Adam Reger | Freelance Writer

Pittsburgh-based fiction writer

Month: July, 2010

Reason #2 to Love Pittsburgh: Gist Street Reading Series

(As mentioned here, I’m enumerating reasons in random order, but giving them consecutive numbers (as opposed to “Reason #6,387 to Love Pittsburgh”).)

Pittsburgh definitely punches above its weight class when it comes to the literary scene. A lot of that is due to the universities: the deep-pocketed Carnegie Mellon University brings in some jaw-dropping readers every year, and the University of Pittsburgh and Chatham University (nee College) both have MFA programs that both bring in and incubate talented writers.

But it’s sort of de rigeur for universities to pull the weight. The really impressive thing about the city’s literary community is the Gist Street Reading Series. Independent of the universities, and with only a tiny bit of funding from the Pennsylvania Arts Council, Gist Street is a local, homegrown phenomenon. The set-up’s simple: the first Friday of the month, two writers—one fiction, one poetry—read from their work in a loft space in Pittsburgh’s Uptown neighborhood (a tiny, isolated, somewhat sketchy neighborhood just on the cusp of Downtown). It’s BYOB—and B.Y.O. Food, Dessert, Anything You Want to Eat or (Preferably) Share with a Bunch of Strangers. As the Series’ slogan goes, “It’s not about suffering.” And it’s not: there’s always ample eating, drinking, and conversation.

And, remarkably, it’s always, always filled to capacity. Stories abound of people getting to the space twenty minutes before the slated start time to find a sign taped to the door: “We’re Full. Sorry.” I’ve been shut out forty minutes before the reading was supposed to begin.

Tonight I got there well ahead of time. It was the annual cookout, done in tandem with a small press of note. Last year it was McSweeney’s. This year it was Michigan-based Dzanc Books. The full line-up of readers is here. All were excellent; for my money, Jeff Parker’s selection from “False Cognates” stood out, but its being funny and straightforward probably helped. As much a part of the experience, however, was the food. It was a feast. Pittsburghers can cook, or at least Gist Street loyalists can. Many, many delicious items were eaten, by me, tonight.

But I am sort of beating around the bush. I must admit a deep bias I have in favor of Gist Street. It involves the raffle they hold at each reading.

Upon entering, each person writes his or her name on a slip of paper and tosses it in a basket. At the end of the reading, names are drawn for a variety of prizes. Each reader puts up a copy of his/her book. There is locally grown produce. Sometimes someone will offer a homemade ceramic piece, or a hand-knit scarf (which a friend won once).

Tonight, I won a most excellent prize: a medley of vegetables from the garden of Sherrie Flick, one of the Series’ founders and organizers (and also a published novelist and flash-fiction writer (what a combination!)). (In the box: a cup of blackberries; two carrots; two radishes; a zucchini; green onions; two plums; a tomato; and a small pepper-ish sort of thing.) Of even further note, though, is that this marked the third time I’ve won something in Gist Street’s raffle. (I won a galley copy of Cathy Day’s The Circus in Winter, and a copy of Dean Young’s Primitive Mentor (which is sort of a raffle within a raffle, for me, because I am utterly stymied by most poetry and Dean Young is on the very short list of poets whose work tends to make sense and please me more than it baffles and irritates me).) It’s to the point, now, where I expect to win something when I go, and am kind of miffed and incredulous when I don’t.

Anyway, consider this a full-throated, whole-hearted recommendation of the Gist Street Reading Series. Even subtracting out the great prizes I’ve won over the years, it’s a great experience and a definite credit to Pittsburgh’s literary community.

Note to Self re: Research

When conducting research on, say, old-timey pirates, make sure that any films you may select off of Netflix are not actually porno flicks edited down to get an R rating.

Yes, friends, I unwittingly popped in a softcore porno, notebook poised to jot down any good period details that I might use in the project I’m working on. I swear that when I picked this movie (Pirates—the nondescript title probably contributed to my error) I had a hazy memory of its appearing in theaters a year or two ago. (Why did I picture Geoffrey Rush in pirate garb?)

