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Review: Phillip Lopate at Brazos Bookstore

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Phillip Lopate is not a nice guy. At least, that's what he tells himself while he is writing. Lopate, a well-known essayist, teacher, and versatile scribe in general, came to Brazos Bookstore on Friday to read from his two new books, a collection of essays called A Portrait Inside My Head and a sort of how-to manual for writers called To Show and to Tell.

Lopate offered plenty of wisdom to the audience from his selection from the latter on "The Ethics of Writing about Others." He emphasized that writers have to be willing to offend when they write about those close to them. "If you plan to write about friendship, make a lot of friends because you're bound to lose a few," Lopate said. According to Lopate, a writer must learn to accept the sense of guilt from pain inflicted upon others through creative nonfiction.

Lopate has a unique way of creating a vivid representation of his relationships with others, even in short essays. In a poignant essay from A Portrait Inside My Head recounting Lopate and his wife's attempt at "the chimera of a perfect children's outing" for their daughter Lily, 6 years old at the time, Lopate told the story of a trip to have tea at New York's lavish Plaza Hotel. Naturally, the outing does not go quite as planned: Lily loses a cherished red balloon and, as Lopate writes, reacts as if she is "experiencing precociously the fullness of grief." Lopate's use of humor elicited hearty laughs from the crowd, but his writing is full of complex emotions that blend comic sarcasm with touching moments and reflections. His stories are subtly perceptive; intensely personal but also widely relatable.

Lopate, who is familiar with Houston after his time as a professor at the University of Houston in the 1980s, also read an interesting piece called "Getting the South Wrong." At the beginning of the piece, Lopate asked, "What do I know about the south? Practically nothing." A Brooklyn native, Lopate explained that his exposure to southern literature such as Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner in combination with films of the '50s and '60s created an exaggerated fantasy among many New Yorkers, himself included, about southern dysfunction and tradition. Through his experience dating a woman from Mississippi, though, Lopate explained how he slowly chipped away at this fantasy until eventually moving to Houston in the 1980s to teach at University of Houston. Even now, though Lopate still believes that he doesn't quite have a grasp on the south because of the unique community of artists he found in Houston. In his words, he "stayed away from rednecks."

It was during the short Question and Answer section of the reading that Lopate gave some of his best one-liners. When asked if one of his fiction novellas was autobiographical, Lopate responded, "Everything and nothing is autobiographical." When asked about the difference between his fiction and his non-fiction writing, Lopate quipped, "It's all the same baloney!" in his characteristically self-deprecating tone. He also explained his "good enough" theory of writing, saying that, at some point in the writing process, his work takes on a life of its own and is finished even if he as a writer doesn't think that it is perfect.

For more information about future events at Brazos Bookstore, visit brazosbookstore.com.

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