Melanie Rae Thon: Dinner and a Workshop

After the reading and Q&A, I had the chance to attend a dinner and workshop with Master Thon. (Don’t know who that is? Check out my spotlight on Melanie Rae Thon.) This entry includes some pictures, notes, and thoughts from those portions of the event.

Dinner with Master Thon

What’s it like having dinner with a writer you admire? I’ve had the opportunity on a few occasions and have always felt a strong sense of how human—how oddly normal—these writers are. Each writer has their distinct personality, of course; Melanie was soft-spoken, charming, and quietly playful. In talking about her education she clarified that she never got her PhD, though there was no sense that she was either being especially humble or making a statement against academic titles. It was a simple statement of fact, to which the group responded by shifting away from calling her “Dr. Thon.” Instead, we called her “Master Thon.”

While I love the chance to meet with talented writers, I don’t have a sense of mysticism or excitement attached to it. I had the chance to see the experience from a different perspective as I saw other students respond.

Ashley and Master Thon

Ashley and Master Thon

The girl with Melanie in the picture is Ashley, who I’ve taken a couple different classes with. She’s a fantastic writer, with work full of snarky sarcasm that’s so beautifully executed I sometimes find myself shaking my head in a sort of envious disbelief (“How the hell did you get me buying into this heroin addiction as being ‘no big deal’?”). Ash also has a personality that comes off as unruffled and ironically detached. In spending time with Master Thon, however, a different side emerged; Ashley was giddy, like a six-year-old taken to the mall to see “the real Santa Claus.” (“It’s Melanie Rae Thon,” Ash kept saying. “I get to have dinner with Melanie Rae Thon!“)

I had some fun teasing Ash for it, then asked Master Thon, “Is it enjoyable to have someone gushing like this?”

“That depends on if you take it seriously,” said Master Thon. “If you don’t take it seriously, it can be fun. If you do take it seriously … God help you.”

The sneaker shot.

Picture included mostly to show off Melanie’s sneakers.

Different attendees showed different levels of enthusiasm, but all of us were happy to be present and learning from this talented, experienced, experimental writer.

To listen we had to lean in close. Master Thon’s quiet voice rarely reached above the hubbub and general noise of the pizza parlor (it was the sort of high-class, “organic ingredient” pizza parlor that so aptly represents literary university students). Master Thon’s only options on the menu (given a combination of health concerns and what seems to be an honest love of vegetables) were plates of veggies, which she ate and shared, refusing the groups concern that we hadn’t chosen a better restaurant for her dietary preferences. (“Describe what your carrots taste like,” said Ash. “I want to hear you describe it.”)

Master Thon talked softly about life and wonder and interconnectivity. To make sure the group’s two tables stayed connected, she playfully pressed the sole of her shoe (gray sneakers with vibrant turqouise laces) against the sole of mine (black and gray; the ones I bought in Ireland and walked across the British Isles).

In the world of celebrity culture, writers are rarely thrown into the limelight, but the sense of reverence for a specific person whose work has moved you—a sense that they are elevated beyond the level of “normal”—certainly seems applicable to authors. Maybe we can paint it as the ideal: The lack of spotlight allows people to be as simply brilliant and charmingly quiet as Master Thon. Admirers can get the thrill of celebrity without handling the inflated ego.

Or maybe reverence for the author is a response to the cultural loneliness we feel. In an era of commercialism and celebrity culture, maybe it’s the author who can use their pedestal to provide the most authentic connection—a reprieve from the pluralistically white-washed, ironically detached, commercially inundated experience of the 21st century. Maybe it’s not so much a sense that the author is “above normal,” but that we so desperately want the experience of connection, significance, and beauty to become normal in our own lives.

The Workshop

Rae Thon gives advice.

Melanie gives advice to writer Ammon Medina.

The workshop with Melanie Rae Thon was fairly straightforward: After talking about the process of writing (which is covered in the Q&A highlights, above), she gave four prompts to the workshop participants:

1) Have you ever been close to death?
2) Have you ever been accused of something you did not do?
3) What were the circumstances of your birth?
4) What fills you with wonder?

The group then spent some time writing and thereafter shared some of what they wrote. These prompts, while simple, led to some interesting results. The significance of the events here—including birth, which we can’t have an actual memory of—led to stories that held some emotional weight. The tilt of her prompts seemed to be toward finding an experience with significance.

I encourage you to use these prompts. Stumble across an idea you want to share? Post it in the comments, below.

The entire event was a sort of poetic exploration—a collision of excitement and poetry and wonder and thought that brought a community closer. It was wonderful having Melanie here. For those who don’t already know Melanie’s work, I encourage you to pick up The Voice of the RiverMore details on this work (as well as a reading of the opening chapter) are given in my spotlight entry.

Write on,

Rob