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A Single Dispatch After the AWP Conference

The lanyard. My glasses.

Oh my god, after three days of the kind of intensity that only a conference of thousands of creative writers under one roof could generate, I am spent. And yet, at 4:30 on Saturday, as I walk away from the Oregon Convention Center at the end of my last session at the Association for Writers and Writer’s Programs Conference, there are dozens of friends from across the country still somewhere lost in those throngs–closing up the book fair, attending or participating in the last afternoon lecture or panel, perhaps preparing for one more night of readings and some kind of culminating dance party–and I feel a deep sadness walking away without being able to say goodbye to each of them. What saves me from despair is that right before I get up to walk to my car, I get to see and chat briefly one more time with one of my first English College Professors ever, 36 some years ago now, in Writing 122, Tim Barnes. He looks great, happy, and he wants to publish one of my prose poems in the Friends of William Stafford Journal and Newsletter. And I am off, returning home for the last Saturday night and Sunday at the close of Spring Break.

Now I’m going to try, in a kind of breakneck and fragmented way, to describe my experience of the last three days at the AWP Conference.

First of all, to give you a sense of the breadth and depth of each day’s offerings, here’s ONE page covering ONE day in the events schedule, followed by a map of the book fair, each tiny number representing a table or a booth run by a big small press, a small press, a tiny press, a writing conference, a writing getaway, or an MFA program in Creative Writing. It would be possible to spend 3 days in the book fair alone and not exhaust the possibilities. But as you can see looking at my copy of the schedule, I allowed myself only about an hour and a half each day to hang out at the book fair.

One day of three. Too many choices!

The book fair map.

Some thoughts on the offerings:

Unless one makes an unwavering commitment to forever and only publish in small presses, a fiction writer in want of a publisher needs an agent. While most of what this panel of five women from New York agencies revealed I already knew, here are a few takeaways or nuances from Agents 101:

  • For non-fiction you need a proposal; for fiction you need a complete manuscript. This seems a little unfair to fiction writers, but given the market for non-fiction compared to the market for fiction, I kind of get it. But I don’t like it.
  • As a fiction writer, you need to know something about the agents you’re sending work to—whose books they’ve sold, generally, what their tastes might be, whether or not your work fits into these parameters. But this strikes me as absurd in some ways, when I think about my limited time on Earth. Let’s say, if I’m lucky (and I have not been), I send my book to 20 different agents before someone wants to represent me: how much material did I need to be familiar with in order to really know how each of these 20 agents might be right for my work?
  • An agent, after they have agreed to represent you, may ask for as many as six revisions of your novel. Okay.
  • Agents, at least these ones, did not seem to have a problem with the idea of representing a work that had been previously self-published by the author. Hmm.
  • The stage was low, like, non-existent, and every single agent on the panel sat at a table. While I listened closely to every word, I never saw a single face, could not at the end tell you which agent was which. This seemed super dumb to me.

In a session called Page to Stage, I saw Taylor Mali perform in the flesh. I’m a fan. This was exciting. He’s a performance poet, runs a reading in New York City and invites all kinds of poets, is trying to break down the distinctions and barriers between performance poetry (slam poetry) and page poetry. Afterwards, I said hello, told Mali I appreciated his poetry about teaching, told him I was a 30-year veteran, and he gave me a sample pack of his Metaphor Dice.

In How to Talk About Yourself in Non-fiction, the most enlightening figure on the panel was renowned non-fiction writer Phillip Lopate. He was the only one on the panel who did not speak from prepared notes, but he struck me as being totally authentic, honest, funny, insightful and encouraging. His idea that the internal story is just as important (if not more so) than the external story, I found especially relevant: “Your intellectual life is part of your life!” How to distinguish between self-reflectiveness and self-absorbtion? See yourself as comic, he said. And see yourself at some distance. And be forgiving: “Everyone is narcissistic to some degree.” And writers—geez—none of us would write a word if we did not in some ways love ourselves. Right?

I saw Paul Beatty, author of The Sellout, and Joan Silber, author of Improvements, (a former teacher of mine!) give short readings of their new work and sit together for an interview and discussion. What an odd but terrific pairing. Takeaways? From Joan Silber: it is not the job of fiction to tell us what we already know. And this: neither writer admitted to reading their work out loud in the creative process. This blows my mind. I read every word I write out loud before I share it with anybody, and I advise my students to read their work out loud whenever they can as a sure-fire effective way to know what’s working and what needs work.

Colson Whitehead spoke for an hour about fried chicken and it was glorious. Best keynote ever. I haven’t read him yet. The Underground Railroad, anyone? It’s on a priority list for me.

