I was ready to rock it as keynote speaker at the Willamette Writers’ Conference. Picture a hotel banquet room full of writers and readers, everybody interested in words. Before I went on–after I was introduced, but before I hit the stage–we were hijacked by a Clown Girl with an oboe in a case. But wait! It wasn’t an oboe at all, it was a tiny violin case inside the oboe case. And then it wasn’t a tiny violin…she played “Ode To Joy” on a miniature rubber chicken.

Honestly, nobody knew she was coming–a daring move, to bust into a room of 350 or more people, and take over. It was unnerving, disruptive! No, it was welcome and dear.

Totally charming. Here’s a short clip, taken by Seth Isenberg, from the audience.


Relative Value: We’ve Got Stuff!

My daughter would like her own couch, in her bedroom. She’s seven.

A couch is expensive! I love couches, I really do, but they cost money, and to get a good one  involves a financial and material commitment to furniture. I’ve hauled couches from one house to another. Not easy.

We have a couch I scored off Craigslist. A twenty-something put it up for sale, and when I went to pick it up, she  and her friends milled around their apartment off Belmont Street. They kept looking at each other with glances I couldn’t interpret–definitely awkward, possibly guilty? Those furtive glances may have said, You’re really going to sell your mom’s couch? Or maybe they said, We didn’t stash pot under the cushions, did we? Maybe they only meant, God, this lady! I tried to ask all the right questions.

Our second couch was salvaged, then recovered. Older frames are better made than moderately-priced newer versions of the same. But even to recover a couch takes an investment, and we just can’t buy another couch, I tell my daughter.

After a heart-to-heart about lack, quality, money and delayed gratification, she and I take a walk to the park, and pass at least three couches out at the curb. There’s one in an alley. It’s hard to believe a couch ever cost money, to see the way they’re trashed, dumped, offered up, always for free. They litter the streets like cigarette butts, only way bigger.


Couches grow in the compost fallen from Portland’s recycling bins. They wander off from their owners, marked as “illegally dumped,” like stray dogs. They line the way to the playground, and just miss the bus stops where they’d actually be useful.

Who wants to sit on a couch like this?

A couch is expensive, and a couch is garbage, and it starts to feel like a demarcation, the rich/poor split. You can find a couch in Portland. You can find a mattress on the street. You can find a television, a stereo, a chest of drawers. I used to find a lot of typewriters at the curb, but that particular crop seems thin now that hipsters have discovered the app-free tool. Still we have a wealth of material goods, all for free, all the time. But chances are, you don’t want the ones strewn along the walkways.

We’re a city compulsive about never throwing anything away.

Stephen Graham Jones and Book Burning

I admire a solid author who can also turn out a novel in seventy-two hours.

So when Stephen Graham Jones came through town? I put all else aside and went down to Powells for his reading. I wanted to meet him, say hello, see if he was by any chance insane. Who writes a book in three days?

This is a photo of him and his sister.

The guy is smart and funny. He doesn’t drink booze or caffeine, but he’s full of ideas and has a great laugh.

In his most recent book, a fictionalized memior–a.k.a., a novel that draws on his life’s stories–Growing Up Dead in Texas, he writes, “…some balls aren’t worth going after.” I store that bit away as a life-lesson.

He’s got this idea to burn the edges of the book, after the reading. Maybe it’s more of an urge than an idea. Maybe it’s a compulsion, an inclination, I don’t know for sure. The cover is designed to look like it’s survived a fire, like it’s a relic, a hot thing. It invites a little destruction. He’s going to bring that particular fiction of the fire closer to truth, though he has to scrounge up a lighter. The first one runs out of fluid before we got too far, and he finds another. He hides the book under the edge of a bar table, the room fills with the scent of burning paper. This copy? It’s my book now, signed and read and tucked on a shelf with my favorites.


Hanging out with Katherine Dunn…

I’ve been lucky enough to have Katherine Dunn, the lovely and amazing author of Geek Love, as a guest in my literature seminar. Twice, even. That’s generous.

Katherine Dunn is brilliant.

“There are no rules. There’s only what works,” she told us, in her most recent of the two visits. In that way, in that moment, she gave the class permission to experiment.

Sometimes teaching writing is all about finding ways to give permission.

She said The Tin Drum, by Günter Grass, changed her view of literature. Before this, she “felt quality literature fell within a pretty narrow range.” The Tin Drum “melds whole genres…” and reading it gave Dunn permission to experiment, to mix it up, the way she passed on that permission to our class. I’ve added The Tin Drum to my summer reading list.

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe: and Other Stories by Carson McCullers, was influential too.

She worked on Geek Love intermittently for twelve years. “Once you concoct a world, once you create people, they’re never really gone. They’re always somewhere in your mind. They’re like relatives you haven’t seen in awhile.”

Over those twelve years she kept revising her idea of the first chapter. She’d write a chapter, thinking it would open the novel, then move that chapter further back into the book. She said, “[The first chapter has] got to be slicker than snot on a brass door knob. You’ve got to come off it like a water slide.”

“I don’t write chronologically. I write like a painter paints. I think of it as painting. If I feel like writing blue today, I’m going to put in all the blue.” Assembling, assembling.

The Human Genome Project had barely begun in the early 1980’s, when Dunn wrote Geek Love. Everything in the novel has really only become much more relevant, rather than less, over time.

She said she first thought of the premise of this novel in the Rose Garden–Portland’s famous test gardens, where roses are bred  for desirable traits like color, and thornlessness. Katherine Dunn’s son was a child then. He was willful. She imagined breeding a child who might better follow her lead, who might be perfect…those are my words, not hers, I admit, but my summary of her point.

She also thought a lot about religion and personal freedom, in writing Geek Love. She said, “I began to think about this phenomenon of intelligent, capable people turning their lives over to someone else, or to an institution, to guide them. Not just religious orders, but certainly people who go into convents, or join the military, or join paramilitary institutions, and then people who are in jail–with all of these institutions, all of these patterns of behavior, the individual is no longer responsible for individual behavior.”

A character in the novel, Arturo, founds a cult. “Some of Arturo’s speeches are taken from the speeches of Jonestown founder (the “Peoples Temple Agricultural Project”) Jim Jones,” a cult or religious group famous for what seems to have been a mass suicide.

She said, “It’s hard to be free. It’s laborious and scary. If you can turn your life over…They [the institutions] all have very serious functions in society. There is something in us as humans that is tempted…we want to abdicate. We don’t all necessarily want to have responsibility.”

She said, “Being a bird isn’t all sunshine and shitting in high places.” (From her novel, Truck.)

Speaking of her own life, the ’70’s, “There was all that peace, love and communal crap. I kind of don’t believe in harmony. I believe in chaos and conflict…I’m a loner. I can get along with people, but that doesn’t mean I want to share a bathroom.”

I keep meaning to ask her if she ever lived at The Lawn apartments. I lived there. Many people, few bathrooms! And lovely wallpaper, with cabbage roses, much like that described in Geek Love, for those who have read it. If you haven’t read it–it’s incredible. The language, the images, the ideas. I so recommend it.