616, 616 East Lincoln Avenue, Adjectives, Adverbs, Bethedsa Maryland, Bethesda Literary Festival 2011, Boy @ The Window, Essay and Short Story Contest, Finding Forrester, Georgetown Cupcakes, Literary Devices, Literary Nonfiction, Literature, Milky Skin, Milky White Skin, Sean Connery, Whiteness, Winners, Writing
I attended the Bethesda Literary Festival last weekend. It’s been a while since I’ve gone to any conference involving writers, wannabe writers, published authors and other curiously weird types. I usually find these events somewhere between dreadfully boring and undeniably soul-sucking. I wish that I could say that the festival held at various parts of downtown Bethesda were an exception. But what I can say is that the Bethesda Literary Festival provided the best desserts — especially the cupcakes (my guess, from Georgetown Cupcakes) — I’ve had at any literary event.
The most poignant event at the festival for me was the Essay and Short Story Contest winners for ’11. Grouped into two categories — over 18 and young adults — the winners were announced and had the opportunity to read from their stories and essays. I must admit, some of the stories were compelling. (That word, compelling, a common word lit agents have used as a reason for rejection of Boy @ The Window. I often think that they’re working from an unspoken definition of what compelling really is.) But I also found most of the stories cliché, typical, White both in terms of the actual color as well in racial and cultural terms.
Listening to these aspiring authors, young and talented writers read their work reminded me so much of a line from Finding Forrester, where the character played by Sean Connery says, “Writers write so that readers can read. Let someone else read it.” It’s difficult for any writer to read something they’ve written with the passion and emotion contained within their own words. And with two exceptions — a mother reading for her daughter about a dying aunt, and a seventeen-year-old reading his essay in poetry slam fashion — the Forrester axiom was in full effect.
I kept checking my watch, hoping that I’d hear something that would inspire me or at least pique my interest. The latter did occur, but not in the way in which I would’ve expected. I listened to one forty-
something short-story honorable mention read about a “tongue licking ice cream.” Earlier, there had been a young adult winner, reading phrases like “Same cloudless indigo eyes. Same auburn, frizzy locks. Same childish, pearly pudge of skin…”
It all took me back to novels and other pieces of literature from my high school days. Like Shakespearean plays in which actors described some young English woman as having “milky skin,” as a point of attraction and lust. That kind of writing, the constant shifting and sliding of adjectives and adverbs. It drove me crazy in ’85. Last weekend, it made my eyes glaze over, with both looking like the clear frosting on a glazed donut.
I yawned with the anticipation of more of the same stories that writers and publishers have been selling for as long as I’ve been alive. I knew what was coming. Stories of epiphanies and social consciousness, upper-middle-class-White-Bethesda-and-Potomac-style. Stories of parallel and pain, from climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and grave illness to autism to death and dying. Universal stories that somehow were milky White, told in a style that made the messy truth of it as palatable as a slice of key lime pie.
I don’t write that way. But not because I can’t. I could write page after page in vivid description of Crush #1. I could count each hair on her well-muscled forearms on the way to measuring every mole on her shoulders, every tooth in magnitude of whiteness, every capillary in her eyeballs. I could spend a few pages describing the different smells of flatulence and excrement I grew up with at 616. From the sweetness of a spaghetti and meat sauce fart to the lingering death-knell scent of a bathroom after the flushing of what once was a combination of coffee, beer and fried chicken.
Literary nonfiction, memoir, or other serious writing endeavors, though, are about the balance between the sweet milky whiteness of the literary and the messy realness of me as the writer. In the case of Boy @ The Window, of me as the main character as well. Descriptions of milky or caramel colored skin do reside among its pages. But so do descriptions of conversations, characters, actions and emotions. All as part of telling a story, sharing some truth, beyond the romance of the purely literary.