Portland and the Literature Conference

Mason and I went to Portland this past weekend along with two English teachers and members of English Club. We rode in a van with 11 people (English teacher and 12-year-old son, English teacher, wife, three girls aged 2 to 6 years, 2 English Literature students, and Mason and I). All of us crammed, rather well, into a large North Idaho College van. Our journey began around 8:45am when the van arrived to pick us up. We loaded two small bags (Mason and I would be sleeping in separate rooms, in separate beds for the weekend) and greeted our teacher and classmates. Then we drove over to pick up the second teacher (who would be our driver for the rest of the weekend) and their family.

Now, anyone who knows me realizes I have a severe dislike for small children. My English teacher has three young girls; aged 2, 4 and 6 years old and fourth baby on the way! I was prepared to be stressed out, possibly with murderous intent in my blood all weekend. Three children’s seats were strapped into the first row of seats in the van.

The drive to Portland was mostly uneventful. When things got too loud or the van filled with delighted-child-gibberish, I put on my headphones and ignored them all.

We arrived in Portland around 5pm and hit rush hour traffic. We stayed at the Heathman Hotel—a hotel I could never afford to stay at myself. I am thankful for North Idaho College and their willingness to cover our hotel expenses. I had a room down the hall from Mason on the 4th floor.

The hotel was really nice; much more sophisticated than any hotel I’d stayed at in the past few years. I think it was second only to the Sheraton in downtown Seattle that I stayed with Joe in another life.

I got that feeling, wandering around toothless, that they were surprised I could stay there. We saw the bill—the rooms were around $300 a night after tax. Our rent is less than two nights at the hotel. Holy shit. It’s no wonder I don’t feel like I belong there: I don’t.

I really liked (although was confused by the implications) the red light in our bathroom.

For dinner on Friday night we wandered out into the rain. It was pouring as our part of 11 walked the confusing streets of Portland. We attempted a ramen place with a long wait and then split the party. One teacher, his son, Mason and I went instead to a place called Little Big Burger. I should have realized by the name that the burgers were, in fact, quite small. Really “sliders” would be a more appropriate term. I asked for our burger to be split (I’m frugal and thought we could save money!) and couldn’t figure out why the cashier was laughing at me… Normally I’d have photographed the evidence of such a small burger but I was simply too embarrassed. We ate our two bites, had some French fries, then wandered back into the rain towards the largest bookstore I have ever seen.

Welcome to Powell’s City of Books.

The first night at Powell’s and I walked out with 3 books:

“SHE IT” A no-nonsense guidebook to writing and using nonsexist language by Val Dumond ($2.95) Published in Tacoma, Washington in 1984.

And two outdated Writer’s Digest books:

Handbook of Short Story Writing (from 1970!) by various authors ($6.50)

Fiction First Aid (2002) by Raymond Obstfeld ($5.95)

We stayed at Powell’s for the next few hours, navigating the three stories of books. I did a Facebook Live video which I’ve attached below:

[video width="360" height="642" mp4="http://michellebrumley.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/03-24-2017-Powells-Facebook-Live.mp4"][/video]

Then we got hungry again. We attempted to look at the menu at the Headwater, the restaurant attached to our savvy hotel. There was at least one word in every single menu item that was hard to pronounce, gross/weird or unfamiliar.

So we politely returned the menu and ran around the corner to the McDonald’s. There was a man with a heavy Russian accent who ordered 15 separate meals in individual bags… 15 minutes before they closed. The total came somewhere around $55. Our best guess is that he was going to distribute them to people in need. The man who took our order shortly after was visibly frustrated that his lobby was full of people at 10:30 at night (and resembled Paul Reuben, so I was instantly distracted by his face) but he remained graceful under the pressure. At the end of the night (we ordered $3.50 worth of food: a breakfast burrito, a chicken sandwich and a large soda) he dumped the last of the night’s French Fries into a bag and gave it to us. “A gift,” he said with a smile. A gift we happily devoured while wondering about the Russian man from earlier…

Mason and I wandered back to the hotel, loitered in the fancy lobby for a while, then went our separate ways for the night. After a day of being surrounded by people, I hadn’t had time to use my tweezers. I holed up in the bathroom with my mirror and spent about a half hour fixing the hairs that had intruded during the day. I finally panicked, checked my phone—realized it wasn’t with me and I may have missed a message from Mason—only to see that he was, at that exact moment, typing me a response. We said our goodnight’s and tried to fall asleep. I haven’t slept without him in my bed for a very long time; I could feel his ghost next to me, an invisible presence in a strange room and strange bed. After a while, I finally drifted off to sleep.

