I was talking to my friend Darien Brahms (note name drop) the other day about Number 4 (note product placement), her fabulous new record (note endorsement), and about how awkward it is when people who like our work — her music, my writing (note pulling the focus back on me) — want to meet us. On the few occasions I’ve agreed to meet one of my readers, I got all dull and shy, which makes me feel like I’m not measuring up, which makes me feel bad, which makes me act all goofy and apologetic, and so I come away from the encounter wondering what the hell the matter with me is. Then I go into a funk, lock myself in my room with a case of I.P.A. and wasabi peas, watch Jeopardy reruns and don’t come out for a month. It hardly seems worth it.
(Please note that I am not including Darien in the latter part of this. I’m sure she’s very rock ‘n’ roll and smashes guitars and trashes rooms whenever she meets someone, and is not a disappointment at all.)
It’s curious, then, why I would think an encounter with a writer I admired would be any different — like, say, two stars colliding. Instead, it’s usually a quick nod and hello, and then a look through me that says, You’re blocking the way to the bathroom.
I had to remind myself of this when I attended a concert at the Salt Bay Chamberfest (note how I can now write off my ticket) over the summer. The program featured the Brentano String Quartet performing Haydn’s “The Seven Last Words of Christ” with original texts by Pulitzer Prize–winner and former Poet Laureate of the United States Mark Strand. Back when I was in college and before I realized I was a sucky poet, I was a fan of Strand’s work. He even came to speak to one of my writing classes. Of course, I expected to be discovered — the Emily Dickinson of Deering Avenue — and have my poetic career launched. Instead, he was neither bowled over by my beauty nor my verse. Shortly thereafter, I moved on to the confessional girl poets and never looked back.
At least I didn’t embarrass myself back then the way I did five years ago, during the worst celebrity-writer encounter ever. The celebrity in question was Calvin Trillin. (OK, so far, not so bad.) The occasion was the funeral (getting worse) of Maine writer and editor John Cole, who was his dear friend. (Go ahead and wince, but it doesn’t stop here.) John was a buddy to me, a booster of my work, but he was also a former neighbor of my husband’s family in Brunswick, as well as the father-in-law of one of my closest friends, Kim Block. (Note: this is not a name drop; I am only establishing that I had several legitimate reasons to be at this funeral and was not crashing it.)
Kim knew I was a big fan of Bud (Trillin’s nickname), and when the three of us found ourselves standing together at the bar, she introduced us. Instead of coming up with something witty or mildly intelligent (which, despite what I said earlier, I’ve been known to do on occasion), I said nothing. Trying to nudge the conversation along, Kim told him I was a writer, but all I did was stand there, dumbstruck. A voice from the back of my head ordered, Say something, you idiot, yet on I stood and stared. Kim continued to try to help me out. “Liz really enjoys your work. She’s very funny.” An uncomfortable silence ensued, until Bud excused himself and started to walk away. My mind screamed, He’s leaving! Do something! as I watched him drift from me, but my mute button did not budge.
And then, a reprieve. He turned back and asked Kim directions to the highway. At that moment, it was as though superhuman forces took over. I stepped forward. “Mr. Trillin,” I said, shunting Kim aside, “I am an exceptional directionalist, and I think I might be better suited to help you out.” (Note my freedom with recounted dialogue.)
What ensued is best left in the past, but it involved gibberish, fawning, possible pawing and, ultimately, outright wrong directions, including the misspelling of Maine Street in Brunswick. When he brought the mistake — Main, instead of Maine — to my attention, I exclaimed (go ahead and wince again): “I just got edited by Calvin Trillin!” It all culminated in my offer to — I kid you not — get in his car with him as far as the turn to Route 1 and then walk back. When he was finally able to extricate himself (think of removing burdocks from a mohair sweater), and Kim and I were left alone, there was a long pause before she finally said, “Well, you certainly made an impression.”
I was determined not to repeat this appalling behavior with Mark Strand, even after I found out a member of our group was actually a real friend of his. So, during the performance, I paid attention to the words and music rather than wondering if we would be invited to some fabulous after-party that would be referenced in his next poem in the New Yorker. Even after the show, when my friend introduced us, mentioning our past connection, I didn’t tell him about the poem I’d just written for him while watching him rub his eyes during the concert after shaking all those hands beforehand, entitled “Mark Strand Gets Pink Eye.” Instead, I stood by demurely, offering nothing more than a dull, “Pleased to meet you.”
Sometimes no impression is the best impression of all.
Elizabeth Peavey will also be trying not to embarrass herself at Darien’s CD release party —assuming she can stay up that late.