The Roots of Things
On the last real book tour of my career, or at least in the way I had always known it to be, I had this interesting stretch of it where I drove through Tennessee and Arkansas. I did a reading in Memphis with Alice Bolin at Novel bookstore and then the next day I drove to Fayetteville to read at a lovely bookstore there called Nightbird (sadly now closed), where I had appeared a few times before, during the early days in my career, and had always appreciated their support. Out of the way, Arkansas, some might say when planning a tour, but on the other hand, it’s not out of the way if you live there, and there are readers all over the place, and I am always happy to meet them.
My back had started to bother me then, I remembered, as I was driving, and later in the tour it would bend me to pain entirely, but as I think about it now, those first little twinges showed up for the hours I drove from one state to another, and I had that feeling of oh, this might be trouble. The root of something evil. By Thanksgiving, my back was complete garbage. I remember an urgent care doctor mercifully giving me a shot of something. I’ll never forget that man.
In Fayetteville, my interlocutor was Padma Viswanathanthan, and she was so smart and generous and great to be in conversation with. I had basically looked her up online and cold-called her for the event. And then there she was, waiting to meet me. The crowd was small, but also great, really connected. I never expect anyone to show up anywhere. It turned out that Kiese Laymon was speaking the same night at the university. Ah ha, that’s where all the undergrads went. God, I would have gone to see him, too. Later that night I ran into him at a nice restaurant in town. I sat by myself at the bar eating dinner while he was surrounded by an enthusiastic group of young people. It was nice to give him a hug.
In the morning, I drove onto Conway, Arkansas, where I was to give one of the keynotes at the C. D. Wright Women Writers Conference. Camille Dungy was giving the other speech. Camille and I knew each other from years ago when she had stayed in my apartment in Brooklyn when I went out of town somewhere or other. I can’t even remember how we had connected, only that one day she was there, in my living room, and she brought me one of her books of poetry. We had seen each at another festival after that. And then she put out the brilliant Guidebook to Relative Strangers, which ended up really inspiring me as I wrote my own memoir a few years later. I was excited to see her again. God, I love a poet.
In Conway I bought a motorcycle jacket at a thrift store and drank cheap hotel lobby white wine. Camille’s talk was great. She’s really really good at public speaking. You should go see her if you can. In the morning I gave my talk. It was on my personal history of book covers and how a career can evolve over time and also on how one promotes their work in the world versus how publishers do. It was the first and only time I had a slideshow in a speech. I am not good at slideshows, but it wasn’t a terrible speech. I feel like I’m best when I give a little reading and then shoot the shit with people in the audience. It’s just how my brain works. Figuring out what you’re best at is half the battle in this career.
Camille and I got dropped off at the airport at the same time, well in advance of our flights. We sat at a bar together, and drank wine, and ate carbohydrates with abandon. Her brain is calm and well-calibrated. She can stay in a moment. She is an educator. I remember talking with her about what she was going to write next. The idea we discussed then is not the idea she publishes next week. I still want her to write that book, but the one coming out on Tuesday, Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden, is incredible. I was so happy to blurb it. I found it transformative.
Last week I texted her about writing rituals, things she does to get herself into gear so she can write. She said, “I think it’s a poet thing. I get really interested in particular words. Where would this one word take me? What does it mean, what’s its history, what direction does the definition I am focused on take me. Stay there…you can see the traces of that technique all over the book. I just look [a word] up in a good dictionary and keep writing. Not a deep dive rabbit hole thing. Just like a ‘what does wilderness even mean? The place of the wild deer! Whoa, let’s write about that for a bit…’”
Just a few days before her book comes out and here she is offering us all a prompt for the day.
I pick this word: ubiquitous.
Have a good weekend.
You are reading Craft Talk, the home of #1000wordsofsummer and also a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). This week’s donation went to Don “Moose” Jamison Heritage School of Music.