Listening: A Guest Post by Beth Gilstrap

Boston, AWP.

Beth Gilstrap AWP 2013 writer tribe belonging inspiration longing music
The writer, walking in Boston, getting a little space from the 10,000+ attendees at AWP this year.

The kind of cold I’ve never really experienced. Snow in my eyes. Mascara wetted, smeared like war paint over my right cheekbone. I learn in an instant I’m better off sliding my feet rather than putting air between them and the ground. Snow boots would help.  Whispers of AWP Miami move through my slowing blood. Dizzy. Looking for ground, for birds, for the song of my people.

Funny how weather matches, or rather, sets the mood.

Crowds push through doorways, lunge for the popular, the revered. Words of the few cause the rest of us to crave. But I suspect we long for more than regard. I can’t name it. I wrestle in and out of suffocated rooms, pulled up and through, I am threaded, woven into a mass. I blend into the tapestry, a cacophony suddenly flattened, quieted. I sleep, a muted red covered by finer fabrics waiting for someone to paint the room around me in the same shade, to draw me out, to shove me into the face of the world and say, notice.

I’ve searched for my tribe as long as I can remember.

I could talk about lack. I could talk about longing and wanting and loss. But I won’t.

I sit in a darkened theater filled with metallic taste of rage and regret in my mouth when two things happen:

  1. Cheryl Strayed says she wrote her memoir Wild and poof, her tribe found her.
  2. I sob, listening to Strayed’s letter to her younger self, as did the stranger beside me. Without a word, she handed me a tissue.
Beth Gilstrap AWP 2013 writer tribe belonging inspiration longing music
Beth Gilstrap was a featured reader at The Festival of Language at LIR in Boston during this year’s AWP.

I grew up surrounded by musicians. I sat, cross-legged scribbling in journals as my brother and his friends strummed guitars, belted out songs, and created new rhythms and melodies. Quiet most of the time, I held myself in, bobbing my head or tapping my feet as I wrote. I built myself a paper fortress. I was at the council meeting, but sang only within the confines of my head.

Benjamin Percy describes literary fiction as someone drinking tea and having an epiphany. I agree with what Percy and others, like Lauren Graff, say about the need to do away with genre distinctions, and champion good writing in general. Percy uses the Aaron Copland essay “How to Listen to Music” as a framework for his lecture.

Sensual Pleasure

You listen for sheer pleasure of sound. This is the way most people read as well. You put on music for background noise, wash yourself in the pleasure of sound without digging deeper. I tend to listen to punk and heavier rock when I clean. It gets me moving faster so I can kick dirt’s ass.

As Expressive

When you listen in this way, you lean forward instead of back. You ask what the piece is trying to say? You attempt to reach understanding. You wonder about artistic intent. This is where you analyze. This type of search and meaning making is not usually associated with what the literary world terms “genre.” “Genre” is the equivalent of pop music. It is seen as brain candy, whereas literary fiction is perceived as at once, quiet and subversive. All of these are of course, false boxes, the stuff of marketing.

As it Exists

Beth Gilstrap AWP 2013 writer tribe belonging inspiration longing music
An inspirational panel: Literary Writers Writing Popular Fiction: What’s Up With That?” (Pictured in order: Ed Falco, Lise Haines, Benjamin Percy, and Julianna Baggott)
Photo credit: Beth Gilstrap (c) 2013.

This way of listening is what I would refer to as formalist; at least, that’s what they’d call it in the literary world. You listen the way the music exists. Principles of form can only be recognized by years of training.

Percy argued that writing, like music, is best when it occupies all of these spaces. We, as literary artists, should commit to the sensual, to expression, and to the artful composition of our works.

And then, Juliana Baggot says, “Think about one ear you’re whispering into,” and my thoughts on what I seek begin to change. My tribe is a behemoth creature sitting with numb knees in a circle, waiting to listen with its one good ear. Like a mantra, I hear time and again, “Write the book you have to write, and see what happens.”

Though I have my fair share of disenchantment with writers and the industry, I know my tribe will come. Eventually. And I return now, to quiet and work at painting the walls red.


Beth Gilstrap AWP 2013 writer tribe belonging inspiration longing music
Beth Gilstrap Official Author photo. (c) 2013 by author

Beth Gilstrap is an upcoming writer-in-residence at Shotpouch Cabin with the Spring Creek Project for ideas, nature, and the written word at Oregon State University. She earned her MFA from Chatham University.

Born and raised in North Carolina, she spent as much time as she could barefoot, climbing trees, learning to cook, and making up stories. Though she hasn’t climbed a tree in a while, she still works toward unattainable perfection in food and fiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blue Fifth ReviewThe Minnesota ReviewSuperstition Review, and Knee-Jerk Magazine, among others.

2 thoughts on “Listening: A Guest Post by Beth Gilstrap

  1. That there is a panel called “Literary Writers Writing Popular Fiction: What’s Up With That?” is annoying. It’s a stupid way of saying “Literary Writers Slumming: WTF?” The short answer: A Paycheck.

    Good luck in finding your tribe, or letting them find you. My tribe, apparently, is located in some unseen, unkownable (in the Lovecraftian sense) space between genre and literary. It’s funny, because I am always coming across people (and reading essays and articles, and blah, blah, blah) who claim to be of the same tribe, and yet, we don’t form a cohesive unit. It really is like you know the safe place is there, but there are no doors to it, and all the other members of that tribe are only bodiless whispers in your ear, all trying to find the same place.

    But, I think most of my tribe members spend too much time and effort concerning themselves with questions like, “Why are literary writers slumming in genre?” Or, whether or not genre writers should dumb everything down. They spend too much time caring about these labels and slots they’re supposed to be fitting into (or not). Personally, though I still hear the whispers and the disembodied voices of those writers still searching for the same tribe I’m supposed to belong to, I stopped searching for that tribe; nor do I necessarily believe they will ever find me. So is life. I just write.

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