AWP spells three quarters of a yawp. Remember high school English class, Robin Williams, Whitman – the good old days when first exposure to the greats of poetry made us hop up on our desktops? (Remember when ‘desktop’ just meant the working surface of a desk?)
Last Thursday, under a rain of slush that turned to snow, my three best grad school girls and I sealed ourselves into the Back Bay Sheraton, connected to both the Hynes Convention Center and the Pru. We didn’t leave until Sunday morning.
The AWP is self-designated the biggest literary conference in the world. There are hundreds of panels, readings, signings, Qs and As, plus keynote speakers and a three-floor massive bookfair of some 700 stalls. You’re given a lanyard (sponsored by a low-residency MFA in Tampa) with your affiliation and your name and turned loose with your tote bag among the other eleven thousand aspirants and famous authors with their tote bags. I won’t describe too hard. It’s all been done by now, and very well. (Here, for example, at n+1.)
Writing is a solitary act and socializing isn’t something we as writers are particularly good at. There was an awful lot of awkward at that massive conference complex. (And an awful lot of complexes.) But it was a charming awkward. A collective effort of ambivalence. All of us all fired up and keen for literary conquest. All the women raving in unison about the VIDA count. All the men elbowing their way into the queue for Don DeLillo’s autograph. All of us suddenly certain of success and our delusions of it.
At my most ambivalent, I sat (no, stood) at the service end of the overflowing bar at Cheesecake Factory, chatting with an old writer idol who shouted at the bartender for drinks. He ordered us four dishes from the appetizer menu because he thought it was important that he feed me. These arrived on plates the size and heft of rowboats, and had almost to be stacked to fit in front of us. Eat more, he said, handing me tuna bites, Have some more of this. We ate standing up, until two barstools opened up and he seized them for us from the crowd. He had forty minutes to spare between events. We ate fast. We talked fast, across each other. He was certain I wore glasses as a child. Glasses and a yellow sundress. He was sure of this. You’re all grown up, he said. I told him I had not worn glasses. Even though my father always told me I would have to if I kept on reading in the dark. No, that wasn’t me, I said. He must have misremembered. When I was thirteen and in his acting class, I was two years below the age requirement, the lone fat kid in straw skirts and beefy tees among the lithe and drugged up fifteen-year-old hip. They wrote about condoms and cigarettes and I wrote thinly adapted character studies of Anne Shirley cast among the halfway houses of cities I invented for their grittiness. I thought this made me pass for edgy. I tried wearing knock-off Birkenstocks from T.J. Maxx. Then we all co-wrote a play, which we performed complete with the modern dance segment requisite of adolescent theatre. The cool kids in their cut-off shorts lanked from slouch to slouch across the stage, exuding ‘tude. I was the wide-faced earnest one, a blow-up parade float starfish balloon who couldn’t bend and touch her toes.
Still he swore he knew me. You were very quiet, he said. I do remember you. You were very bright and very shy. That made me feel better, but then I thought about the hotel room on the 14th floor, two double beds’ worth of girls in debt. All four of us were once (and still are, I suppose, to some degree, and always will be) bright and shy. Should I feel special because he said it? He is a celebrated author, international best seller, and all-round charming fellow. And after all, isn’t it nice to have our favorite features recognized and reaffirmed and handed back to us by almost-strangers?
It had been over fifteen years. So that was fun. A capsule review of catching up: how the Former Fat Kid went through divorces, moves, diplomas, deaths and taxes, and ended up getting an MFA.
When he left, he was a demigod no longer. He was just another writer trying really hard. He made sure to order me a second glass of wine before he left, which was both chivalrous (in that he wanted me to have it, which was nice) and un- (in that there must be a rule somewhere against leaving a lass alone and tethered to a fresh-poured drink). But I stayed and drank it, perched on that hard-won wicker barstool. I dragged my new New England Review copy from my conference tote and started reading. I let the conference roar.
It doesn’t matter who you find to validate you, be it an alumnus of the Oprah’s Book Club, a professor, a father, or a friend. At some point you have to don your lanyard name tag and proudly come out to the world. Hey guys, I know there are a lot of you already, but add me to the list. We’re all the same and somehow different enough to not compete. Be not infuriated by the staggering numbers of the literary unemployed, be infuriated by the VIDA count. Be infuriated by your own self-doubt. Write the fuck out of shit (to paraphrase the eloquent Caitlin Moran). Write like a motherfucker (to quote Cheryl Strayed). And submit. As if your life depends upon it. Send your words into the void and show some damned enthusiasm for the privilege.
That’s what I learned at the AWP.
No one really believes in your book, but you have to. You have to yawp. You have to put your big girl panties on and finish that glass of Cabernet. Alone. At Cheesecake Factory.