A Writer Walks into a Bar

  • By Andrew Bertaina
  • May 16, 2022

On rediscovering my passion for words.

A Writer Walks into a Bar

I was in a bar, which is where, at least according to my understanding of Hemingway, most good writing starts. It was a reading, poetry probably: low lights, people surprised by lyric images when they’re trying to sidle up to the bar and get an IPA. I don’t like IPAs all that much, but I suppose that isn’t germane.

Anyhow, a reading. 

This was after the MFA from American University. This was after the children had been born, two little balls of pinkish flesh, soggy diapers, and projectile poops. This was after I’d started staying at home twice a week to take care of my kids during the day, working evenings. What I’m saying is, this was after I’d quit writing. 

Forty-eight thousand dollars is a lot to spend on something you quit, but I’d quit a lot of other things before: soccer, basketball, games of Risk, relationships. Besides all that, I couldn’t figure out how to find amidst the changing of diapers, the shelving of books at the library where I worked, the having of dinner, the purchasing of groceries, and the watching of “Arrested Development” just how to find that crucial thing all writers need: time. 

So, I was at a bar — dingy, oak tables, beer spills everywhere — and ran into my friend Michelle, someone I’d been in the MFA program with, someone whom I’d bonded with over our similar editorial tastes, someone whom I’d brought to George Saunders as she’d brought me to Amy Hempel.

I told a joke about how I’d quit writing. It wasn’t particularly funny, but I expected her to shrug it off. Writing isn’t essential anyway, I’d say. Not something you can make a living from. She looked at me and smiled. You have to write, she said. Start small. Flash is a new thing. Short stories under 1,000 words.

They say a writing community is useful. I don’t suppose that’s always been true for me, but it was true for me that night. I went home and opened up my computer and started working on some fragments I’d posted on my blog.

And now, two of those fragments are in my book. 

The writing happened in short spurts — 20 minutes or an hour, whenever I could catch it. I rediscovered my love of the page, of problem-solving, of trying to weave together a story about a divorce, a marriage, the way the light falls through a stand of trees. Writing is a return home for me, all the distractions of life suddenly laser-focused on the problem of story, the problem of language, the problem of rendering consciousness.

It’s the rarest of activities, one that continues to hold my attention. 

I read to an audience for the first time in ages at the Inner Loop. People were laughing, and I remembered that writing isn’t a purely solitary activity. Afterward, a woman said she’d been meaning to break up with her partner, and my reading had reminded her that she should do so.

The laughter that night — which I’m not chalking up only to drinks — helped reintroduce me to community. It broke the bubble I’d created around writing; I was reintroduced to that dance step with an active reader.

Months later, I won the Moon City Short Fiction Award, and my book, One Person Away from You, was released by that press at the end of 2021. Suddenly, friends and family had a copy of my book and even thought about it sometimes!

To be read. What writer doesn’t adore it? Even if it’s just to end relationships.

[Editor’s note: This piece is in support of the Inner Loop’s “Author’s Corner,” a monthly campaign that spotlights a DC-area writer and their recently published work from a small to medium-sized publisher. The Inner Loop connects talented local authors to lit lovers in the community through live readings, author interviews, featured book sales at Potter's House, and through Eat.Drink.Read., a collaboration with restaurant partners Pie Shop, Shaw’s Tavern, and Reveler’s Hour to promote the author through special events and menu and takeout inserts.]

Andrew Bertaina's short-story collection, One Person Away from You, won the Moon City Press Fiction Award. His work has appeared in the Threepenny Review, Witness Magazine, Redivider, Orion, and The Best American Poetry and was notable in Best American Essays 2020. He earned an MFA from American University.

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