>Where’s the Fire? (at the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop)

>I was the first one to get downstairs, wearing my silk nightgown and robe, and clutching my MacBook Pro to my heart. The security guard ushered me outside. The only other people out there were a few hotel employees, looking fresh in their uniforms, like nurses on the night shift.

Gradually a few sleepy-eyed folks joined me. Bald-headed Bob arrived bare-footed in shorts and a tee shirt, very little contrast between his night and day look. John, Neil and Debbie were fully dressed, carrying backpacks, computers and purses. Kory and Connie showed up in casual attire, but clearly not in their jammies. Suddenly I felt naked.

“I didn’t want my new friends to see me like this.” Bare-faced with bed-hair, NancyKay pouted as she joined the motley crew outside the hotel. NancyKay is a Mississippi girl like me, and we were raised not to go anywhere without our makeup on. It was 6 a.m., and we had all been jolted from our sleep by the fire alarm.

“I tried putting the pillow over my head,” Kory confessed, “but I couldn’t go back to sleep.”

“Who wants to go across the street for breakfast?” NancyKay had regained her spunk. “We might as well, we could be stuck out here for a while.”

I hadn’t considered that and wished, again, that I had gotten dressed.

“I sat at a coffee shop for two hours during a fire alarm once,” Debbie said.

Other hotel guests that weren’t part of our group eventually joined us outside. No one else was in nighties. I couldn’t have felt more unprofessional. There I sat, Director of the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop on the campus of the University of Memphis, vulnerable as Blondie in hair curlers. All hope for respect gone. Who would take me seriously now?

The fire truck arrived and several firemen filed inside the hotel. No one was running. There was no sense of urgency on any faces.

But I take fire alarms seriously. When the obnoxious siren went off in my room on the fourth floor of the Fogelman Center, I thought my ears would burst. Disoriented and sleep-deprived (I had gotten in bed around 2 a.m.) I opened the curtains on my suite and looked out into the atrium. It was barely light outside. I didn’t see fire. I didn’t smell smoke. But my heart was pounding.

My favorite jewelry was in a drawer, but I only took time to throw on a robe and grab my cell phone, purse and computer. Who would notice if I died with my pearls on? As I stepped into the hall, numerous people were peeking out of their doors and a security guard was giving instructions. “Take the stairs, please. Everyone out. Now!”

Like a kindergarten teacher, I did a mental role call and noticed that Bruce, Terence and Porter hadn’t joined us. These are smart men. What did they know that the rest of us didn’t? Bruce is a meteorologist, Terence is a lawyer, and Porter is a multi-media guru. Were they privy to inside information that allowed them to remain upstairs in their rooms?

I envied the other workshoppers who were undoubtedly asleep at the DoubleTree or in their Memphis homes.

After about twenty minutes the firemen came back out and drove away. The security guard invited us inside. I don’t know if anyone else went to breakfast, but I was hoping to catch another hour or two of sleep before the workshop started at 9 a.m.

Back in my bed on the fourth floor, my body began to register the stress and exhaustion, on top of the gin and tonics and wine from the social event the previous evening. Chills and nausea gripped me and I found myself shaking all over in the bed. Unbearable cramps attacked both legs and feet. This went on for an hour or so. Finally I got up, took a shower, washed my hair and headed to the meeting room.

I had to sit down to keep from passing out. A few folks were already in the room and offered to help. I was supposed to introduce the day’s workshop leader (Bob Cowser) and coordinate the schedule for the pitch fest with the literary agent (John Mason.)

“We’ve got this,” John said.

I barely made it back to my room before the nausea overtook me. Fortunately I had some medicine with me, which I took and crawled back in bed. I slept from 9-11 a.m. When I woke, the symptoms were mostly gone, so I joined the workshop in progress. The world had not stopped turning in my absence.

Those were the more vivid 5 hours of the weekend (6-11 a.m. on Saturday) for me. The other 48 hours came off fairly smoothly, I think. Manuscripts were critiqued. Craft talks and readings were given. Books were pitched. Questions were asked and answered at panels. Hopefully a good time was had by all at the faculty readings at Burke’s Books and later outside on the patio at Celtic Crossing Friday night, and at the dinner catered by Central Barbeque on Saturday night. I know that new friendships were forged and emerging writers went home with hearts full of hope for their projects to be improved and one day, published. But this morning as I sat down to write a post about the workshop, those five hours stood out in my mind. Like eager students waving their hands and jumping out of their seats in class, they begged to be recognized. And after all, aren’t experiences like that the stuff of creative nonfiction?

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