When I read the first line of Pam Houston’s debut book of short stories many years ago, she had me with “When he says ‘Skins or blankets?’ it will take you a moment to realize that he’s asking which you want to sleep under.” The next line is equally intoxicating, and that was it—literary lust at first sight. I already lived in a world of snow and rustic cabins and whitewater weekends and crusty rural characters. I wanted to know more about this world of Pam Houston’s—this western, rugged world—that wasn’t just like my state-of-Maine world—but felt like it might be a close cousin. So I read Houston’s book, Cowboys are my Weakness, again and again. I bought additional copies and gave them to gal friends. And though my life and Houston’s had little but a love of wild outdoor spaces in common, she seemed like the female friend I wished I had on days when it felt like I worked only with men.
When Houston’s other books (Sighthound and Waltzing the Cat) came out, I eagerly bought and read them. Again I gave copies to gal friends as gifts. And eventually I urged my boyfriend to read some of her essays in A Little More About Me. For years, I almost always had one of her books close at hand. But I started reading Pam Houston’s books back before I even owned a computer and long before facebook and twitter would enable me to keep me up with favorite author readings and classes. So despite being a huge fan of her work, I never imagined I’d get to take an actual, in-person writing class with Pam Houston. That is until recently when I learned—via electronic media—that Pam would be teaching a class in Port Townsend, WA. I signed up almost immediately and then eagerly anticipated the one-day class that would take place in one of my very favorite towns.
The day before the class, Brian and I sat on the deck at Sirens. The weather was magnificent. The Pacific Northwest has seen August days that couldn’t rival this balmy and brilliant one in late March, so as we drank Bloody Marys and beers and ate nachos and watched seagulls cavort and copulate and monitored the fog receding and advancing and the ferry coming and going and argued over whether or not the island we could see was or was not Marrowstone, I scanned the crowd, knowing that in a fanfare-free town like Port Townsend, your favorite writer could be sitting right behind you.
The next morning, our class assembled in an upstairs room in one of the old buildings just a few blocks from the hotel where Brian and I had just stayed. I selected a seat right up front by the open windows, deciding I might as well sit where I’d be able to see and hear everything. And despite the slightly nervous anticipatory energy that goes along with seeing a literary hero in an up-close and personal way, Pam’s arrival was almost shockingly casual. I think she actually wandered in before the event coordinator had a chance to introduce her, and in the first few moments, Pam Houston put to rest any notions that this would be a class constrained by formality.
Pam comes off as a truly down-to-earth human: so literally down to earth that she told us early in the day that sitting in her chicken house on Christmas Eve with the temp at 30 below—amid the chickens and the shit—was really all about being 50. In everything she says, she is refreshingly direct. She has a clear voice—the kind that carries, the kind you expect in a theater actor. And she has a quick and attentive mind. During class, she would sometimes appear so calm, almost meditative. One might have incorrectly assumed she was drifting off and thinking about other things, but then, she’d say something that made it clear she hadn’t missed a syllable. We might have, but she hadn’t. She heard it all, and occasionally, she’d make a little joke or humorous quip that revealed her excellent wit. She is no nonsense, so in minutes, we got to work, and she was talking to us about how hard it can be to write—how the fear of boring the reader can be paralyzing. And she talked to us about her strategies for getting past feeling that abandoning the blank page altogether—in favor of a hike—might be preferable to writing utter crap.
She talked to us about what she calls glimmers—those little bits of observation that take hold of our attention, the things that shimmer and shine at us and stand out above the monotony that can paint our days with haze. She explained that this is where she always starts. She begins with the concrete details that niggle her senses—the things she is certain mean something even if she doesn’t know what.
Soon we were writing in-class assignments and then trying to be courageous enough to read them aloud. I tried to follow her instructions and just write the scene—not interpret it, and it worked. When I read my scene in class, Pam made it clear that she understood more about my brief scene than I did. It wasn’t magic, really. I guess it was just the fact that we give away more than we imagine through the details we choose, and readers understand more than we give them credit for comprehending.
I was actually shocked when I read my piece, and Pam said she could feel the rage. I explained that the glimmer I had chosen to write about was in fact a prelude to a fight that Brian and I had had the night before. Pam said, "You don't need to tell me. I can tell."
Here's what I wrote:
We’re in the soaking tub, and the water is very hot—a notch below scalding. I think it is a good thing we’re not large people, and I explain to Brian that I didn’t overfill the tub because I didn’t want the water to cascade right over the top once we both got in. We talk, and he tells me that he and Moriel talked about my writing when they went hiking the other day—about the fact that I’m trying to write, and yet I’ve lived a rather trauma-free life. It’s something I’ve been wondering about. Where does my conflict come in? I ask Brian what they discussed, and he says, “Well, you could always just write fiction.” And then he suggests that I could write about the time one of my colleagues on ski patrol was killed—horribly—in a ski accident. He thinks I can write about this; he thinks there is enough conflict.
A lighter in-class writing assignments resulted in me writing the following about the most embarrassing thing that happened that day:
I’m sitting in an upstairs room in Port Townsend, and the tease of mild air is pouring in through the open window. Pam Houston’s strong voice is filling the room, and all of a sudden, she pauses, perhaps says something, and then the whole room is looking first at the door, and then at me, as Brian holds up the little metal room key—just like the one I forgot to fish out of my purse and return before walking over to this class. Pam continues her talk, and I start rooting around in my purse. I slid the little—possibly brass—key and disc with the room number on it into the purse yesterday when we headed out from the room, and now I know that it has migrated to the bottom. I feel around, groping past the tampons, the lip balm, and the iPhone charger, but it’s hopeless. I grab my purse and sneak my way out to the hall where I try to be quiet. I grab handfuls of purse contents—little green gloves, more tampons, cables, change purse and checkbook, along with unorganized receipts—and I dump them all on the floor. Brian sees the little bronze disc with 17 on it—for our room last night—and he plucks it from the mess. I scoop all my purse crap back into the leather bag with the crumbling strap and try to quietly get back to my seat after giving Brian a “thanks and have a nice day” kiss.
I didn’t read that little glimmer of humiliation aloud in class. I could, however, have listened to Pam for days. I left thinking that I’d like everyday to be as much fun as this one had been—despite the fact that we’d been indoors all day as the sun shone warmly again on Port Townsend.
Happily, I’ll get to hear more from Pam, as I’ve signed up for two additional workshops with her in October, and she’ll be at another writing event I’ll be attending in July. In the meantime, I’m rereading my notes from her class, trying to remember her advice, trying to understand her techniques, and of course, reading and rereading her work. What can I say? Between Cheryl Strayed and Pam Houston, I’m a bit of an addict—or groupie—I’m not sure.
Any other huge Pam Houston fans out there? Have you taken a class with her? Read her books?