Last night, I met one of my very favorite writers, Calvin Trillin, at a reading of several pieces to celebrate the publication of Cornbread Nation 6 , an anthology of Southern food writing put together by Southern Foodways Alliance. The event was at KGB Bar in the East Village, not the kind of bar that one happens into accidentally; I found it up two flights of stairs in a blank- faced building, a dim room with Soviet era pictures and flags on the walls.
A couple of the writers included in the book were there to read, Jane Black and Francis Lam, plus its editor Brett Anderson to MC as well as Mr. Trillin. It felt like most of the people there either knew each other or were there with friends, chatting about book fairs in Italy they had just attended or mutual talented fabulous author/publisher friends. I sat gawkily alone on my bar stool trying to figure out who was who based on my looking up their Twitter profile pictures (“the Asian guy in the gingham blazer must be Francis Lam….”).
But when the readings began, particularly Mr. Trillin’s, I remembered why I was there. Hearing words crafted to so invoke a place, a person’s nature, an ethos, as to bring a pang of recollection or recognition is what inspires me to write. And it reminded me of the importance of inspiration. Reading the work of excellent writers (or experiencing excellent art or music) has the two-fold benefit of keeping me appropriately humble- no, I’m not the greatest thing since sliced bread- while also giving me something great to which to aspire- don’t be self-satisfied, always try to be better.
Calvin Trillin is one of those writers that can write about a ham sandwich and make it interesting, funny, and meaningful. It will make you really want to go to the place where he describes enjoying this sandwich immediately and have one yourself. His stories about making the Saturday morning food rounds in Manhattan were part of what helped quell my terror at moving here- he made it seem so neighborhoody and unpretentiously delicious. And speaking of unpretentious, he writes sparely, no frills, but still genially, like your uncle telling you about his latest trip. He talks about his wife and daughters a lot, but kindly and respectfully.
I’m not sure why, but I’m very reticent to approach or acknowledge people that I think are “famous”. I guess I feel like they mostly just want their privacy like anyone else, and saying “I really admire your work” doesn’t exactly trip off my tongue. I feel awkward as a fan. But as people began to trickle out at the end of the evening, I made my way out past the table where the writers were sitting and said “IenjoyedthissomuchthankyouMrTrillinI’velovedyourwritingforalongtime” before scurrying out the door.
But in the spirit of the verse that says “if you have a word of encouragement, say it!”, here is what I wish I had had the presence if mind to say:
Your work has made me laugh for many years. I’ve recommended your Tummy Trilogy many times. Your stories about food and travel are so true and funny and lovely that I almost despair to write myself because you’ve already done it so well. Thank you for inspiring me to try to write well.