.

Perhaps I’ll stop at the Burger King on the way out of town. Perhaps the man with his trembling hands, or the waitress at the hotel restaurant, or one of the other writers from the conference will be there.

I hope they are. Because without our social expectations and constraints, we will probably sit down and have a cup of coffee. It would be good to get to know each other as ordinary people. On the other side of the imaginary lines that we drew, everyone seemed like such good folks.

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