Steamboat Springs Three-quarters through the Literary Sojourn, I was going to give my resignation to the Steamboat Pilot & Today, rent a cabin in the woods for a month and write a novel. Then journalist Rick Bragg took the stage, and the moment he opened his mouth, I changed my mind.
Bragg walked onto the stage in blue jeans, cowboy boots and a suit jacket. At 6-foot-2-inches tall and possibly 250 pounds, he is an intimidating man. That is until he opens his mouth. His voice is soft and southern and full of a surprising note of humility.
Being a witness to tragedy for years all over the world is enough to keep anyone humble.
"I've been The New York Times' misery writer for about eight years," he said. He reported on the Oklahoma City bombing, school shootings and after Sept. 11, he boarded a plane for Pakistan.
"It's hard to see all those things, but you can't compare the pain you feel as an observer to the pain of those suffering family members," he said. "In the end, I go back to my house to a box of fried chicken and watch the Atlanta Braves beat the Diamondbacks."
Despite all he has seen around the world, most of his time at the podium, he spent talking about his home the South.
"The only reason I am a good writer," he said, "is because I grew up in the Appalachian foothills listening to the best storytellers in the world." He described the men of his hometown, sitting in rocking chairs, chain smoking Camels and flicking them off the porch.
"As they talked I could hear the change rattling in the pocket of the deputy as he chased them," he said.
The women could buff and rub a memory until you wept for a dead man that you never cared for in life, he said. "I never learned to write. I learned to tell a story."
Bragg was the last speaker at the 10th annual Literary Sojourn, held in the Sheraton's Ballroom. The place was full of English teachers from all over the country, bookstore employees, readers, writers and wannabe writers, 90 percent women.
"I consider writing just to be the diggin' taters part of storytelling," Bragg continued. A lot of good things came out of the publication of his book, he said. Besides making enough money to buy his mom a house, Bragg felt he wrote an "anthem for blue-collar people."
"It feels good to have someone say that it was the first book they ever read," Bragg said. "If a bunch of concrete finishers show up to your book signing with concrete still on their boots, it's enough to make you cry. Not in public, of course."
Instead of opening his book to read, he recited it from memory.
The passage described his father through the metaphor of a cardinal pecking itself to death in the mirror of a truck. He asked an old man why the bird did that.
"It's just in their nature," he answered.
With that analogy, Bragg perfectly illustrated something that author Bharati Mukherjee said earlier in the afternoon.
"To be a writer, all you need is a dysfunctional family," she said. "I grew up in Calcutta, with 45 (family members) in a crowded one-floor setting."
Like Bragg, Mukherjee "scavenged from real life" to write her books, but fiction gave her more license to hide dirty laundry and explore characters without offending family members.
Steamboat Springs High School English teacher Dexter Mahaffey attended the Sojourn and took particular interest in Mukherjee's speech.
He plans to teach her short story "Orbiting" to this year's class.
"Orbiting" is the story of an Italian from the East Coast who falls in love with Afghani man. Her family is coming over for Thanksgiving dinner and it is time to introduce her boyfriend to her parents.
"I think it's important to get students aware of the possibilities of diversity through literature," Mahaffey said.
To most of those in attendance, the authors seemed there to impart such lessons or to provide some insight.
When author Gail Tsukiyama took to the stage, the audience was spellbound by her lecture. The absorbed everything she said as if they were listening to a sage.
More than anything, the Literary Sojourn was about that kind of interaction between writer and reader.
All the lectures were less about the books and the writing process than they were about the life of the writer personal stories.
"Someone asked Elizabeth McCracken why she wrote," Mahaffey said. "She told them, 'Frankly, I have nothing else to do.' When she said that, I thought, 'Wow, she is just like anyone I might meet on the street and yet she's this great writer.'"