In a session called Translating the Dark, most memorable were the contributions from C.J. Hribal and Goldie Goldbloom, both Warren Wilson MFA program compatriots. Goldie spoke about the myth of the likeable character, gave us a dozen examples of great main characters that were anything but likeable, talked about the importance, if you want to write the unlikeable character, of abandoning parts of ourselves, those parts of us conditioned to be “nice.” C.J. spoke about juxtaposition, tonal and narrative, counterpoint, how often writers approach the dark and then swerve. A reminder of the old adage (I don’t know who said it first), that one must go through the darkness in order to come out the other side. Can’t go around. Big ol’ cup o’ nope.

Real Women Talk Dirty, it turns out, is a true statement. Feminist women writers write about sex, yes, they do. English, I understood from Merritt Tierce, is a bad language through which to talk about genitals. Our options are limited, vulgar on the one hand and clinical on the other—very few choices in between. Metaphor is useful. Here’s a few more: plot doesn’t stop for sex. Sex doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Unless you’re into that sort of thing.

I have a personal stake in this topic, in that human sexuality and sex expression is a topic that fascinates me, that I have written about, albeit, more bravely and openly when I was younger than I have in recent years, and never on the blog, except in the most oblique way. I ended up writing a note to myself in my journal: “How much do I hold back, not just about sex, but about politics or religion, because of my public position professionally, my efforts, as Ms. Goldbloom discussed in a previous panel, at being ‘nice’? I don’t like the idea of waiting for retirement to be brave.” There’s that.

On a related note, David Shields signed my copy of The Trouble With Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power, in which I am quoted twice, once in the very first paragraph of the book.

I saw Tess Gallagherand Ilya Kaminski read together Friday late afternoon and it was phenomenal. I had an image in my head of Gallagher from the 80’s, so it was kind of a revelation to see this 75 year-old poet. She still is vital and relevant and funny and awesome every which way. I had never read or heard Ilya Kaminsky, but I had seen his name often mentioned in the poetry circles. Another revelatory reading. I had never heard anything like it. He’s a Ukrainian-born, Russian-American poet, his accent was thick, and his performance style was more akin to chant or incantation or singing than it was to the reading of poetry—very intense, sometimes reaching a kind of fevered pitch and usually ending in almost a whisper. His reading was accompanied with a big screen projection of his poems, which I was thankful for, but I still had to work pretty hard to keep tracking. The audience members who knew his work reacted to him as people do rock stars. Women around me were weeping. Check out this new collection, Deaf Republic. Mind blown.

Dinner. Imagine, if you will, thousands of writers at the Oregon Convention Center who, after the late afternoon reading, need to find a place to dine. Now imagine what it’s going to be like to find a seat at one of the restaurants close by. My friend Kathryn, her husband Tom, and another friend, Sandy, and I walked up and down streets, clocked a couple of miles, looking for a place to eat that was quiet and not too crowded. We did find a place to eat, but it wasn’t quiet and it was super crowded. Nevertheless, the food was delightful, the company was good, and I had the best Manhattan I’ve ever had.

The Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers held a reception at The Doug Fir Lounge for faculty, alumni, current and prospective students. I love this community, am increasingly grateful for its role in my creative life, its transformative tendrils always working on me, keeping alive the fiction writer and poet in me. And what a gift it was to have that space to hang, to reunite with old friends, and to meet new Wallies, all of us on this journey through an artful life.

I have for a long time been drawn to and excited about the indy press that calls itself McSweeny’s. Founded by fiction writer Dave Eggers, it has become in 20 years’ time one of the most prestigious and widely recognized presses in the nation, known especially for its forays into adventurous and unique kinds of literary art and its beautiful and often whimsical design. If nothing else, this panel made me still more enthusiastic about the press, inspired me to get a year’s subscription to their quarterly, and to scoop up as many of their authors as I could. I’ve got a long list now of writers to explore: Lucy Corin, Patty Yumi Cottrell, C Pam Zhang, Deb Olin Unferth, Rita Bullwinkel, Sheila Heti, Diane Williams, Lydia Davis, Hilton Als, and Miriam Toews. The worst thing about this panel: it brought home to me how embarrassingly and poorly read I am in contemporary literature. I’m going to moan about this right now just one more time and I’ll be done: it’s a tragedy that public school English Teachers don’t have time to read much other than what they happen to be teaching. Some of us find time to write—but at the expense of something, I’m betting. I know that’s true for me.

