Thursday, August 13, 2009

How to Get Advice from Literary Giants (Dead or Alive)

guest blog by Julianna Baggott, who bears a great resemblance to Bridget Asher...

The other night, Dave was listening to me bemoan the fact that I was in need of some really great advice. I was telling him that I really needed to have a sit-down with Joyce Carol Oates and Richard Russo and Michael Chabon, Atwood, Gaiman ... I needed brilliant counsel.

“In fact, I’ve got some questions for the Fitzgeralds, though not great role models. And I wouldn’t mind talking to C.S. about being an academic who also sometimes writes novels for younger readers. He had to put up with some condescension, right? And I need dead poets, too, the ones who could bear up and the ones who couldn’t…”

“Okay, stop,” Dave said. And here I should offer a warning.

WARNING: My husband Dave is not necessarily touchy-feely. In fact, he’s a WASP, old-school. However, one time, in a backyard at one of his family barbeques, we were all encouraged to hold hands and form a circle. I forget the purpose or what was said. The shame, however, lingers. And I do believe that he does have some small touchy-feely recessive gene which leads to moments like this.

“Pick one writer,” he said. “You don’t have to tell me which one, and assume they know everything – all of your current issues.” This was good thinking. The hefty back-story would be taxing … “And ask this person for advice and imagine the response.”

“Right now?”

“Right now.”

I thought for a moment, picked, asked, waited. The answer was immediate. “Got it.”

“What was the answer?”

“Two things, actually. Very succinctly put. Insulate and go-off.”

“Go-off in what way?”

“Really let fly in every imaginable way.”

“So there,” he said. “You knew it all along.”

But no. I didn’t know it all along. Here's how it went in my head.

I picked Russo. I know, I know. I should have picked someone dead. If I’d known it was going to be so clear, I would have.

I don’t know Russo personally though he’s been good to me. He blurbed my second novel – The Miss America Family -- and wrote a tenure letter for me. We’ve never met. I picked him because he knows the wilds of academe and the writing life and he’s got kids, and because he writes with emotional range. I picked him on a gut level.

I should have picked a woman. Yes, I know this, too. I feel awful enough about picking someone who is too young to be my father but, well, someone who is, I suppose, patriarchal. So back off.

I asked him vaguely, "What should I do?"

He just kind of looked at me and said, matter-of-factly, as if I kind of bored him, in fact: "Insulate and go-off."

The exercise is worthwhile because I really didn’t know the advice he’d give. I really didn’t know it all along. Only my version of Russo – the version of him concocted from his writing and his former generosity – could give me this advice. Flannery would have told me something completely different. (Maybe I’ll ask her later…)

I needed another voice in my head – even if it was one that I had, in part, invented.

Of course, this isn’t insulating. Blogging is the opposite of insulating. But still it’s worth mentioning to all of you … I mean had I known the past few decades that I could get free, succinct, literary advice from the legends of literature, it might have helped a bit here and there.

Hopefully the cash-cab-shout-out-to-the-literary-giants is not a one-shot deal. I can imagine, however, it’s the kind of thing you can wear out pretty quickly … Try it. I’d be curious who you pick and what they advise … Feel free to post.