by Diane Lefer
I think it was Muriel Rukeyser who said offer your work to publishers. A writer must never submit. Never never never submit. And oh! I know the righteous anger of the disrespected author! Do I complain? Oh yes, guilty as charged. But some years back, with two collections of literary short stories in print, I was invited to teach a class and give the keynote address at a writers conference. Time to reap the rewards!
Now I did realize if a writers conference was having me as their keynote speaker, it couldn’t be the #1 conference in the world. And while they would cover my airfare and hotel, no, they couldn’t pay me. But of course I said yes. I got up at 3:00 AM to make my flight (with no food), and was met at the gate when I landed. So far, so good. I collected my luggage. My battered old suitcase had fallen apart in transit, everything was spilling out, and my guide set off at a trot in front of me while I tried to swipe underwear off the floor and hold the sides of the suitcase together with everything I hadn't lost along the way inside it. When I was dropped me off at a beautiful hotel outside of town. I thanked my guide and said I’d see her in the morning. “Oh, no,” she said with what seemed like true horror. “I would never attend the conference.”
Inside the hotel, people welcomed me and explained they were having a reception at 7:00 - freshen up and come on down. The reception which lasted till 11:00 p.m. was me paying for my own drink and no food. An elderly woman told me at great length about a trigonometry problem she couldn’t solve. Finally, I said how wonderful it was she was back in school. Oh, no, she said, this happened many many years ago. Next thing I knew I was awakened in my room at 4:30 AM by horror movie thumps down the hall which turned out to be the Wall Street Journal hitting each door.
At last it was late enough to head downstairs and try to rustle up a cup of coffee. (No coffee-maker in my room) But before I got my fix, this guy comes over and says he’s supposed to introduce me and then follows me around telling me all the problems in his marriage. The printed program had contradictory times and places for my class, so people didn’t know what time or where to go. A handful trickled in. My introducer spoke about himself--luckily, not about his marriage--for about 15 minutes after which he announced, “And now! Diane Leffler!” (which is close, but no cigar, when it comes to my name).
OK, I realize I’m not being generous in spirit. But really, after a woman told us all about her ex-husband’s suicide, he actually slapped his thigh and started telling suicide jokes. (Till then, I didn’t know there was such a genre.)
I didn't give up. Really. I really tried really hard to get people to explore the emotions of their characters.
“I can’t do that,” said one woman, “All of my characters are dogs.”
“Don’t your dogs have personalities?”
“Oh, no,” she said. “They’ve all passed away.”
I was ready to pass away from hunger. A kindly woman took me out to a corridor and explained we don’t really need to eat. It’s possible to get all the nutrients you need from the air. She led me in a bout of breathing exercises but I was still hungry.
At last, the luncheon banquet and my keynote address. I didn’t get to eat because I was at the podium, talking. Just as well. From what I could see, the other participants were served a sandwich of questionable tri-color (white, brown, and green) luncheon meat rather like what I consumed during a stay after a protest demonstration at the 77th Street holding cell in SouthCentral where another prisoner led us in singing the score to the Sound of Music.
My stomach growled, but inside my head those voices rang, raised in song, to remind me: The writing itself-- the freedom to express myself as I want and in the best way that I can--is surely one of My Favorite Things.
Diane Lefer's most recent book, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty (Rainstorm Press, 2012) features a New York City neighborhood in the process of gentrification and the web that connects organized crime families of different ethnicities with a missing Haitian girl, a midtown law firm, and a famous Japanese monkey. She is also the author of California Transit, a short-story collection that received the Mary McCarthy Prize, and the co-author with Colombian exile and torture survivor Hector Aristizábal of the nonfiction book, The Blessing Next to the Wound, named by Amnesty International as recommended reading during Banned Books Week.