My penultimate experience at AWP was Punk Rock Presses (rinky dink, Forklift Ohio, Cardboard House, The Wax Paper). I don’t know that I have ever been so thoroughly engaged and entertained and moved by a panel discussion, one that has, in practical matters, nothing to do with becoming “successful” as a writer. As Matt Hart revealed in his moving essay about his Punk origins and trajectory as an indy publisher, “Money turns everything to shit.” All four of the presses represented on this panel were DIY to the extreme, anti-establishment in every way, unconcerned about profit or fame, in it exclusively for the love of it, the fun of it, and the revolutionary potential of it to build community through art. Rosemarie Dombrowski was the moderator, editor of rinky dink press, and she was beautiful and funny and super smart and I think I am a little bit in love.

My last experience at the AWP conference was a visit to a panel on which three of my Warren Wilson buddies were participating, Katherine Schwille (the moderator, author of What Luck, This Life), Nan Cuba (Body and Bread), and Adrianne Harun (A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain), and they were talking about Reimagining Tragedy. Each of these three and two others (Claudia Salazar and Sunil Yapa) had written books that placed a fictional lens on real historical and tragic events: the space shuttle Columbia disaster, a serial killer in Texas who may have had as many as 400 victims, an epidemic and virtually unreported series of missing indigenous women in British Columbia, political and military upheaval in 1980’s Peru, and the World Trade Center protests in Seattle in 1999. What was most fascinating to me about this panel were the varieties of perspectives about the approaches to these events. The commonality seemed to be that each writer represented a number of perspectives on the subject or tragic events in question. Beyond that, a number of distinct and idiosyncratic approaches. I wrote down Nan Cuba’s advice: find the medium, then find the vehicle—and along with that,  choose the right tone and the right structure for the material. All of them researched exhaustively, which to me is impressive and heroic. Too much work for me. I just want to make shit up or write from my own narrow experience. I remember William Stafford saying something like “the research for the work is your whole life.” At any rate, I digress. These writers were all so gracious, articulate, honest, engaging and inspiring. It was a perfect way to end the three-day conference–

–except for the sadness of leaving—not the conference, but these wonderful people, all of whom I would just like to pack up and take home with me. Conference schmonference. This was only my second AWP conference in 14 years. Its overwhelming buzz and sensory overload, coupled with the expense of travel, as inspiring and wonderful as it is, are the key reasons I stayed away. I came this year because 1. it was in my town, and 2. my friends were there. I’m happy I chose to go. I learned a lot and had a good time. It turns out that this entry was neither breakneck or fragmented. I just had to get it down. A more abbreviated version just would not have done the trick. I hope you enjoyed the ride and maybe learned a couple of things along the way with me.

One of the only quiet spaces I was able to find. The skybridge with a view to one of the two gigantic glass spires.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: Last Night’s Reading, Short Stay Alumni Converge, More Talk About Secret Agents, and Voices Inside Our Heads

Notes from one of today’s brilliant offerings. My penmanship has become stupid. Translation: Therapy is not art–art is not therapy–but there are important parallels. Anxiety moves us into creativity instead of driving us away–Susan Kolodny, paraphrased.

This title pretty much says it all. I think my work is done here.

Perhaps I can begin with the stuff left unfinished or uncovered by my title’s verbosity. We had a lovely little meditation experience this morning sandwiched between two readings of Stafford’s “Ask Me.” Some time when the river is ice ask me/mistakes I’ve made. Ask me whether/what I have done is my life. This has to be one of my favorite poems on the planet and it served this morning as the perfect bookend for 20 minutes of silence. But then, things turned ugly. Even though our masters of ceremony reminded us and warned us (no breakfast on the weekend until the 10:30 brunch), we were woefully unprepared. It was a rude awakening. It necessitated another foray to Whole Foods where I bought Burt’s Bees lip balm, a couple of bananas, a box of granola bars, and a latte. I refrained from eating a banana or a bar for some masochistic reason–I think I planned to save these items as a contingency for tomorrow morning’s unfortunate fast. Today, I thought, I’ll be brave. I will hold out. I was successful. I survived. And boy, that brunch was delicious. And I had Faith Holsaert all to myself–which brought me no end of happiness. Do you know Faith? You should know her. I cannot believe my good fortune to have her as a fellow Wally and a friend.

That’s it, everything that is not already alluded to in the title. I suppose it could use a little flesh on its bones. So, let me try that.

Last night’s readings were mind blowingly good. Yes, I know “blowingly” is not a word, but that’s how good they were: word-makeruppery. I was so honored to share that evening and that podium with these fine folks–but there’s the wonder of it–there will be (my prediction) no group of readers on any evening before or to come that I would feel less honored to share a stage with. I wish you could have been there. This guy, fellow Wally, Rolf, he’s making these lovely recordings, so the best I can do is to share my part of the evening with y’all. You can skip ahead and continue reading if you like, or, you can rest your eyes for 9 minutes and 50 seconds to listen to these five prose poems from my manuscript in progress, Fail Better: The American English Teacher Makes a To-Do List. 

