Monday, September 26, 2011

Where's the Fire? (at the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop)

I was the first one to get downstairs, wearing my silk nightgown and robe, and clutching my MacBook Pro to my heart. The security guard ushered me outside. The only other people out there were a few hotel employees, looking fresh in their uniforms, like nurses on the night shift.

Gradually a few sleepy-eyed folks joined me. Bald-headed Bob arrived bare-footed in shorts and a tee shirt, very little contrast between his night and day look. John, Neil and Debbie were fully dressed, carrying backpacks, computers and purses. Kory and Connie showed up in casual attire, but clearly not in their jammies. Suddenly I felt naked.

“I didn’t want my new friends to see me like this.” Bare-faced with bed-hair, NancyKay pouted as she joined the motley crew outside the hotel. NancyKay is a Mississippi girl like me, and we were raised not to go anywhere without our makeup on. It was 6 a.m., and we had all been jolted from our sleep by the fire alarm.

“I tried putting the pillow over my head,” Kory confessed, “but I couldn’t go back to sleep.”

“Who wants to go across the street for breakfast?” NancyKay had regained her spunk. “We might as well, we could be stuck out here for a while.”

I hadn’t considered that and wished, again, that I had gotten dressed.

“I sat at a coffee shop for two hours during a fire alarm once,” Debbie said.

Other hotel guests that weren’t part of our group eventually joined us outside. No one else was in nighties. I couldn’t have felt more unprofessional. There I sat, Director of the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop on the campus of the University of Memphis, vulnerable as Blondie in hair curlers. All hope for respect gone. Who would take me seriously now?

The fire truck arrived and several firemen filed inside the hotel. No one was running. There was no sense of urgency on any faces.

But I take fire alarms seriously. When the obnoxious siren went off in my room on the fourth floor of the Fogelman Center, I thought my ears would burst. Disoriented and sleep-deprived (I had gotten in bed around 2 a.m.) I opened the curtains on my suite and looked out into the atrium. It was barely light outside. I didn’t see fire. I didn’t smell smoke. But my heart was pounding.

My favorite jewelry was in a drawer, but I only took time to throw on a robe and grab my cell phone, purse and computer. Who would notice if I died with my pearls on? As I stepped into the hall, numerous people were peeking out of their doors and a security guard was giving instructions. “Take the stairs, please. Everyone out. Now!”

Like a kindergarten teacher, I did a mental role call and noticed that Bruce, Terence and Porter hadn’t joined us. These are smart men. What did they know that the rest of us didn’t? Bruce is a meteorologist, Terence is a lawyer, and Porter is a multi-media guru. Were they privy to inside information that allowed them to remain upstairs in their rooms?

I envied the other workshoppers who were undoubtedly asleep at the DoubleTree or in their Memphis homes.

After about twenty minutes the firemen came back out and drove away. The security guard invited us inside. I don’t know if anyone else went to breakfast, but I was hoping to catch another hour or two of sleep before the workshop started at 9 a.m.

Back in my bed on the fourth floor, my body began to register the stress and exhaustion, on top of the gin and tonics and wine from the social event the previous evening. Chills and nausea gripped me and I found myself shaking all over in the bed. Unbearable cramps attacked both legs and feet. This went on for an hour or so. Finally I got up, took a shower, washed my hair and headed to the meeting room.

I had to sit down to keep from passing out. A few folks were already in the room and offered to help. I was supposed to introduce the day’s workshop leader (Bob Cowser) and coordinate the schedule for the pitch fest with the literary agent (John Mason.)

“We’ve got this,” John said.

I barely made it back to my room before the nausea overtook me. Fortunately I had some medicine with me, which I took and crawled back in bed. I slept from 9-11 a.m. When I woke, the symptoms were mostly gone, so I joined the workshop in progress. The world had not stopped turning in my absence.

Those were the more vivid 5 hours of the weekend (6-11 a.m. on Saturday) for me. The other 48 hours came off fairly smoothly, I think. Manuscripts were critiqued. Craft talks and readings were given. Books were pitched. Questions were asked and answered at panels. Hopefully a good time was had by all at the faculty readings at Burke’s Books and later outside on the patio at Celtic Crossing Friday night, and at the dinner catered by Central Barbeque on Saturday night. I know that new friendships were forged and emerging writers went home with hearts full of hope for their projects to be improved and one day, published. But this morning as I sat down to write a post about the workshop, those five hours stood out in my mind. Like eager students waving their hands and jumping out of their seats in class, they begged to be recognized. And after all, aren’t experiences like that the stuff of creative nonfiction?


NKSW said...

We had so much fun! And I'm glad you recorded this special event within the super special events.

c.a. Marks said...

My heart is full of hope. Thank you Susan for putting this together. I am sorry you had a rocky few hours. Glad to know you are doing better. And great writing by the way. :-)

emma said...

no one could express this like you,Susan .... now I know more about the fun everyone had without the rest of us (those of us who did not stay at the Fogleman Ctr). Goes to show how wonderful writers are - always ready to help. Great job!

korywells said...

I will never forget Debbie being down there fully dressed, black boots and all. She had some prior experience I'll not soon forget! Those WERE my jammies I had on, and I felt under-dressed, too. I thought you looked quite elegant in your robe. Glad you are recovering, and thanks again for including me in this special event, fire alarm and all!

Susan said...

Your post almost makes me wish I had been there--part of that fraternity of writers hanging out on the sidewalk. But I was glad to be where I was, tucked soundly in a comfortable bed at Emma's...sleeping through my alarm clock! Great job this weekend, are so appreciated!

Susan Cushman said...

Thanks for your comments, NancyKay, Carol, Emma, Kory and Susan. Yep, I was thinking how cozy Emma and Susan were at Emma's house, and glad that Carol and Alexis were at the DoubleTree, getting to sleep 2 more hours than us folks back at the hotel! KORY: Your jammies can pass for day wear:-) Great being with everyone. WRITE ON!!!

ficwriter said...

So sorry to hear it, Susan. Hubby went to Lexington to buy a horse, and I had to cancel my trip to London. But for that, I may have been with you in my jammies. Glad you are feeling better now. Sounds like everyone enjoyed the conference.

Porter Anderson said...

Hey, I just called the desk and they said no need to evacuate for the fire alarm. Told me that even a "steamy shower" can set it off. Putting the Fog in Fogelman. I enjoyed watching from my balcony as Memphis' Finest pulled up in their fire truck to check things out. Sounded less like a fire alarm than a Zamboni working the ice to me. :)

Susan Cushman said...

Porter: I don't see how you could stand to stay in the room with that noise. How weird that the font desk told you that you didn't need to go outside, while the security guard was going through the hotel telling others to leave. Maybe he was in cahoots with the ice-working Zamboni....