Chapter Two – House of Words

I pushed on to Ashland, Ohio, site of the conference. Tedious interstate unspooled before me. I scanned my directions anxiously. Ashland lay between Columbus and Akron and I half-expected it to be the Ohio equivalent of those moribund New England mill towns, a hodge-podge of seen-better-days with a hollowed-out downtown and weary streets of unhappy houses. The new green on the trees that lined the streets provided a scrim of promise.

I picked up my room number and key and my sheets and towels. The dorm was a three-story, motel-style slab at a right angle to a busy intersection. The rest of the university sprawled across the street, in a mid-20th century industrial park sort of way. Lavish beds of tulips, generous swaths of color, softened the utilitarianism. Remarkably for a one hundred and twenty-five year-old institution, no building predates World War II. Ash U had nurtured a fine nonfiction literary magazine called River Teeth which sponsored this conference.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Ashland University was its rococo fetishizing of memorabilia. Every vertical surface of every building displayed framed and captioned photos, documents, posters, and tchotchkes, as well as trophies, beanies, balls, and plaques. Every corridor was a walk down somebody’s memory lane and every staircase a spillway of arcana to an end so trivial that all you registered were the bouffants, bellbottoms, and vaguely familiar celebrities. One could not help but observe a dismaying partiality for magicians and Republicans.

Back in the fall, when I submitted my ‘manuscript’, I asked for an ‘assessment.’ No one had seen the thing, a swiped-together collection of personal essays, since its days as a master’s thesis. I discarded about forty percent in favor of current writing. In addition to the many other stimulating aspects of a gathering of like-minded writers, the opportunity for someone of reputation to read my writing and proffer their opinion had me vibrating with apprehension. While I’m not shy about letting other people see my work, I can sometimes play a very self-manipulative game with fantasy outcomes.

We sit at a picnic table in the quad in the afternoon shade. Kate, my reader, says I have a book here. She points out areas that need expansion and whole pieces that should be set aside. But she says I have a book, if I want. How about that.

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