Today, our ranks started to grow. There is always a group of people who, for what ever completely explicable reasons, are not able to come for the full six day retreat. So about three days into each of our conferences, new writers arrive and it’s like Christmas, but only if Christmas was a good experience for you. If it was not, insert a favorite holiday. Levity increases. Joyfulness exudes. The writing contests begin. Just in time for another round of discussions about agents, which is both terrible and good: terrible because we’re talking about agents, good because the more we talk about it, the less scary, the less secret they become. That’s a win. And finally, we heard an expert and insightful lecture about psychoanalytic insights into the obstacles many writers face in the creative process. Hint: writers often face obstacles in the creative process. There are reasons for these, some of which are unconscious. Psychoanalytical insights may be, often are, helpful. Here’s a takeaway that came from a new Wally friend, Peter, which I thought summed up Susan’s big concluding idea very nicely: Don’t try to get rid of your problems. Make friends with them. If you get rid of them, others will just show up in their place!

Yes. Amen. Take me to the bridge.

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On Reading An Unpublished Novel I Finished 15 Years Ago

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The novel has been sitting in a box, both a real box on my desk and a virtual box on my hard drive. I miss it. I finished it some fifteen years ago, having labored over it throughout the preceding five or six years. I have fond memories of its composition and of the way I felt about its success on the page, bolstered by lots of voices from the past of folks who had read it, had good things to say about it, and encouraged me to get it out into the world. And finally, I feel a kind of sadness about the loss into obscurity of its subject matter, a subject matter I haven’t written about since then, but nevertheless a subject matter of monumental importance to my inner life and personality.

Why has it been so long inside the box? Well, the agent search yielded over and over again the kind of response that most good writers are quite used to seeing: “This is good; you’re a fine writer; here’s a list of laudatory adjectives to describe what we thought of your work; but it is not the right thing for us at this time. Some other agency will feel differently. Good luck to you!”  That’s not a bad kind of note to get. But it went on and on.  Until I had agents who wanted to take it on–for a fee. Or until I had agents who wanted to take it on, but  couldn’t tell me a damn single specific thing about why they loved it and thought they could sell it. Or until, (and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back), an agent loved it and asked for a series of quite lengthy and difficult revisions before she felt she could take it on. I complied. I complied because I thought the feedback was sound and the revisions would make a better novel. And I complied because I believed (don’t ask me why), that an agent asking for a revision would not do so unless they meant to take on the work.  Well, I was wrong about that. Ultimately, this particular agent passed on the novel. By now, I was shell-shocked. By then, I had been working on a new book. I shelved my little book about an epidemic of spontaneous human combustion (not really its true subject matter) and started in earnest on a new idea. 10 years later, still smarting from the agent search for the first novel, I skipped that trauma altogether and decided to self publish through iUniverse. Thus, the second novel I ever wrote, Monster Talkbecame my first published book. Then, I was on to the next idea, the idea that I am just now wrapping up, while my first novel continues to sit in its literal and virtual boxes.

Over the last several days I have liberated this work from its box on the desk and reread my first novel. What a strange experience. It’s probably been at least 13 years since I last read it from “cover to cover.” Some of it I didn’t remember writing, and as I was reading I was not sure where the novel would take me in the pages to come. That was a pleasant surprise, but odd, like looking at photographs of yourself doing things or being places that have totally fallen out of memory. Initially, I was afraid I wouldn’t like it, that it would seem green to me and unaccomplished, structurally incoherent. After all, I was 35 or 36 years old when I finished it, just a baby, and fresh out of writer’s school. But as I read, ultimately and happily I thought to myself, hey, this is pretty good. And it occurred to me, too, that its strangeness was in part because of the fact that the writer of this work was a different guy. We’ve already established that he was younger, yes, but there were other things that struck me about him. He was brave and brash. He was writing about things honestly that this older version of him would have difficulty articulating. His book was kind of dirty–but in the best possible way. Erotic might be a better word than dirty, but that would depend on the reader. But he was funny, too, and his sex scenes were funny. He could really write a beautiful sentence. And he captured, far better than I could capture now, 1980’s and 1990’s suburban life. Reading now the fictional work of a man who was alive then and living through it, the details are convincing and immediate. The internet was brand new in the 90’s and slow, non-existent in the 80’s. Email was just becoming a thing in the mid to late 90’s. People were still renting films from video stores. There were very few cell phones. Teachers were writing on chalkboards. Young people, when they wanted to go some place, walked to their destination. In this way, the novel felt like a kind of time capsule to me, and this writer captured what it was like to be a teenager in the 80’s, part of the true subject matter of the book, something I might have difficulty writing about now given that I am surrounded nine months out of the year by 21st century teens, whose lives, I suspect, are very different from their counterparts of 30-some years ago, but, who knows, might be in more danger of spontaneous human combustion then their predecessors!

