Since I've always wanted to be a writer, I fancied going on from my BA in English to get an MFA in fiction and finding my literary path with the great teachers at Columbia or Iowa ? drinking gin at late night salons with famous writers, spending summers at MacDowell or Yaddo, and having affairs with Pulitzer Prize winners whilst penning my magnum opus.
Of course, the business of life took over, and by the time I moved to Portland, Oregon, I began to imagine myself instead as a participatory writer in the spirit of George Plimpton, pretending to be an author as he pretended to be a football player or circus performer. I kept journals and joined a writers' group run by the wonderful writing coach, blogger, and teacher, Jessica Morrell, author of Bullies, Bastards and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction.
Most of all, I spent a lot of time reading and a lot of time at Powell's. My office was just down the street from the Burnside City of Books, so I'd work late and head up to the readings at 7:30 p.m. It was my mini MFA with authors of all stripes and colors. I'd sit in the front and listen intently for words of wisdom about the writer's life and habits.
There was T. C. Boyle with his crinkly mop of red hair and book of stories After the Plague. I remember his animated reading about a man and a mail-order bride in Alaska and that I raised my hand afterwards and asked what it felt like to get the recent positive review by Janet Maslin in the New York Times. I don't remember his reply, except that it might have been something snarky about reviews in general and that he seemed to like the idea of young females asking him such questions. (If I could make a snarky comeback 10 years later, I would tell him that in my opinion it feels absolutely wonderful to get a positive review from Janet Maslin in the New York Times.)
I was especially excited to see Salman Rushdie and took to carrying a copy of Midnight's Children on the bus to show how cool I was, though never actually finishing the book. Then 9/11 happened and the event was cancelled because the FAA placed restrictions on Rushdie due to a Muslim fundamentalist threat to his life, harkening back to the Iranian fatwa of the 1980s.
There were so many great events... Michael Ondaatje talking about the success of The English Patient to a large audience in the church across the street for the "famous authors." National Book Award finalist Allegra Goodman reading from Paradise Park and providing an example of a young and successful writer not much older than I. Candace Bushnell hawking Four Blondes in mix-matched plaids and heels and talking about female mating rituals in a way that might have been a tad racy for the assembled crowd.
Susan Minot, one of the talented and beautiful female writers I sought to emulate, came to read from her new book Rapture, which I didn't love as much as Evening but was thrilled that she signed it "Have a rapturous Maine wedding" when I told her I was getting married in Maine that fall.
My all time favorite Powell's reading would have to be that of my participatory role model, none other than George Plimpton. He looked exactly like himself in pinstriped oxford, blue blazer, and khakis, with his silver flop of hair and a collected edition of his best essays. He told one of my all time favorite stories about playing the gong in the New York Philharmonic with Leonard Bernstein and how the piano came loose and started rolling across the stage while the poor pianist hunched after it, trying to keep playing as if nothing was wrong.
Yes, I was the girl in front row laughing my head off. Friends of mine knew George from New York, so I went up afterwards and told him my name so he could sign a book to me. Then I said something like: "Our mutual friends Chris and Hilary would never forgive me if I didn't make sure you had company for dinner tonight." Of course he begged off, saying he had a previous engagement. This so happened to be the night I got home to find out my future husband had received a voice message from former President Jimmy Carter asking about a guided fly fishing trip. (This was not the norm.) Later that night we heard the phone ring and vaguely wondered if it was the President again, but we were nearly asleep so let it go to voicemail. The next morning I checked the messages, beeping past but of course re-saving the first message from Carter, only to hear an amiable voice I didn't immediately recognize:
"Yes, hello, oh Melissa, George Plimpton here. I've just finished with dinner and am at the Heathman having a nightcap. Seeing if you'd like to join."