Monday, May 24, 2010

A Literary Ball

The tricky thing about a literary ball like the one held in Brooklyn this past Friday is that the generous, talented people who have lent their names in support of a good cause, being known for their clever turns of phrase and powerful prose as they are, aren’t inherently recognizable on sight. Thus, it took a minute or two for me and Katie to recognize that one half of the middle aged couple playfully wrestling to be the first to reach the head of the registration line we were in was National Book Award finalist Jim Shepard, or that the terribly dapper man munching on Hors d’oeuvres next to us in glasses that would have put Gatsby’s friend Owl Eyes to shame was the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Hours, Michael Cunningham. I’m still not sure which of the beautiful blond women in attendance was Eat Pray Love’s Elizabeth Gilbert.

This minor complication did nothing to dampen the magic of the event in question—One Story Magazine’s Literary Debutante Ball, A Celebration of Emerging writers. If the fact that it was being held in Brooklyn didn’t tip us off that the debutante aspect of the event carried a bit of irony, the venue certainly did. Held in an old can factory in Brooklyn’s Gowanus area, the big, industrial space was filled with charming quirks like garage door entranceways and giant light sculptures in the shape of light bulbs. When patrons took their cigarette breaks they did so on old loading docks.

The magazine’s premise is a simple but original one: every three weeks they send subscribers (they have around 10,000 internationally) one short story. As the event’s centerpieces comprised of “bouquets” of past issues proved, these stories are very elegantly presented in small, colorful booklets. The magazine, now in its eighth year, has an open submission policy and takes pride in publishing new writers. In fact, the nine “debutantes” we were there to celebrate were writers whose very first piece of fiction was published in the magazine some time over the past year. Each was escorted by a writer who has inspired, encouraged, or mentored him or her (Jonathan Lethem and the magazine’s cofounder Hannah Tinti were among the escorts, as were the afore mentioned Jim and Karen Shepard and Michael Cunningham).

In addition to this delightful parade of talent new and old, the night also entailed a silent auction of artwork inspired by stories that the magazine has published, ranging from a gold necklace to a light fixture with a basketball figurine valiantly poised underneath the light source, and plenty of oil, pencil and photographic renderings. The night’s master of ceremonies was writer and actor John Hodgman, perhaps best known as the “PC” in the series of Mac commercials he did with Justin Long (when he announced the raffle winner of an IPad half way through the night the jig was officially up). There was plenty of food and drink to nosh on throughout both his presentation and the performance of a short play scripted from one of the magazine’s recent stories.

In the end, the night truly belonged to the new writers. Once the official presentation had run its course and the auction had closed, the music was cranked and the dancing and mingling got underway. It was such fun watching these nine celebrants roam around shaking hands and exchanging cards with agents and editors, all smiles and glow. As any writer or aspiring knows, it’s not easy to bend over a computer night after night spending hours in pursuit of the perfect ending, the perfect sentence, the perfect word, for no other reason than that they can’t not. Watching the work of these nine writers come to fruition and seeing them get their due was indeed a cause for celebration.

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