On Smiling

We are terrible at parties. Terrible. More than terrible. Not as in terribly behaved; as in inept. We are possessed of an almost pathological shyness, compounded by an unfortunate natural facial expression of extreme disdain, so that invariably at any social occasion we end up cowering in a corner, nursing our drink and making dreadful grimaces over which we have no control. Our friend Lauretta (who we met, incidentally, at a party; "I thought you hated me," she said later, "You were making the most awful face the whole time") gave us a pep talk recently about it. "You just have to smile," she said, "Smile the whole time, smile even if the person talking to you is an idiot. You don't have to listen to a word they're saying; if you're smiling they'll think you're paying attention. Stand in the corner and smile if you can't talk to anyone." Lauretta is an ace at parties and knows what she is talking about. So all week we have been practicing.

Tonight (last night, when you read this) we went to a book party--which is the worst, Author-friends! If there is anyone who gives us a run for our money in the Awkward and Socially Anxious department, it's other writers, good lord--firmly resolved to smile the whole time. And we did! It wasn't that hard. People smiled back! Who knew! We probably could have even walked up to them and said hello! We made a rule for ourself, that we had to talk to at least one person we didn't know and had not been introduced to, and so after everyone we had come with left we went outside and stood desperately next to a column, clutching our plastic cup of wine and grinning frantically. We had been totally thwarted by the dress code--"festive attire," what does that even MEAN--and put together, at the last minute, an ensemble that made us look like a deranged but glamourous homeless person. There was a little clump of people standing next to us, talking: a lady about our age, and two people in their fifties or so. "Would you like to come talk to us?" said the older lady, and then we realized how easy, in the end, it is to talk to people you don't know--because, of course, a little kindness is all it takes for us to love one another.

They were all writers, and they were very, very sweet. And we told them we were also a writer, and the lady who had invited us over somehow got it into her head that we had said we were in fact a famous writer--"But you must be so excited that your book is being published so soon!" she said, several times, and then we would have to explain again that the future publication date of our book has yet to be revealed to us by the universe. Both the older people had just gotten their MFAs. "You know why I think the MFA is so popular now," the man said to us, "I think people are trying to find a way to sit around and tell stories. I think that's all any of us wants, is a place to tell stories to each other."

Sometimes all it takes is someone saying a thing aloud for you to realize how true it is, and how beautiful. What is more lovely than that? All of us, sharing stories. Underneath everything, underneath the machinations of the industry and the terrible dance of agent-getting and submissions, underneath the despair and joy and wild mood swings, underneath the misery and extraordinary grace of trying to make art--underneath it all, we just want to sit together and tell stories. And think of that Muriel Rukeyser quote, the one you have heard so many times it is nearly meaningless--"The universe is made of stories, not atoms"--think of what that really means. Think of what story the person you see next could tell, and think of how you could listen, and think of how far we could go together if we made a place for that in our lives.

We talked to the writers for a while (there was a photographer wandering around, and the older lady said to us, "Shouldn't I tell him who you are, so he can take your picture? He'll certainly want to take your picture once he knows you are famous!"). A very inebriated gentleman joined us, and began to discourse at length on the synecdochic relationship between architecture and capitalism, and also how his estranged ex-wife never really got Ayn Rand, and shortly after that we excused ourself. We had got to that stage of tipsiness where we were filled with a general benevolence toward everyone around us as we walked back to the G station, and all the people that we passed seemed gorgeous and noble, all of us working together to make lives in this most difficult and capricious of cities, and even the man who sat next to us on the train and recited improvised obscene poetry at a considerable volume probably just had a difficult home life as a child or something. A little while after that we became slightly maudlin on the walk back to our apartment, and that was all right, too. Outside as we write this the night is balmy and soft, and somewhere overhead, though we cannot see them, there are a great many stars.