I like to think I’ve got the world figured out. Unfortunately, I don’t. This weekend, I learned something.

At the 4th Annual Festival of Books, I learned a lot of things, actually – both about books and about writing. And through it all, I found myself inspired in a way I haven’t been in years. I came close to literary greatness, to success in a difficult field, and I’d like to think now that, while I don’t have the world figured out, I’ve at least seen the keys to getting started on that road.

I spent a couple hours being a moderator and host for Rob Fleder, editor for Sports Illustrated magazine and a handful of Sports Illustrated books. More than introduce, I listened. I had the opportunity to eavesdrop on a true success in a field I once fancied myself a rising star. As he recounted, humbly, his style and his profession, I realized that while journalism wasn’t exactly my game, writing was.

There was a connection – if only to me, by him – that made me realize that I was surrounded by genius. And later, when I sat side by side as he gave opinions and advice to other published authors, I realized that I was getting a true gift – insight on how the book and magazine industry works. Rob Fleder met with two people: John E. Miller, a Laura Ingalls Wilder scholar and author of the book Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder (a biography reviewed by the New York Times and Washington Post), and Jean Patrick, who wrote the children’s book The Girl Who Struck Out Babe Ruth.

These people were coming to him for advice. Published authors. Looking for success.

As we were leaving, and after I had said goodbye to Rob, I was asked by Jean if I was a writer. I said “kind of,” conceding that I was at the sleazy end of the writing spectrum – a blogger and advertising copywriter.

She told me that some of the most well written authors started in copywriting, goaded into the field without a formal writing education. They know how to write to people, and not to professors. It made this desire-without-training idea sound plausible – possible, even.

She asked me what I wanted to write. I didn’t know. I’ve never really thought that far ahead. I’m so interested in becoming a writer, so focused on becoming good at writing and qualified in my job and well known on my blog, that I’ve never even thought about what I wanted to write. Which, actually, might be part of the problem.

I said short stories. Columns. I don’t have the patience to throw myself into a full length novel – at least, not yet. Novels take years to write. That means years with the same characters. The same settings. The same lives, being formed and perfected and then sometimes chopped off, for three to five years. And then, what if it’s not good? What if it’s a failure? That’s a lot of time to spend working towards nothing.

Which brings me to Marilynn Robinson – so far, the only Pulitzer Prize winner I’ve ever shaken hands with – who inspired me to not worry about what I can or can’t do. She inspired me to just do it.

Two novels in twenty five years. That’s Marilynn Robinson’s output: Gilead, a beautiful book made even more beautiful by an amazing panel of speakers, including Robinson herself, and made understandable by some deep thinking and group discussion; and Housekeeping, another award winner from the 70s. Regardless of how prolific she is (or isn’t, actually) she’s always on key. Still, while she speaks gracefully, it’s with a bit of hesitation, as if she’s afraid to be on stage, afraid of being judged. She seems a little high and mighty, but she also seems timid, afraid to embrace the culture that comes along with a major literary prize. She’s internal. But she writes wonderfully.

Through that discussion, I discovered that Gilead was more amazing than I had thought on my first read. The first line alone, simple, striking, yet unsupported at the time I read it, became so much more meaningful after finishing the book and coming back to it. It spans so many relationships and encompasses so many themes that it’s difficult to understand without reading it. And it’s so uniquely written, with a style that slows the reader down to a more sensible pace, that it seems to really take into consideration the age of the novel’s protagonist. It’s beautiful.

And, it’s possible.

Great writing doesn’t need as much talent as it needs inspiration. Let’s see how long this inspiration lasts. If it’s even there at all. Maybe this is all just a ploy; my mind’s way of thinking that this sudden urge to write and start a book club and buy books and read five of them a month and emerge from the other side with a clear head and a name tag that says “writer” is truly inspiration.

Regardless, it starts with inspiration – false or not. And that’s good, because it’s got to start somewhere.

– – – –

“I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old.” — John Ames, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

This was lovingly handwritten on September 26th, 2006