Writers Live in a Tin House


We're back from our recent adventures in Oregon.  Feeling lucky to have been part of the joyous Tin House writing conference, sponsored by the rocking mag of the same name.  Cinderella and I stole some time to wander the Oregon coast, freeze on the haunting beaches and stare at the great coastal rocks standing sentinel in the waves.  The flight home from was interminable, wracked by heat storms and late into the Chicago skies.  I listened to the ipod all the way, too full of charged emotions to even read.  You know how it is--as you live a miracle (Tin House) other elements of the "real world" (that world of illusions we accept as reality) sprinkles freeze-dried ferilizer all over you.  It can make you crazy.  But my musical shamans were tinkering with my brain all the way, urging me to get home and create.  Good ol' Bunbury and Heroes del Silencio: "Yo no tengo la culpa de verte caer."  It was hot and late when we landed, and we got a cab home, crawling into bed around 4:00 in the morning.

The thing about living in a Tin House is that it attracts lightning.  Anyone hanging with that lot can attest to the fact that they get lit up with regularity.  I hope to place a few more stories there soon. 

I was pondering the hope and purity with which my students came toward writing and the writing life. Knowing what we know, the bad and the good, it is a delicate dance to nurture the souls of these good people. You are, after all, planting a garden.  Yes, I'll carry the Tin House imagery a maudlin step further--the writing was the garden around the House.  We had roses and cosmos, honeysuckle and strawberries and wonderful peppery nasturtiums all around.  There are moles and cutworms and slugs that will come, no doubt.  But for a moment, in that Oregon rain, it was all rich and redolent and full of possibility.  Hope is the color of that harvest.

I'll tell you a small tale of the Life, that bizarre thing that happens when you leave your bedroom or your study or the confines of your notebook and step out there.  The writing life, it seems to me, is divided into two halves:  A) writing, B) career.  The A part is holy.  You might be hungry and sad and desperate, but you're free.  Totally free.  No one judges you, no one criticizes you, no one puts you in competition and then disparages your performance.  Except perhaps you.  The B part can also be holy--after all, look at how I get to travel, put my kids thorugh college, meet my heroes, and know all of you.  I wouldn't know most of you except through the blessing of the career.  It is my fervent hope that you who study with me for a time get to enjoy this experience.  But it requires discipline.  A different kind of discipline.

Once upon a time, I had a new book called Into the Beautiful North.  It did all right, though some critics at first were baffled because it was not The Hummingbird's Daughter.  But, hey--nothing is The Hummingbird's Daughter.  Not even The Hummingbird's Daughter.  (Part of your black belt in writing-fu is learning that the book mutates in the mind and the soul of its reader and becomes 130,000 different books as it spreads.)  So it was time for Book Tur.  I do well on Book Tour, being some kind of schmooze-generator and stand-up comic of the beat road.  I dig it.  Feel, as I have said before, like a blues band rolling from bowling alley to cafe all over the USA.  I take Mrs. U--we think of it as The Amazing Race Urrea Edition.  Also, along with Perpetual Book Tour, we like to think of the career (part B) as Perpetual Honeymoon.  Hey--Marfa, Texas!  Roswell, NM!  Toad Suck, Arkansas!

We left the kids--now they are old enough to run the nhouse.  And we headed off.  Philadelphia!  Awesome event at the library dntn. Got on the train for NYC the next morning--had a signing event at BEA and the next night a gig at the legendary KGB Bar.  Cinderella's mother was super-excited about this book.  Maybe because it was the first of mine she'd actually read, I don't know.  But she was in Seattle doing all those things some folks would call cheating today--calling every bookstore and ordering a copy so they'd have at least one on their shelves.  Sly, Grandma!  Going to bookstores and finding my book on the shelf and turning it so it faced out and might catch the eye.  (Little, Brown has always given me amazing Pink Floyd covers, so Grandma's instincts were right on.)  She had been in dire health, very bad health, but on the phone she sounded 16 years old.  It was our best conversation, ever.  And after NYC, we just had to get through DC, Chitown and Portland to get to her in Seatttle.  Less than a week.

BEA was a blast.  KGB was also a blast--we had made some hand-fans with the logo of the fake restaurant from the book on them.  A sneaky sumbitch rare book collector pilfered the entire package of them and scurried out the door before our boy Ken Wheaton could kick his ass.  We used the day to hike across Manhattan to see Teresita's house on E 28th St. as research for Queen of America.  As we lay in our fancy hotel bed, talking through our explosive weekend, the cell phone rang.  It was Seattle.  Grandma had died.

My publisher was heroic in arranging our emergency flight to Chi to collect our kids.  We had to cancel DC and Printers Row.  But here's where the discipline came in.  My publisher offered to cancel the tour.  No question.  But they were counting on us.  They had made incredible efforts to create this long, involved journey to launch this book.  And it was Grandma's favorite.  So we decided to tough it out.  We flew from Chi to Portland, where I somehow faked my way through a reading at Powell's.  Then we took our rental car and, kids asleep in the back, sped late into the night to Seattle.  Had to cancel Elliott Bay due to the funeral, but did go and sign stock.  After the funeral, we shipped the kids home and flew to San Diego.  It was a terrible flight, delayed by storms.  We were hours and hours late.

But I had agreed to do a fund-raiser for KPBS, the later host of the One Book One San Diego competition.  But this was before such contests--they were trying to launch an international news desk featuring reportage from the Mexican border.  Well!  Who better than me to spearhead that!  We did the event for about 350 paying fans at the lamented Bookworks in Del Mar.  Raised several thousand dollars for the station.  And then on and on and on.

That stuff you can't teach in a workshop.  Every one of the grizzled, established authors at Tin House knows stories like this deep in their hearts.  It's there when we sit together at lunch, or the degenerates in our dorm kitchen play poker all night.  That part, that discipline, that slight bruising, that's the part that makes you a soldier.  It will be present in the background hum of Bread Loaf too.  Going in a little while.  Yes, Vermont!  Talk about gardens.

But the sacredness of the journey consists in this:  no matter how hard it can be, no matter what they say about you, or your wicked inner critic says to yourself, the garden must remain inviolate.  No matter what happens, you can go there at any time.  Sometimes you can't even dig.  All you can do is sit and look at the colors.  I hope to help you keep that gate wide.  Keep the threshold low.  Make it rain.

Love ya.  Now get outta here.

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Book club members have been some of my most enthusiastic and careful readers. I’m thrilled to share my work with you, answer your questions and tell you some of the stories behind the stories. This is our spot, just for us. Here, we can chat:  If I’m nearby, I’ll come and visit your club. Otherwise, we can Skype, talk over the phone or email. Sometimes, I’ll send surprises or hold contests.

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