From P-Town… Anthony Doerr and Charles D’Ambrosio

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Anthony Doerr brought a book-in-progress with the working title of All the Light We Can See. Charles D’Ambrosio brought typed questions on 4×6 index cards, a stack of books, and a copy of Tin House magazine. Together, they turned The Little Church in North Portland into a literary Alamo in which the audience holed-up for as long as life would allow.

Co-hosted by Tin House and Portland State University (PSU) Creative Writing Program, the event coincided with D’Ambrosio’s grad seminar, which focuses on the span of Doerr’s work and career. D’Ambrosio felt this seminar was different because it was his first seminar on a living author, which may have made him less pedantic. The Doerr Seminarians set-up the agenda and chairs and possibly baked chocolate chip cookies for the event. I heard they were homemade, but I didn’t get a chance to eat one because my hands were full with my notepad, pen, camera, and a beer. Plus, I kept running into people I hadn’t seen for a bit.

1. The place was packed, but not uncomfortably so. 2. Sara, Genevieve and Amy smiling in the last hour of Portland sun.

Doerr took the stage and acknowledged the excitement in the room, as well as the mural behind him. He informed us that he was about to read sections from a book we’ll read if he’s lucky enough to finish it before he dies. The sections, he said, were not funny at all — they are really all about Hitler youth.

And so he read for about twenty minutes, skipping seven pages here and a few pages there to follow the main characters, and ended with a scene introducing a professor, which brought us about sixty-some pages into the book. I had the sense that Doerr was watching the scenes unfold as he read. I could almost feel his eyes tracing the edges of imagined things powered by his words to do this or that at the exact cadence of his sentences. The audience started the process of remembering that a world existed outside of Doerr’s words after three sections. Someone drank from a water bottle. Something hard hit the floor.

1. Lisa, PSU MFA seminar student, with Rory. Not pictured: Rory’s beer. 2. Tony Perez, Editor with Tin House Books; a woman whose name I didn’t get; Lance Cleland, Director of Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop; and a man in glasses whose name I didn’t get.

1. D’Ambrosio explaining the way the Q&A is going to go. 2. Doerr demonstrating the importance of being earnest.

We got a short break before the Q&A, in which I commandeered an empty seat according to the following logic: if you can’t trust people not to steal your stuff, your seat gets stolen.

Stealing was one of the themes of the Q&A. If you read like a writer — looking for How’s not What’s — you are looking for things to steal from other writers. This can also be called influence, if the stealing gives you permission to learn enough writing craft to be true to yourself on the page. Alice Munro and Cormac McCarthy were influences on Doerr. McCarthy is popular, but have you read Suttree? D’Ambrosio and Doerr think you should.

1. Mike Richie, PSU seminar student, expertly introducing Doerr. 2. Doerr. Reading. Shhh. 3. Meaningful driftwood with peaceful rock in The Little Church patio area.

Expository habits were discussed in terms of influences that didn’t lead to better writing. Doerr said irony didn’t work for him because he is too reverent of a person. He also made a distinction between his personality (not too reverent) and his work personality (reverent). D’Ambrosio responded with a theory of irony leading to negativity that can be unending, I think. While he was talking, I was picturing a group of ironic people and projecting them towards some bottomless pit of negativity, not out of malice, but just to test the theory. I think I got sidetracked by dressing them in ironic clothes.

I can’t possibly summarize the entire talk and still make it to my yoga workshop at two o’clock, so here is some Doerr advice to writers: Be as generous as possible with your readers in terms of information and trust the reader to bring their own intelligence. The gap between intention and interpretation is an intentional space where imaginative work has to be done. Assume strangers have commonalities with you.

Eventually, D’Ambrosio asked all his questions, including if the audience had any, which they didn’t. Doerr smiled and said, “I know some of you guys have been sitting awhile. I’m sorry for that.”

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— Judith Ossello currently lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. Find her at www.writerloop.com.

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