Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You: AWP Memories

I am about to go to AWP, the largest literary conference in North America. For the past ten years I’ve had small children and no literary conference budget and have watched other people attend AWP via social media, but amazingly I now find myself preparing to go. I recall how the last time I went, I did it all wrong — all panels, no parties, gosh I was serious. But I did blog about it (blogs, remember?) and I found rereading this to be amusing so maybe someone else will too?

By way of context, in 2008 I was a soon-to-be-debut-novelist (my first book would come out that July), and working at a magazine; AWP was in New York City, where I live.

2/03/2008

Dispatch from AWP, Day One: Landscape is a Verbal Music.

Panel 1: Writers Talk About the American Landscape.

At the beginning, I am full of energy. I am optimistic and excited and ready to go. See also: my five pages of notes from this landscape panel, punctuated with exclamations and side notes to myself about things I am working on. Charlie Baxter says brilliant things about the transitory nature of the American landscape, the importance of paying attention to change and to the way characters act within their landscapes, about how interesting landscapes have incongruous aspects in them — the one thing that is wrong amid everything that is right — which stand in for the readers themselves. It’s so good — like an adrenaline shot of graduate school. I get all excited and feel like hopping home to write. Instead, I go back to work.

Keynote address: John Irving on John Irving.

I have just been thinking about how disappointing most novels’ endings are. It is just so hard to tie all those strands together in ways that are satisfying but not too pat! So few have really great endings — Mrs Dalloway, The Great Gatsby, Jane Eyre. So I am very excited when John Irving starts talking about endings in fiction. He always starts with the ending, he says, when writing a book or even a chapter. He has to know what happens in the end, its tone, and often its exact wording. I am shocked at such a statement. I don’t think I could ever write this way at all — and yet it is interesting to hear. He talks about his own novels and how they were written. Boy does he talk about his own novels! He is fond of them. He then points everything in the narrative towards that culminating point. Does this mean his novels do not have disappointing endings? I don’t know; I haven’t read a single one. But he does talk about the great ending of Jane Eyre! And a little part of my brain explodes.

Oh, and he also remembers how his old teacher Kurt Vonnegut hated semicolons and called them hermaphrodites. Then he tells a story about his ex-wife’s boyfriend getting his neck broken and having to wear one of those halo things and then getting that caught in a ceiling fan.

AWP, Day Two: Someday this pain will be useful to you.

Panel 1: How to Set Up a Reading Tour for your Book.

This one is bright and early and I arrive just as it is starting. Five writers share book reading horror stories that induce partial cardiac arrest. I recover in time to hear something about figuring out your novel’s “nonfiction hook” if at all possible, and reaching out to nontraditional venues. Also, apparently there are these things called blogs and you are supposed to get them interested in your book, too. I think a lot about the bagel in my bag.

Panel 2: Reeling Beyond Realism, But What to Reel In?

Significantly, at this panel I see the girl with the gorgeous pink bob a la the wig in Lost in Translation, whom I will see at almost every other panel I go to. I love her! Anyway. I am totally excited to see Kelly Link. Of course, Kelly Link could not make it. But it’s okay because some other very interesting writers — Rikki Ducornet, Brian Evenson, Theodora Goss, etc — say very interesting things about non-realistic fiction. Someone points out that fiction that captures moments of emotion or change, that makes you experience something real, is realistic in its way. There is some talk about escapism and how it offends some people, and about how in the world of fantasy simple binaries and moralities aren’t so relevant. Again, I want to run home and write. Instead I go to the next panel.

Panel 3: New Wine in Old Bottles: Contemporary Fairy Tales in Poetry and Prose

Hello again, pink-haired girl! I am totally excited to see Kathryn Davis. Of course, Kathryn Davis could not make it. But it’s okay because I am introduced to the world of the poet Ilya Kaminsky who gives the most ear-bone-tingling reading/incantation/chanting performance of a poem that I have ever heard. It is completely exciting. When was the last time a reading actually got your blood pumping?! I plan on getting his book and you should too, I think. When he sits back down, Jean Valentine throws herself into his arms in a snuggly hug, patting his arm happily, and then they proceed to pass notes. I think they are in love! Jean Valentine reads some gorgeous poems about part-swan-boys. She is really something. After these readings I am dying to read more of her, by the way, and also these two writers I hadn’t known before: Kellie Wells, who read an amazing Pied Piper-ish tale about enormous rabbits; and Kate Bernheimer, who read a wonderful story about two sisters playing Star Wars in their kitchen pantry.

I feel sort of high, almost. At this point I leave and wander around in the rain and blink. I am feeling very overstimulated. I eat Thai Food on 9th avenue. I stare blankly and blink some more.