So happily, I find suddenly and again that I have another work that is perhaps worthy of publication and I am psyched to try once again to find a good home for it. And to other writers who have older works languishing in drawers, boxes, and hard drives, I say, get those suckers out and reread. At the very least you’ll be surprised and you’ll learn some stuff about your past selves. And if you like what you find there, that work may just have another life to live.  Set that baby free.

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Merry Christmas To Me: The Decision To Self Publish

I gave myself an early Christmas present. After years of agonizing over the issue, I have decided to do what I have always dreamed about doing, to become a published writer, to make books, to be read, to hold the thing in my hand, a language event between two covers, a physical manifestation in the world of my brain, suitable for sharing (of course, because not everything in my brain is suitable for sharing), and to do all of these things on my own terms, to self publish.

How did I arrive at this decision?  I emerged from an MFA Creative Writing program at the age of 32, way more than a decade ago, with a book in my pocket.  I had finished my first novel–a huge accomplishment, I felt, and it was a work for which I was immensely proud. And I was confident, I thought, that through my experience in this widely respected program, I had developed enough critical acumen not to delude myself about my novel’s worth or my skills as a fiction writer.  I was on fire.

Agent after agent after agent after agent after agent (you get the picture) read my novel in full and had really glowing, often specific things to say about how great my novel was–but at this time, they would say, for this and that and the other reason, we don’t feel that we would be the right agency for this book.  Somebody else, they would inevitably say, will feel differently.  And then agent after agent after agent after agent would say almost the exact same stuff.  With that novel, I had lots of positive feedback but no takers–and I even had what I would identify as two incredibly close calls–agents who would go so far as to request revisions and even talk to me on the phone–but even these close calls, even though they felt so much different and more hopeful than my other exchanges, resulted in the same outcome. I’m a busy guy.  I had work to do.  A limited amount of time to dedicate myself to further researching agents and writing letters and sending emails and making copies and running to the flipping post-office and waiting and waiting and waiting.  I figured at this rate I might get a book published by the time I was 60.  I gave up.

I wrote another novel.  It took me almost ten years, off and on, to finish it, but it felt good to be chipping away at a new thing, to be doing the thing I really wanted to do, that is, write, instead of floundering around in the cesspool of the agent search for a novel that was already a decade old.  And then, again, I found myself in the same situation.  Time to find an agent.  I tried a few of the agents who were most positive about my previous novel.  And again, I received specific, positive, sometimes glowing comments about my book with a big BUT at the end.  I decided to stop torturing myself.

You know, I just (mostly) want to share my writing with humans.  If I could make a living, or supplement my living as a teacher, with my writing, that would be fan-flipping-tastic.  But ultimately, it’s not about a big advance or book tours or a spot on Oprah’s list.  I just want to be able to say to a friend who might be interested in my creative work, yeah, here’s a thing I made and I’d be honored if you would read it.  Or, when speaking to strangers or new acquaintances who ask me what I do, I can say, of course, I’m a teacher, and a musician, and a father, but I can also say, hey, I’m a writer, and I’ve got a book or two and you can buy these things and take them home or put them on your kindle or your iPad.  There you go.

There has been, until recently I think, a kind of hairy eyeball directed at self-publishing by the literary community.  Somehow, putting yourself out there is vain, and your stuff, because it hasn’t been vetted by the literary machine in some way, is probably not very good.  But technology, the internet, has transformed that belief, I think, and given the conventional path to publishing quality work a run for its money. And technology notwithstanding, there’s an impressive historical tradition of great writers self-publishing: Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman off the top of my head.  So I’d be in pretty good company.  And, duh, haven’t musicians been doing this all along, since forever ago?  Haven’t I, as a musician, been doing this all along, since forever ago? Yes and yes.

So my Christmas present to myself is the permission to fulfill this dream, agents and publishing houses be damned, and my new year’s resolution is to publish a novel.  I’m tired of the agony part of being a writer.  After the pleasure but sometimes excruciatingly hard work of writing two novels over a 20 year period, I think its time to share a little bit of that with the world.

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