This movie is very, very good for an adult film—terrible acting, as you’d expect, but excellent costumes and cheesy-but-still-impressive digital effects. But . . . how to say this delicately . . . something is definitely missing.

Twilight

I resisted, but I’d have to say I’m now a huge fan. (Also: a huge nerd.)

Scandal on The Price Is Right

I had not heard about this. But now I have. Excellent article in Esquire about a guy who guessed the Showcase Showdown perfectly on The Price Is Right, and some of the fall-out. Don’t miss the video of Drew Carey giving the guy the good news through clenched teeth.

Is This a Real Question that Real People (Still) Ask?

I’ve been almost completely oblivious of the MTV series The Hills, which I guess just concluded. When I’ve run across it it’s either been through The Soup or just flipping around. When I’ve had the option of giving it more attention than The Soup would, though, I’ve inevitably bailed.

I’ll skip listing all the reasons under the category of how bad and dumb it seemed—MTV, class warfare, blah blah blah—and cite the only one I needed: Was I really supposed to believe that this was real?

It was on the other day at the gym and I was trapped watching it for about thirty minutes. (The remote was with another gym-goer, who seemed sincerely into it.) Even with the sound off, this thing looked much closer to The Office than The Real World (which, granted, is not completely “real” but is not a record of actors playing characters): do reality shows typically station two cameras around a cafe table to record the facial reactions of both participants in a conversation?

I could go on—and to be fair, if I let myself go on at length about this ridiculousness I’d probably get around to talking about the achievement of the young actresses I’ve seen on the show, doing an actually pretty passable job of simulating the utter mundaneness of everyday conversation—but I’d rather not. What spurred all this bloviation is this Yahoo! TV Blog post on the (shocking!) apparent fakeness of the entire show. (Although, to be fair, there’s lots of acknowledgment of the long-running charges that the show is fake, and plenty of intelligent on-the-other-hand equivocation. And the post did point me in the direction of this story, which is pretty excellent.)

Lyrics of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner,” Reformatted as Flash Fiction

I am sitting in the morning at the diner on the corner. I am waiting at the counter for the man to pour the coffee.

And he fills it only halfway. And before I even argue he is looking out the window at somebody coming in.

“It is always nice to see you,” says the man behind the counter to the woman who has come in. She is shaking her umbrella.

And I look the other way as they are kissing their hellos.

I’m pretending not to see them. Instead I pour the milk.

I open up the paper. There’s a story of an actor who had died while he was drinking. It was no one I had heard of.

And I’m turning to the horoscope and looking for the funnies when I’m feeling someone watching me and so I raise my head. There’s a woman on the outside looking inside. Does she see me?

No, she does not really see me because she sees her own reflection. And I’m trying not to notice that she’s hitching up her skirt. And while she’s straightening her stockings her hair has gotten wet.

Oh, this rain it will continue through the morning. As I’m listening to the bells of the cathedral I am thinking of your voice…

And of the midnight picnic once upon a time before the rain began…

I finish up my coffee. It’s time to catch the train.

This is Dumb

But this site says I write like J.K. Rowling, based on their analysis of five or six paragraphs of a short story I had lying around. This Entertainment Weekly blog post summarizes why this is dumb. I don’t know what I expected. Anyway, further evidence that genre writing is where I’m headed.

On Economics

What I know about economics is pretty conventional, and what I have to say is pretty uninformative. My general take is that it’s a fascinating and wide-ranging discipline, capable of analyzing and explaining nearly everything, but that the interest of any particular scholarly article is invariably ruined by the appearance of math. (If you are asking why I would be looking at scholarly economics articles in the first place, rather than sticking with Freakonomics or occasionally perusing Slate: it’s because I work on a scholarly economics journal. I have to look at these things.)