Friday Morning was all business; we dressed up, loaded into the van and were delivered to the University of Portland for the Northwest Undergraduate Conference on Literature. We had pastries and coffee (Starbucks, what is Portland’s obsession with Starbucks coffee?) while we were checked in.

We attended various sessions given by Undergraduate and even High School students about a broad range of topics. As a General Studies and Creative Writing major at the moment, I am afraid that Literary Analysis/Criticism isn’t something I am overly familiar with so I cannot give you a really great example of what happened. Bodies of work were compared and arguments were made; I learned about Edgar Allen Poe, his competition, about the life of Dorian Gray, about how the book “Little House on the Prairie” is racist, but it is necessary to teach our young children why racism is wrong and how it works in often subtle but strong ways. I don’t’ feel educated enough that I could argue any of these points effectively, but I some serious respect for those who do (and do so without attitude or arrogance).

I came away from the conference knowing that a Literature degree was not an option for me; that I have no real interest in analyzing texts but do appreciate the information that people can demonstrate from such an undertaking. I have a new appreciation for the work and knowledge involved but have no doubts in my mind that it simply is not for me. There are two parts to literary analysis: someone to analyze, and someone to write the body of work. I want to be the person on the other side, but I don’t wish to have anything to analyze. There will be no hidden messages from me: if is there, I will spell it out, and Nox will probably say it to your face.

I was mostly impressed with the students who presented their essays. Many had very well formulated, fluid stories to tell; some just needed more coffee, and some needed a kick in the teeth to remind them of their company. Our North Idaho table was seated with two other students; one of which was “mostly” humble, the other bragged about how they would only accept a graduate school who would give them a full ride to their degree. They also stopped talking to Mason and I when we stated we were only first or second year college students and couldn’t impress them any longer. Ah well.

Mason and I went to Powell’s as our group decided on dinner options. I decided to pick up a few books in the genre my English teacher imagines I write or read or something (I am not certain what he believes, except that Fantasy and Sci-Fi are not Literature, which is true, but lame).

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (Science Fiction, $9.99)

Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link (Literature, $6.95)

I also bought a copy of “Sabriel” by Garth Nix to gift to my English teacher with the understanding that it is required reading. He has insisted I read Kelly Link’s work for at least a year now, and I will be reading it for my independent study this Fall. (When I gave the book to him Sunday he was polite and surprised).

Mason went to see the “Restricted” section of Powell’s where they house old and expensive books. As odd as it is—and this only fuels by ‘old stories are not for me’ fire—I did not join him. I was too busy looking down the Fantasy and Science Fiction sections (and now apparently Literature, sigh). He seemed to really enjoy himself and took a few pictures for my benefits.

We returned to the hotel, gathered up with our group, and found a delightful Italian restaurant called Pastini Pastaria that was affordable and delicious. And the few words I was unfamiliar with—one was “fennel” sausage. One of my teachers portioned out his meal so we could all try it, insisting we’d probably all had it before but it was nearly impossible to describe. He was correct, and I was grateful for the offering of food. This dinner made up for the small portions of the night before. I had large pieces of garlic and mushrooms on a smooth alfredo sauce with corkscrew pasta. Mason had some kind of sausage (not fennel!) with red sauce. I had leftovers (that I ate on the ride home on Sunday). We had full bellies and full hearts as we walked away.

After dinner—Mason and I weren’t sure what to do. We thought about seeing Beauty and the Beast but no theaters in downtown Portland were playing it. We thought about seeing Logan but it didn’t start until 9:45 at night and the thought of wandering downtown Portland late at night did not appeal to us. The rain on Friday night had kept most of the homeless population indoors; the much lighter rain of Saturday did not deter them. We decided upon going back to the hotel room and just watching some TV. Our female classmates returned shortly after (Mason and I were laying on the bed, I was under the covers and he was laying next to me on top, it was all very Victorian proper!). We ended up talking with the girls late in to the evening…

Sunday morning took us on one final trip to Powell’s. We had coffee and pastries (and the coffee was amazing) and browed for about another hour. I decided on one last book (so I had at least one strictly Fantasy book to show for).

