Searching for a Theory of Everything Literary

Searching for a Theory of Everything Literary:
An excuse to shamelessly trip down memory lane, name-drop, and meander

If you haunt the hallways of Lighthouse on an average workday, it’s not unusual to hear someone lament the lack of a science to what we do. (To be fair, I’m pretty sure we’d resist the science if there were a theory to be found.) There's been a kind of not-quite-ness to this endeavor over the past 27 years. We’re a writing program, but not really academic. We’re an arts organization, but more participatory—words are the art we’re installing in the space, which is not a gallery, quite.  Sure, we’re a literary center, but what’s that?

In the absence of science, we built something mostly by fumbling around and cross-disciplinary imitation. Workshops were easy—that was what we’d been steeped in during grad school and, once we were out in the stunning void previously occupied by literary community, well, we started those first: self-contained accountability and experimentation pods. But what else? 

Stealing from TV, the dominant cultural force of the era, we appropriated Bravo’s weekly master class for acting students at NYU, Inside the Actors Studio, for our own education-as-entertainment series, Inside the Writers Studio (I didn’t say we were super original). Where they featured DeNiro, Streep, and Glover, we brought celebrated writers like Tobias Wolff, Mary Karr, Junot Díaz, Claudia Rankine, and George Saunders to share their wisdom and writing with the community. This series was always fun and unscripted, evenings of onstage conversations, followed by a more intimate class “for writers only” the next morning. Soon we began many spin-offs of this larger event, and such began the perpetual need to think about who to invite, and why, and how often.

The village curators
Like every subculture, the literary world is both vast and quite small, and we quickly began to lean on the kinship model. For instance, a recently relocated employee from NYC mentioned that a friend of a friend knew Colson Whitehead. This was pre-Pulitzer Colson, pre-Amazon Prime mini-series Colson, pre shall we say, Platinum Hit Colson. Many of us had read and admired The Intuitionist at the time, but let’s just say it wasn’t on everyone’s TBR pile. We didn’t hesitate to invite him, but I distinctly remember the emergence of a new challenge for this so-called Lit Center thing: if we build it, will they come? It’s hard to believe now, so many bestsellers later, how much work we did to try to fill the Source (now the Jones) Theater at DCPA for his on-stage event those years ago. Other, similar visits included Chris Offutt (an instructor’s favorite prof from grad school), Lorrie Moore (went to school with another instructor), Tobias Wolff (friend of our on-stage interviewer, Eli Gottlieb), Michael Ondaatje (friend of another guest, Kazuo Ishiguro, who had just visited). Mary Karr (friend of friend) and Hanif Abdurraqib (staff friend from the performance poetry circuit). The village curators never disappointed, and I still rely on them today.

The farm team approach
There was an era when I was teaching short story using, always, literary magazines and anthologies—the Best American’s, the O. Henry’s, the Pushcarts—and I kept running across a few names that hadn’t yet broken into the mainstream, but I had a sense were on their way. We had begun a series situated closer to an emerging writer’s stratosphere, and I began inviting the writers whose work stood out (in that subjective way) from the journals to weekend residencies celebrating their work (signature drinks and staged readings were often featured) and providing opportunities for all of us to learn from them. To this, we invited writers who are still regular visitors, like Rebecca Makkai, Steve Almond, Robin Black, and Cheryl Strayed. Others who have since become household names, we still try to get back what we can: Roxane Gay, Cristina Henriquez, and Lauren Groff. The farm team approach also got us early looks at Carmen Maria Machado (also village curation, thanks to Lumans), Min Jin Lee, Layli Long Soldier regular guest Leslie Jamison, Ada Limón, and dozens of others it would be hard to entice here now. Our latest effort on this front involves up-and-comers Sasha LaPointe and Tayi Tibble (thanks to village curator, John Freeman).

The rule of threes
A strange memory from high school English class: our poncho-clad teacher leading us through daily read-alouds of Shakespeare plays, only to interrupt at regular intervals, shouting “Threes! The rule of threes!” I never understood why Shakespeare’s propensity for threes should matter to me, but voilá, sometimes threes create a mandate. Hence the most baffling taxonomy of literary invitations, one that’s better than guessing but still not quite math. Consider the formulae:

(1) An instructor was in touch with him (village curation)  + (2) he guest edited an issue of a lit mag featuring two of our writers + (3) he reached out to teach a craft class against craft classes = Percival Everett came to Lit Fest 2021, after years of near-misses.

(1) I’d recently devoured her book about studying the Russians + (2) someone knew someone and put me in touch + (3) she’d just written a novel (The Idiot, soon-to-be a finalist for the Pulitzer), so she was open to travel while on book tour = Elif Batuman came to a mini-studio in 2018.

(1) I’d copied a very short piece from NER to use in my short story class by an unknown writer, A Hemon + (2) years later, I began seeing and reading incredible books by him, so he was in sight when one of his closest friends (village curation) gave us the tip we could get him if we offered him a chance to ski + (3) a LWW member mentioned she had a ski-in-ski-out place we could borrow  =  Aleksandar Hemon came in 2018, after a brief trip down the slopes in Vail.

(1) The Sheila Heti factor (ultimate village curator) + (2) a last-minute Lit Fest cancellation + (3) my own obsession with the Outline trilogy at the time = Rachel Cusk came to Lit Fest in 2019.

(1) Someone dropped an ARC of her book Abandon Me in my mailbox at an artists residency; (2) we needed a keynote at our burgeoning Book Project, (3) we got an unsolicited inquiry from an author making her own tour through Denver, who was longtime friends with one of our members = Melissa Febos.

I could go on, but please message me if you know the secret of why “threes” seem to deliver.

Chance favors the prepared literary center
Finally, we have to give a nod to the right-place-right-time factor that has determined many a career, storied life, or Lit Center profile.  I’ll never forget when a wonderful agent I’d been working with at Penguin Random House (Hi, Kate!) on Jennifer Egan’s Writers Studio visit emailed me out of the blue and asked if I might be interested in hosting another of their writers, a certain Kazuo Ishiguro.  (This was a year or so before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.) There were other acts of serendipity (and village curation) that brought Amitava Kumar, Claire Messud, Rachel Kushner, Danielle EvansKatie Kitamura, and so many others to Lighthouse, but we’ll just have to yield to the truth that serendipity will always play its part.

The thing that joins all of these methods, I suppose, is the willingness of our community to support our unscientific ways. (It’s reinforcing the same way that my daughters’ laughter at their father’s corny jokes keeps him telling them.) In this way, the (lit) center holds: we stumble upon the next addictive read, follow our latest, greatest mentors, and continue building a community of people dedicated to writing, reading, and sharing words.


Image of Joy Roulier Sawyer

Andrea, was that ever...PRIMO. Enjoyed every juicy word of this. xo