Better get back to Nerd Town, though! Amy Hempel and Peter Cameron are reading! Peter Cameron reads from his book Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, which is really funny and charming and he also tells a funny anecdote about how he once was banned from the very Hilton in which he now stands. Uh-oh! Then the fire alarm goes off! And I think, well, here we are, listening to Amy Hempel read as the building burns down. But the building doesn’t burn down and her reading is great. Afterwards I sit slumped in the hallway, hypnotized by the psychedelic carpet patterns, wondering how I am going to survive the cocktail thing I’m supposed to go to. Then my friend who was going to the cocktail thing with me calls and cancels! Yay! I can go home and nap for hours. Perfect.

AWP, Day Three: We live in the impermanence.

Panel 1: The Art of Writing on Craft.

Again with the Charlie Baxter, who is this time joined by Sven Birkherts, James Longenbach, and Joan Silber. They are introducing a series of books on craft and criticism put out by Graywolf called The Art of series. Baxter talks about subtext in fiction and also about the sociology of today’s criticism. Sven Birkherts discusses the role of memory and time in memoir, and talks about the way themes are carried through a life. James Longenbach is hilarious and charming and tells us that lines in poetry don’t break — they end. He proceeds to discuss the different logics of the lines in poetry, prose, and the prose-poem. Joan Silber talks about time in fiction — about how life must be understood backwards, in life and in fiction, and about how meaning is determined by where a story ends. I take about a hundred pages of notes and feel much smarter for having been there.

Panel 2: Truth and Taboo in the Incriminating Memoir.

I’m not sure why I decide to go to this one, but am glad I do. There’s something strangely relaxing about going to a panel that has nothing to do with what I write. Maybe it’s because I don’t feel the need to take notes. I start drawing weird liney doodles in my notebook that sort of look like a serial killer’s. Anyway, Kathryn Harrison and others talk about revealing themselves in their memoirs about sexual abuse, incest, addictions, schizophrenia, and other assorted family shames — about the pros and cons of writing such books. This is something I’ve always wondered about these sorts of memoirists, and I actually get an answer that makes sense: each writer agrees that she just reached a point where she had nothing left to lose, and that she thought writing about what had happened might actually save her life. Wow. Kathryn Harrison also talks about the sexism of the current critical apparatus in insightful ways.

Panel 3: Blockheads: the Pleasures and Pains of the Prose Poem.

I find myself starting to experience flu-like symptoms. Am I dying? Have these name-tagged, book-toting writers infected me with their foreign germs? Or is this just AWP madness? Anyway, I go to this panel anyway, because I am so excited to see Matthea Harvey. Of course, Matthea Harvey could not make it. But it’s okay because I do hear some interesting ideas about prose poems from the energetic panel, and come away with a list of things to try my hand at: a letter of excuses; a monologue; a fabulist fable; a confession. Beth Ann Fennelly gives a great reading of that famous Carolyn Forche prose poem “The Colonel,” offering some insights into why it must be a prose poem and no other form; why prose poems work especially for horrific subjects. I find that I enjoy these panels most when writers talk about books or writers they love and not just their own work, and this Ms Fennelly is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. I go into the hallway and eat an apple and blink.

Panel 4: Fiction and War.

Despite feeling dangerously overstimulated, I push on like a good little soldier. And I’m glad I do, because hearing novelists Anthony Swofford and Matthew Eck talk about writing their combat experiences into fiction is particularly fascinating. I keep thinking: isn’t it totally weird that this country is at war? Isn’t that totally weird? I feel like crying, but maybe I’m just tired. Maybe it’s this conference room’s particularly jungle-y carpet patterns. I regret not having taking pictures of each room’s carpet; I really, really do. Anyway, topics are discussed such as: how much can you make up? Can non-veterans write about war? What is the war writer’s responsibility to the “enemies”? How much army lingo should be involved? Very very interesting.

I go out into the lobby with a friend. She asks if I want to go see Cynthia Ozick read. I think that I never want to see anyone else read or talk about writing ever again, and there are just too many of us in this world, and too many books to read, and so many people trying so hard to do so many things, and I am filled with despair, and I say, No thanks.

I go outside. It is a beautiful day. I get a hot dog from a street vendor. I eat it and start walking down 6th Avenue. I keep walking and walking, past Radio City Music Hall, past Bryant Park. I can’t stop walking! I walk down through Herald Square and past the Manhattan Mall. And I think: What a beautiful city this is, full of beautiful people! And what a great thing AWP is! Now that I am no longer starved and oxygen-deprived I am able to remember that it was actually really fun. I have a notebook full of notes and scribbles and ideas and books to read; I have found out about some writers I hadn’t known of before; I have learned some things; I have spent some days among my people.

By the time I have walked down to SoHo I am sad that it’s all over.

Content Lead for Writing @ Medium // Editor of Human Parts & Creators Hub // Novels: Unseen City; The Mermaid of Brooklyn; How Far Is The Ocean From Here