The Black Unicorn by Tanith Lee (1991 $4.95), another favorite of my childhood.

After the book store we were tasked with finding lunch before our van departure at noon. We chose the various Street Vendors for Sunday Morning that had been rained-out on Friday. Mason found a Grilled Cheese place and I found Asian. That about describes our relationship to food.

And then we rejoined our group and hit the road. I slept most of the way home. Despite the inconsistency of the actual conference, I really came away from the experience feeling that I had learned more than anticipated. I learned a bit more about myself (that I can, in fact, survive in a van with small children or that Literary Analysis just isn’t my speed), I learned that I am quick to anger but that is why Mason is with me (the water to temper the steel), that there can be no literary analysis if there is no literature—and then I realized that what I want to write isn’t literature.

It is odd that under the “English Major” umbrella there exists a multitude of worlds. Within Fiction there is “literature” and there is “Fantasy and Science Fiction” and “Horror,” and it is assumed that we may read all or none. I admit that the only literature I have willingly read had been assigned by teachers. And I also admit that I have quite honestly loved every single piece. Flannery O’Conner is a favorite and I have my English teacher to blame for that.

But I consider Literature to be the sort of “smart” or elevated Fiction that I do not read, seek out or wish to analyze. And my Literature Major classmates? Feel the same way about Fiction and Genre Fiction, something difficult to approach, only read on occasion, and unworthy (?) of analysis.

So where is my midline? Where is my middle ground? Must I write “sophisticated, layered fiction” to somehow marry Literature with Blood Mages? What if I just want to write stories for the sake of writing stories? Must I worry that, some thirty years after my death, some new wave of Literary Analysis is going to pick up my fantasy book and say “Michelle was obviously trying to say she loved God and Christians and Children and I can prove that by the way she writes about X, Y, and Z…” I swear to the Flying Spaghetti Monster I will come back and haunt you (except I don’t believe in that concept either).

So really, I feel that barrier once again build up between Literature and “the rest” of Fiction. Flannery O’Conner basically told people to fuck off when they approached her about “meaning” in her work. I don’t wish to write stories with deep, tangled nods to social injustice. I don’t want to write just for escapism, either, but I don’t want to feel obligated to embed extra meaning or context to my stories.

All I have ever wanted to do was write a damn novel, and then another, and then another. Literary analysis and essays frighten me.  I want someone to take a Fiction Novelist seriously for the sake of being polite; not because they can “offer” something to the world. Are stories simply not enough anymore? I have stories to tell and if they break some kind of barrier, make a person feel better or be a better person when they’re done reading, that’s perfect. Intentional? Perhaps.

I just want to write characters that live better lives than we do; that make harder choices, that stand up to social injustice in ways I never could. To raise swords to defend the innocent, to protect their friends without fear of repercussion, to love…

I am searching for the author in me who wants to write and make a difference without cramming some kind of ideal down your throat. I don’t wish my stories to be analyzed, but I am feeling that if I don’t write literature, don’t jump beyond the Fantasy genre, that my work loses worth. That I am somehow less valuable as a writer if I fall into genre fiction. I know this is not true, I have deep respect for my Fantasy-only authors who never claim to be “just” Literature novelists. So what am I? (And don’t say ‘an unpublished genre fiction author’ because I will punch you, jackass).

I am a student, and an author, and a woman who has always read Fantasy books and who wishes to write them. College has shown me that there is more than one way to tell a story, and my own stubbornness is going to insist that I’ll tell it however I damn well please. They might be thankful they don’t have analyze my work; I imagine it will be quite angry.

Portland also reminded me how much I miss Northern Idaho, Eastern Washington and Western Montana. The banks in downtown Portland are as big as the hotels and yet the homeless run rampant in the streets. Yes, Portland is certainly weird, and I am usually OK with that—until it interferes with my ability to obtain caffeine or food with meat in it. “Boring” is fine by me if it means I can pronounce the menu, enjoy my meal and not kill anyone for having no caffeine in my system. Stay weird, Portland, but the stay the hell away from my food.