There's nothing quite so special as an evening devoted to authors, books and the written word. All year, writers work alone, in front of a screen or a sheet of paper. Theirs is solitary work. But for one glowing night, they are celebrated by those who pay the closest attention, for good or bad: book critics.
Last week, the National Book Critics Circle board (of which I'm a member) met in New York to determine the winners of this year's awards. We spent five hours deliberating — arguing, persuading, voting and then voting again. We ate bagels and hard-boiled eggs and drank way more coffee than was good for us, and that is all I can tell you about those five hours because board meetings are confidential.
And then, winners chosen, we got all gussied up and headed over to the New School for the awards ceremony. (Yes, we are used to working on deadline.)
No one, it seems, expects to win, and it's a pleasure to watch the thrill when a name is called. Carina Chocano's witty, wise collection of essays, "You Play the Girl," was awarded the prize for criticism, for instance, and Chocano's surprise was pure and giddy.
The speeches were generous and, mostly, extemporaneous (because no one expected to win). The writers praised other writers. Layli Long Soldier, accepting the poetry award for "Whereas," urged the audience to "read native writers. Read native writers."
Joan Silber, accepting the fiction prize for "Improvement," quoted Ursula K. Le Guin: "Other writers are not your competition. They are your sustenance."
Some awards — the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, the John Leonard Prize for best first book and the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award — had been announced previously, and those recipients had the luxury of weeks to write their remarks.
"This is my first citation since the one I received at age 19 for trying to buy beer," joked Charles Finch, recipient of the Balakian. He went on to speak earnestly for "the singular beauty of the book review," which "asks us to answer why we love a thing. It holds us accountable. I think that matters."
The centerpiece of the night, though, was the plain-spoken, elegant John McPhee, winner of the lifetime achievement award. He did not mention politics or the tenor of the country, as some did. He talked about writing and the moment he decided on it as a career. He was 8 years old.
"On Saturdays, I ran into the stadium with the team, stood on the sidelines during the game, and after they scored went behind the goalpost and caught the extra point," he said. "One November Saturday, a cold, wind-driven rain was drenching the stadium, and I was miserable. The rain stung my eyes, and I was shivering. Looking up at the press box, where I knew there were space heaters, I saw those people sitting dry under a roof, and decided then and there to become a writer."
He talked about creative nonfiction — his specialty — which "is not making something up but making the most of what you have."
The creative part comes from "what you choose to write about, how you go about doing it, the arrangement through which you present things, the skill and the touch with which you describe people and succeed in developing them as characters, the rhythms of your prose, the integrity of the composition, the anatomy of the piece (does it get up and walk around on its own?)."
I went away from the ceremony warmed by the joy of the winners, and inspired by the words of McPhee. My prose, does it get up and walk around on its own? McPhee left me eager to get to it.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune's senior editor for books. www.facebook.com/startribunebooks