I am only just catching on to the preponderance of economics-for-laymen resources that are out there. In that vein, I’d like to share an economics blog I’ve found super interesting: Dan Ariely’s. He’s a behavioral economist at Duke. Behavioral economics (again, to the extent that I understand anything) is much more focused on the applicability of economics to life, and to that end uses the observed behavior of human beings much more than classic economics. A pleasure of coming across work in behavioral economics, often, is simply noting the topics that these scholars have gotten interested enough in to pursue (and to pursue so doggedly: we’re talking, often, of long-term, labor-intensive studies looking at reams of data, if not pestering thousands of people for survey responses. It’s the kind of thing that, as a creative writer, kind of boggles my mind.). At Ariely’s blog right now he’s discussing happiness, personal efficiency, and the reasons you might let your vegetables go to waste in your refrigerator drawer. And I looked into him after being pretty impressed by this video, which follows a recent paper Ariely published on online dating.

Manmar, Cash; All Others, Trash

Apropos of nothing except its delighting me, a story about a cheeky south Florida 5-year-old who gave himself a truly awesome nickname.

Presumed Innocent

As has been mentioned, I had a recent encounter that softened me up somewhat to considering “genre” and “mainstream” fiction with more generosity than I typically showed either. The first book I read afterwards was Stephen King’s Under the Dome (which was a great read; it’s proving not to linger on in memory but, you know, whatevs). But I also took the step of ordering a couple books that my conversational counterpart (the one-time Franklin W. Dixon, author of the Hardy Boys series) suggested as being particularly good “genre” fiction. (An aside, to be filed under Reasons I’m Glad to Be out of Graduate School: How nice merely to put “genre” in quotations and trust that my readers have a vague-but-close-enough sense of just what I mean, without needing to strictly define, problematize, historicize, put in a specific cultural context, or otherwise footnote the term.*)

One of these books was Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent. I’ve been working on it for a few days and though it was slow going to begin with, I’m now one late night away from ripping through it. In this case, Franklin W. Dixon’s pitch to me is worth paraphrasing: to wit, that though people get them confused, Scott Turow is no John Grisham; his prose is respectable, shapely, precise; there is nuance, depth, and great intelligence. Since I honestly had conflated Grisham and Turow, and from years of seeing Presumed Innocent‘s gawdy blood-fingerprint on the paperback cover had lumped it in with the pulpiest of pulp novels, this was news to me and I snagged a copy of the book with some trepidation, but with high hopes as well.

All of which have been justified. The novel is thorough and deeply intelligent, in structure as well as in the ordinary details of each scene. (The plot, in a nutshell, is that a deputy district attorney is falsely accused of murdering a former lover, and must defend himself against the prosecution of a political rival. The set-up is an elegant way of allowing the narrator to move from the prosecutor’s table to the defendant’s seat, where he picks apart the strategies of both his defense attorney and the prosecution team. It may not sound like much, but I feel I can now understand why Law and Order re-runs are constantly playing: the law is fascinating, and an endless source of conflict and human drama. To be ushered through it like this is a real pleasure.)

I won’t say that much about the novel, which was a big deal almost 25 years ago—I fear I’d be embarrassing myself, like if I’d just discovered the Star Wars trilogy and couldn’t shut up about it. At some point I will have to process some further thoughts on so-called “genre” writing; I feel at the moment that reading Presumed Innocent is only deepening my earlier conclusions, namely that there’s nothing wrong with it.

In terms of my own writing as of this moment, reading these more mainstream books has increased my desire and willingness to “go for it” in the sense of making the story exciting, as well as in terms of using the oldest, sturdiest fictional tricks: surprises, secrets, unadorned conflict. It’s very much a continuing development, but it’s certainly a welcome on.

*Re-reading that aside, it seems not so surprising that I’d be contemplating a move away from canonical “literary” fiction and toward the stuff that’s sold in airport bookstores and consumed voraciously on beaches, Greyhounds, diners, etc. etc. I’ve always reacted nastily to the lit-crit side of things, whether it was during my undergraduate studies or while earning an MFA.