From P-Town… What Do You Want to Know?

1. Portland has a Broadway, and the Schnitz lights it up. 2. Wine can be taken into the auditorium if it resembles a soda. 3. Jeanne and Rosemary had tickets that looked different, but they’ve been sitting in the same front row seats forever.

Last night, the Portland Arts & Lectures season brought Stacy Schiff to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall where she was accidentally awarded the Nobel Prize during her introduction. Portland is now her favorite city. She said so, at least twice.

Everything Schiff says counts. As a biographer, she wants to know too much without saying too much. When discussing her writing process, she mentioned creating roughly 100 pages of consolidated research for each chapter in a biography. She’d rather go to cities you’ve never heard of rather than write, so take a guess at the amount of research that gets consolidated.

1. Lonnie, Rick Comandich, a Literary Arts Board Member, and Maya. 2. Spotted outside the mezzanine amid final curtain calls, this group from the Writer’s Dojo was going to keep the lids off their drinks by finishing them. Jeffery Selin, Kimberly & Neil Lofgren, and Rachel Selin.

Before Schiff took the stage, Jin Mei McMahon read “Her Logic,” an essay she wrote while participating in Writers in the Schools (WITS). The essay responded to questions about McMahon’s adoption from China in both conversation and thought and will be included in No One Carries an Umbrella Here, an anthology of work written by Portland public high school students who participated in WITS. Schiff said she hoped to read with the same presence when she grew up.

1. Before attending the after-party with her mother, Tina, Jin Mei McMahon read her original essay to over 2,000 people at the Schnitz. She had three tests for school earlier in the day so she didn’t have much time to prepare.

Actually, I’m unsure of the exact phrase Schiff used when making her comment about McMahon because Schiff is precise, and I’m not. Schiff said that she needs to be clear-sighted, partial and unforgiving in her line of work. Throughout her lecture, she gave examples of how a biographer seeks to gain presence within an otherwise foreign life.

While in the audience, I was searching for a way to pull together the experience of being in her presence. Schiff’s written and impromptu humor pretty much matched exactly in tone and timing. It’s that dry type of humor that tastes good with Gin or red wine and makes all food seem like dessert, and it’s generally used by a serious person who tries not to take themselves too seriously because hard work is hard enough.

1. Schiff signs a copy of her book for an enthusiastic fan.

Her lecture provided me with a few lingering thoughts and unfinished ideas, mostly focused on how I would’ve reacted in similar situations as a biographer doing research and trying to meet a deadline. Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra had less documentation than she wanted, but she hoped to approach the subject with more respect than anyone else might muster. It’s hard to write about someone who writes about someone like that, even when you were there.


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

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