This Sunday teh awsomenezz of Merrill Feitell reads with me at The Writer’s Center at 2 pm.

In celebration, I share this, my vaguely stalkerish tale of discovering Merrill’s work:

How I came to love Merrill Feitell—and her work.

In one of my undergraduate writing workshops, my instructor told our class we should read new literary magazines to get a sense of what was being written “right now,” so that we’d have a better sense of what was being published if that was something we ever wanted to do.

I hardly ever had two nickels to rub together while I was in college, but one morning I walked to Dinkytown, the funky neighborhood situated alongside the University of Minnesota’s campus, to see what there was to read. The Dinkytown News was a tiny shop squeezed between the Purple Onion coffeeshop, which was rarely fully visible through the haze of smoke inside, and a narrow used bookstore presided over by a very fat cat who sat in the front window. Most of Dinkytown News’s business was in StarTribunes and packs of smokes, so it must have been curious that day when I walked in, crouched down to examine the miniscule lit mag selection, painstakingly fretted over which to choose and then, perhaps reluctantly, chose Sonora Review because it promised new poems by Mark Doty.

I took it home and flipped through it, my eyes catching on a short story in the issue. I began reading slowly, interested in the present tense second-person narration (“You do this, you do that,” etc). The story concerned a college-aged woman who, despite her better judgment, falls for a charismatic and charming college guy who is, of course, the wrong guy. Not just “wrong” in the sense that he wasn’t right for her, but maybe for someone else—this was a guy in a spiral of rock music and heroin and booze. And despite her better judgment, she thought she would be the one to pull him up.

The story had a line that I couldn’t shake: For all your questions, you are someone’s answer. I wanted to know why I liked this story so much, so I read the story again, and then again, marking passages I’d wished I’d written, highlighting “significant lines” that I liked because they stepped outside of the story, seemed to be saying something to me, the reader, about the world within and outside of the world of the story. For a while, I carried it around in my backpack. I thought of that line often: for all your questions, you are someone’s answer. At 20, full of my own questions, I simply hoped that it was true.

I’d hazard to say that most literary magazines don’t have a long shelf life. They are, by definition, periodicals, meaning they’re designed to be consumed “periodically.” Each issue is designed to be replaced by the next, newer version. But that issue of Sonora Review never went anywhere. Over the next 12 years, I would move annually. I would carefully divide what was essential from what was trash and pack them both up and take with me only the essential things. That Sonora Review always went into the essential pile.

Of course, I wondered about the author of this story. Who was she? What was her life like? How did she write such an amazing story? Eventually, I found her name listed among some AWP panel participants and attended her session to find out. But, too shy to say anything, I snuck out without introducing myself, afraid that my enthusiasm for the story might make me seem like, you know, a stalker.

After the conference, I blogged about loving her story and my failed attempt to meet her. One of my blog readers knew her and conveyed my message, sending back Merrill’s reply: “Oh my god, that is the coolest craziest thing ever. I can’t even believe it. Thanks so much for sending that to me. That was the story that made me feel like an actual writer–though I never thought anyone ACTUALLY read it. Thanks for that. You made my day.”

Merrill and I did connect some time later, and I got my chance to act awkward and crazy around her until I realized she was a human being after all, and that my awkward craziness was doing nothing but make me appear both very awkward and very crazy. When she and I ended up living and working relatively close to each other, it felt like to ask her to read with me at The Writer’s Center. I know you’ll love her work when you hear it, and you’ll definitely want to pick up her Iowa Prize-winning collection of stories Here Beneath Low Flying Planes. Although the story I love isn’t in there, Merrill has assured me it will be in a future collection with work that is similar to it. I can only hope she finishes it soon.

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