When I was nineteen years old, I spent a week touring the eastern part of North Carolina with other future educators. We visited turkey farms and paper mills and ate barbeque. The athiests among us refused to bow their heads for the invocation, and my roommate, predictably, snored. We were a caravan of buses; I was in the chicken pox bus, though of course, I didn't know it at the time. Across the aisle from me sat a dark-haired boy sporting the soulfully lost look I found so appealing in those days. He managed to look the way I wanted to feel: the happy loner, so engrossed in his own thoughts he could care less what was happening on the bus and whether or not anyone was talking to him. He was reading a book, whose title I finally, after dozens of nonchallant glances his way, managed to read: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.
Margaret Atwood has said that wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pate. I get it; I know the author is not the work, just like the actor is not the part and the artist is not the painting. Her comment further seems to suggest that it is somehow almost cannibalistic, maybe rashly vulgar to admire the duck that gives his very essence--his soul--for our enjoyment. It's unseemly, perhaps. Or maybe only this: it is simply asking too much. The pate-lover is bound to be disappointed with the ordinariness of the duck. The adoring reader will not find genius glimmering from the real-life author, or at least, not the same kind of genius that glitters up from the page. When we read it, it feels spontaneous, that we are uncovering the grace and tilt of the story as we go, but in truth, it most likely took that human-ish author months, years, maybe decades to set it up, put all the pieces in place so they fall and rise and crash and clange beautifully when we come along and set them off.
I know all that, but still, I really like meeting the duck. Writers are rock stars to me; I am the blithering fan. Once, I drove two and a half hours to shake Charles Baxter's hand. A few months ago, I sat one person away from Liz Strout at a reading, and I glanced over and thought, those are the hands that typed Olive Kitteridge. When I met Phillip Gerrard, I told him one of his essays saved my life.
Maybe it's partly because I no longer swoon over the loner on the bus. I suppose I'm too old for that kind of thing, too married, too practical, too over it. My last artist-love happened in college. He was a photography major who rode his bike around campus with a tin cup tied to his backpack. From him, and from myself when I was with him, I learned the old standby "just be yourself," is practically an impossibility. We act, we talk, we choose people to be with for that end--to figure out who we are. It's shifting constantly, adjusting, holding back, stepping forward. It's not something we can somehow surmise, then project. Being yourself is too much in the making.
Soulfully Lost became my pen-pal for the rest of the summer, me returning to live with my parents, picking up my own copy of Owen Meany--appropriately enough, at a Salvation Army thrift store--and suffering through a terrible bout of chicken pox--I'd never had it before. I lost that boy's address well before the summer ended, but I kept up with Irving. And while I've never actually met the man, I did manage to attend AWP the year he gave the keynote address. I skipped dinner that night to be first in line. I found a great seat. He did the Owen Meany voice, and I closed my eyes. Yes. I'd waited fourteen years to hear that voice.