Geoff Dyer started the evening by reading a piece about couture that he wrote for Vogue. I stopped scribbling into my notebook as the rest of the audience hunched forward attentively. After some humorous observations about heavily made-up models, he skipped to the end of the piece and concluded that the frivolous world of fashion is actually “a contemporary manifestation of something primal,” the practice of a belief. Everyone clapped.
We clogged the basement-level floor of McNally Jackson to listen to Dyer converse with fictionist Sam Lipsyte, hoping their exchange would produce some helpful tips for our own writing. Assuming that everyone there was a writer is a presumption on my own part, but I’ve always seen Dyer as a writer primarily read by other writers. Take his book Out of Sheer Rage, for instance — a chronicle of his maddening struggle to pen a biography of D.H. Lawrence; this book is to lit nerds as the movie Adaptation is to film geeks.
The conversation and subsequent Q&A appeared to confirm my “writer” hypothesis. Most of the crowd looked like they were in their 50s, around Dyer’s age, and most were fixated on the author’s infamous Franken-biography/memoir. They thanked him for capturing their artistic anxieties and transferring them to the page. At one point, Dyer cited “anti-novel jihadist” David Shield’s book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto as a text that helped him identify his frustration with straightforward, staid narratives. He likened the writing process to creating Jello, where the resulting product is judged solely on how well it fits the mold, never on its charming, jiggling imperfections. “If you want the perfect novel, you republish Great Expectations,” he said only half-jokingly.
Besides his ability to blur genres, what appeals to me about Dyer is the breadth and diversity of his subjects: photography, yoga, jazz and, yes, literature. A couple months ago, he released an anthology of essays, book reviews and miscellany entitled Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, featuring at least 30 pieces culled from various publications over the last 20 years. “All essays are journeys,” he proclaimed, “from ignorance to understanding.” It sounded very whimsical, the way he simply pursues any idea that captures his interest. Even the form of a piece is constantly in flux; what may have started as an 800-word essay morphs into the basis of a novel.
I sort of identify with Dyer, though more so with the spirit of his story than its letter. Born to working-class parents in England, he was destined for a life of apprenticeship and vocation, until he went to college and developed a voracious appetite for literature. As the son of two insurance adjusters, I hadn’t always been a serious reader — then came college and the beginning of my career in book publishing.
Still, as it goes with many who work in publishing, I had dreams of being a writer. I started writing fiction, then dabbled in personal essays, journalism and screenwriting. When I finished college, I eventually stressed out and gave up writing entirely. I’m being fulfilled in other ways, I thought. I can flex other creative muscles. Faulty logic — all that thought process did was make me feel bad about not writing.
I never wanted to write a reflexive article for Realcity, was too afraid to engage in some post-modern trope, but for this particular piece, it feels disingenuous not to mention how the site inspired me to write again. Dyer’s event triggered the same desire, but I wondered to myself: Would I still be writing if I wasn’t writing for Realcity? At some point, Dyer mentioned how he encountered the phrase “knob-flopping Speedos” in a book and was mesmerized by its precision. “Isn’t that what we all want?” he asked rhetorically. It really was what I wanted — the exquisite phrasing, not the Speedo. I suddenly realized that the circumstances of my writing didn’t matter, that my participation in the painstaking process was enough.
Not to say that Lipsyte isn’t an inspiring writer too; his work is voice-driven, dark and funny. In fact, I would’ve liked it if the event was more conversational, but his purpose was to provide prompts and not overshadow the headliner. He bumbled through his questions and nervously shuffled his index cards while the audience posed their own questions, a bunch of shaggy-dog stories that allowed them to ramble on about their affections for Dyer. When the signing was announced, a large line formed and snaked around the store. I chatted with a friend of mine as we inched towards the author’s table. I wasn’t sure what to ask the two of them, especially Dyer, so I thanked them for coming and held out my books. All that was left to do was get back home and start typing.