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The Writer Next Door: Amy Stewart

Portland State University’s graduate program in Creative Writing has joined forces with us crazy Tin House folks to establish the Tin House Writer-in-Residence at PSU. The aim of this partnership is to bring national caliber writers to Portland for in-depth teaching opportunities in PSU’s Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing, as well as providing them with the chance to perform chores for the Tin House staff.

Amy Stewart

This spring brought the first recipient of the award, Amy Stewart, to our neighborhood. One of the perks of receiving the Writer-In Residence is you get to live in a lovely apartment situated between the Tin House Books and Magazine offices. Just imagine, at any moment of the day (or night) you could receive a knock on the door from a Tin House editor, asking for a glass of whiskey milk, money advice, or an afternoon Game of Thrones literary chat.

For those lucky enough to call Portland home, Amy will be reading at 6:30pm this Friday (May 11) at Eliot Chapel.

For the rest of you, Amy will be providing the occasional dispatch about her time here in the Rose City. Enjoy!

The Missing Sock Laundry and the Salon des Refusés

I was at the laundromat when I found out I didn’t get a Guggenheim. I’d been there for about half an hour, watching my laundry spin and casually checking the Foundation’s website on my phone. I’d been casually checking the site about 150 times a day for the last few weeks. They were dropping maddening clues that an announcement was imminent. One day, a link appeared to a non-existent page of 2012 fellows. A few days later, it was gone. After that, a page that lets you search for fellows by year of award was updated to include the year 2012. A search turned up just one person (congratulations, Jonathan Lamb) but then someone realized their mistake and he disappeared.

Normally I don’t get this worked up about awards. My strategy for not getting too excited about them is to not apply for them. But this time I thought I had a winner: the perfect Guggenheim project, the ideal combination of art and science and compulsory European travel.

So my clothes sloshed around in the suds and I did a half-hearted search for 2012 winners, not expecting to see anything. I knew that if I had been chosen, they would have contacted me long before anything went live on their website. But what else is there to do at a laundromat besides check to see what literary prizes you’ve won?

And there, on my little smudged screen, was a name. Christina Mercer. (Hey, good job, Christina.) I hit refresh again and another name came up. Joseph Millar. (Well done, Joseph) And then another: Lydia Millet. (That sounds like a really great project, Lydia.)

They were appearing in alphabetical order, probably because someone was loading them each to the website, one at a time, then clicking a setting that would hide them until the announcement. Every few minutes, a name would show up, then disappear. Wait a minute or two, and another name would be there. Then it would be gone.

It was a live, unannounced webcast of the Guggenheim winners.

I looked around the laundromat. Was I the only one who knew about this? I was in northwest Portland; it was not impossible that someone else in the room was waiting to hear about their Guggenheim while the spin cycle finished. A few thousand people apply every year. How many of my fellow candidates had discovered this technical glitch and were hunched over a screen right now, hitting refresh just as I was, muttering half-hearted congratulations to Laurie Murat, Eileen Myles, and Ron Nagle?

My laundry was dry and folded and refolded by the time Paul Steven’s name came up. I could have hauled it back to the apartment—I can hit refresh and walk at the same time—but how humble and laid back and hipster lowbrow would it be to find out about your Guggenheim in a laundromat? That’d be so grounded and decent and human of me. (Except for the fact that I found out by cyberstalking the foundation. I’d have to leave that out in the retelling.)

So I’d been standing around, waiting for this moment. I hit refresh one more time, wished Ramie Targoff all the best, and ran through the rain with a sack of clean clothes over my shoulder. The next day, when the official email arrived, I didn’t even open it.

You would think this would ruin the laundromat experience for me, but it hasn’t. I think of it now as the place where the Guggenheim-free writers hang out. I’d like to reach out to my fellow applicants here in Portland—there have to be a bunch of you—and suggest that we hold a Salon des Refusés at the Missing Sock. Let’s share our proposals with each other and conclude, with a mixture of triumph and regret, that our work is just too daring and forward-thinking for an award committee with a reputation to protect.

We’ll put up pictures of great artists who never won a damn thing, and we’ll pass around a jug of wine in a paper bag, and we’ll loan each other quarters and do a load of towels. I might even have a bottle of fabric softener around here I’ve been saving for a special occasion.

Amy Stewart is the award-winning author of five books on the perils and pleasures of the natural world, including three New York Times bestsellers, Wicked Bugs, Wicked Plants, and Flower Confidential. She lives in Eureka, California, with her husband Scott Brown. They own an antiquarian bookstore called Eureka Books and tend a flock of unruly hens in their backyard.

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