Vivian Gornick Yells At Me

In Iowa City

Hello, in the time that I last emailed, I became a columnist for my local paper, wrote a million essays, worked on my book edits, moved into a new house, and I did it all and only cried twice. I think I’m just too tired to cry.

I look forward to October, a month of sleep and weeping.

Last Friday, I had an event at Prairie Lights in Iowa City. If you don’t know about Prairie Lights, let me tell you about Prairie Lights. It’s the independent bookstore in Iowa City. You know, that city, where the Writer’s Workshop is? That fabled place where writers pass through on their way to greatness or at least literary insufferability, which is sometimes the same thing.

Did I mention they rejected me three times? I’m not bitter. I would have rejected me too. And I still would reject me.

But so much of my early years in Iowa were spent going to readings at Prairie Lights. I’d usually go alone. Go early, get some coffee, read a book. Listen intently as Francine Prose or Joshua Ferris said things. I always felt like if they said the right thing a whole world would be opened up to me. That world of writing and writers I so desperately wanted to be a part of but couldn’t quite access. It felt like looking into a room I wanted to be in, but not able to find the door.

I only made one friend in all that time. She was a student and also felt like an outsider. She had read my writing online before she came to the Workshop and we met up a few times during her time here. Once she took me to the Foxhead afterwards. The Foxhead is the Workshop bar. It’s been written about in so many ways in so many stories. I wanted to go in, but you know, I didn’t know how.

One night, after a reading, she and I walked to the Foxhead. As we walked it felt like it was raining. It was one of those raw cold spring nights. The rain hit the pavement heavy, like it wanted to be snow.

“What the hell is this?” She asked.

I held my hand out as something splatted on my coat. Bird shit. It was bird shit. We were walking under a line of trees where birds had recently built their nests and shit was raining from the trees. We screamed and ran into the Foxhead.

I sometimes wonder if that actually happened. I’ve walked down that path so many times since and I’ve seen shit on the pavement, but have never since seen it fall.

A few years ago, Vivian Gornick was teaching at Iowa. It was 2015. I had two kids then—a four year old and a two year old. I rushed over to the reading after my ex came home late. The kids cried when I left. My two year-old clung to me leaving sticky residue. “It’s just a couple hours!” I promised my frowning then-spouse. “It’s Vivian Gornick! I have to hear her!”

What I said meant nothing to him. But I went anyway, showing up late, sticky, with diapers falling out of my purse. I snuck in the back of the lecture hall where she was giving a reading. I had to sit on the floor. Everyone seemed to stare at me as I tried to slink in.

I had read everything she wrote by then. Studied her words and her style. I had even done this thing where I’d typed out passages from her books into a Word document so I could feel the rhythm of her sentences. I particularly loved how she transitioned from scene to thought to scene. The material and the immaterial woven so perfectly together.

When the Q/A time began, I was ready with a question.

“Can you talk to me about how you think about your transitions between scene and thought?” I asked

“You aren’t a student,” she said. “If you were, you’d know this already.”

I felt my skin prickle. I had come all this way. Done so much work. She had been teaching here and this was one of the few public events she was doing. No, I wasn’t a student, but I still wanted answers.

“I am not a student, so I don’t know. Which was why I asked,” I said.

The room felt very uncomfortable.

“Just read my work,” she replied.

I slunk down against the wall. A container of wipes fell out along with a book. I grabbed them both. And when no one was looking, I left.

Later, I’d read an interview with her about how she hated teaching at Iowa but she’d done it for the money. She was an octogenarian and tired, I don’t know if I entirely blame her for snapping. But there are few times in my life, I’ve ever felt more humiliated.

Last year, I was at George’s, another bar fabled in Iowa City. A little drunk and with friends and others all writer types, I brought up the time Vivian Gornick yelled at me.

“Oh I remember that,” said a woman. “I was there. We all felt bad for you.”

So last Friday, I gave a reading and had a conversation with Kerry Howley, who is one of the best writers of non-fiction in the world. It was amazing. There were so many people, I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe that people actually come out to see me. And I didn’t yell at anyone. Except that one guy…he deserved it.