Guys, Boston Book Festival is here. I finished reading The Heart Goes Last, in by far my speediest read-time this year, so I’m fully prepared for Margaret Atwood’s keynote session tonight. I have my dogeared, marked-up copy of A Handmaid’s Tale on me in case I get the opportunity to get it signed, but to be honest, I’m nervous. The last time I came face to face with a real live novelist, I sort of blew it. Let’s learn more!
It was late fall in my freshman year of college. My attendance was still perfect, my pencils still at a point, my Easy Mac supply plentiful. One day, my honors English professor, who I will call Professor Shame-Witness (the inspiration for this fictional surname will later become clear) invited our class to a small creative writing “forum” (a word so collegiate it could have its own hoodie sweatshirt). The speaker: novelist E.L. Doctorow. Published novelist E.L. Doctorow. Several times published, award-winning novelist E.L. Doctorow. He was going to visit, and he was going to speak about writing, and he was going to tell me how to become a several times published award-winning novelist. Disclosure: this last part was not verbatim in the forum invitation, but was clearly implied.
I should admit here that I wasn’t super familiar with Doctorow’s work at the time. I COULD however reach level 11 in Snood and supply a Friends quote for just about any situation (and still can: “You’re the person who checked out my book?!” — Ross Gellar). So feel free to let me off the hook for not having read some very good and important literature. The best I can offer is that I had seen the theatrical adaptation of Doctorow’s novel Ragtime on Broadway years before, and could sort of remember it.
You would think in the weeks before the forum I would pick up a book, but guys, you’re underestimating my aforementioned commitment to Friends and Snood. I did not prepare. The day of the forum, realizing I didn’t own any Doctorow for him to sign, I stopped at the student center book store on my way to the event. Conveniently, a table right at the entrance was covered with copies of his latest work, City of God, as if they’d known I’d be this unprepared, and also this late. I snapped up a crisp, pristine book, quickly paid, and hoofed it to the classroom.
I may not have been prepared, but I did find myself inspired. Tall, academic, and avuncular, Doctorow had a seemingly endless trove of advice for us, and I ate it all up. He told us when we had an idea we should write it unabashedly – did we need to show it to anyone? Not necessarily. But we did need to put it on paper? Yes, absolutely. (As I write this, I realize maybe I should have considered that advice before I put up this blog post. But pushing on…)
The forum ended and a book-signing line formed. Bright-eyed, eager, and all hopped up on writing advice, I stood behind my classmates, brainstorming something brief, charming, and utterly impressive I could say to this genius scribe, because if he liked me maybe he would help me write a book. That totally makes sense, right?
When it was my turn I strode forward, proffering my book to the novelist. “I’m a huge fan of your work,” I said, as he it cracked open and flipped to the title page. “And I got so much out of that lecture.”
He glanced up at me with a wry smile, his pen hovering. “Looks like I’ve already been here,” he said. Professor Shame-Witness, looking over Doctorow’s shoulder, seemed to be suppressing a cringe.
I looked down, and there, in my clearly never-opened book, was Doctorow’s pre-inscribed signature.
While I silently died, Doctorow sweetly wrote my name and “all best” above his existing handwriting, though every time I look at it all I can see between the lines is “Oh, boy. Good luck with that.”
Due to my ensuing embarrassment blackout, I have no idea what happened after that, though I know I took back the book because I still have it on my shelf as a memento of my spectacular idiocy. And I know that I managed to continue attending my honors English class, even though Professor Shame-Witness and I both knew about my horrible forum foible.
Sadly E.L. Doctorow passed away earlier this year, and no one has invented a working time machine for me to take for a little spin, so this event will remain in history as one of my most embarrassing. But Margaret Atwood’s keynote tonight – maybe that’s my second chance. I’ll hold out my old, tattered book with confidence, knowing history can’t repeat itself here. And I’ll ask her to write “all best” before she signs.