On The Unlikely Benefits of Literary Labor

I’m just back from a fantastic trip to Los Angeles for the 15th Anniversary Red Hen brunch, where we launched the sixth issue of The Los Angeles Review. 10 years ago, when I first had the desire to become a “literary person,” I would never have believed that, this past weekend, I’d be sipping champagne with Mark Doty, joking around with Wanda Coleman, munching asparagus with Jamaica Kincaid, or talking about translation with Eloise Klein Healy.

In fact, even last Sunday it was hard to believe that these important writers were letting me hang with them in a swanky Bel Air hotel. I was sure they’d out me as a fraud–that someone would throw my sorry business card back in my face and demand that I make way for the real literati.

But no one did. In fact, these people I’ve long idolized seemed pleased to meet me, as well as interested in and appreciative of the magazine I and my fellow editors put together for Red Hen Press. Later, I was reminded of my own words to submitters (regarding the fact that editors are generally pretty nice, non-scary folks), and realized that I’d not taken the same notion and applied it to writers: even National Book Award winners are still people (completely obvious, yet an epiphany to me). They too get sweaty while mingling under the hot California sun. They too were unsure about the tiny biscotti-like item on the buffet. They too get salad greens stuck in their teeth. They too feel pleased when readers like their work, and want to see other writers be successful as well. They too tell stories as well as they can because they have something they feel is worth saying.

It was another reminder of what a wonderful–if rough–path “literary persons” have taken; I doubt the mood would have been nearly so good had I been at an event for, say, high-powered investors or politicians or even sales representatives. In what other field than the arts can one truly say she loves someone’s work–that the work has changed her–and be received? We may not make the big bucks as arts-and-letters types, but payment in kindness, inclusion, and a reminder that we’re all working in service of a common truth? I’ll take it.

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