AWP 2016: Day 2: the writing life and The Great Sewanee Reunion

I only hit one panel today. The rest of my time I spent in the bookfair, meeting folks — most of them from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Which has been lovely!

I started the morning (after the construction woke me at 6 am) with breakfast at the celebrated Original Pantry Café. Remember my plane-mate from yesterday, J. Andy Kane? He messaged me about meeting up, so we made plans for this morning and chatted about teaching and conference panels and our experiences of AWP so far. While I was at the ALR reading last night, he attended the Claudia Rankine keynote address, which I’ve heard was intense. I wish I’d gone, though I’m glad I hit ALR and then got the rest I did.

Back at the conference today, I devoted much of my time to walking the bookfair, visiting tables and chatting with folks. I’ve surprised myself by not collecting as much freebie swag as I usually do at AWP (something my wife is doubtless glad of! I have a habit of cluttering the house with this stuff), but I did pick up a few books today, including some from Jellyfish Highway Press, run by my friend Justin Lawrence Daugherty — they just put out a chapbook coauthored by Kelly Magee, whose work I’ve admired since I helped pick her story collection Body Language for the Katherine Ann Porter Prize back in 2006.

I also got a poetry chapbook signed by Joe Wilkins, who teaches at Linfield College down the road from my community college in McMinnville, OR. (Joe also gave me a beer, which I needed by that time!) And I hung around the Literary Arts booth for a while, and spent some time shilling at the Blue Skirt Productions table off and on (how those folks do that all day I don’t know — they’re amazing!).


The rest of my day was mostly (finally!) reuniting with my friends from Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Tonight is the Sewanee Alumni Reception, so I wore my Sewanee tshirt to help advertise the conference (soon I’ll go change into slightly dressier attire for the reception), and the shirt helped draw a lot of attention to the conference but also helped my friends recognize me.

It’s been a wonderful, if for now piecemeal, reunion, and I’m struck by how these people, many of whom I only knew for a couple of weeks last summer, feel so much like family. It is genuinely exciting to reconnect with each of them, and everyone is quick to rush in and hug me.

Others have asked whether they ought to apply to Sewanee, and I tell all of them yes, immediately and enthusiastically. “How was it?” they ask. Transformative, I tell them. Transcendant. Profound. The greatest, most important two weeks of my professional life, I tell them. And sometimes I worry even that is underselling it.

It’s hard to explain to people, really, just how much Sewanee meant to me as a writer. I tried in a post from shortly after the conference, and I will try again in a week or so as I post some comments from some of my Sewanee colleagues. But let me say quickly, here, that the deadline to apply this year is April 15, and if you’re a writer, I cannot urge you strongly enough to put in your application.


One other Sewanee connection, and the best thing to happen in the bookfair today: this afternoon, I found my friends Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly (both Sewanee alumni). For folks new to the blog, you should know that I love these two people. Tommy is the writer I want to be when I grow up, and Beth Ann is my favorite living poet by a long shot. (Though, interestingly, she’s moving into memoir now, and you guys, if you haven’t read her book Great With Child: Letters to a Young Mother, stop reading this and go order a copy right now. It’s stunning.)

Tommy and Beth Ann were chatting with someone, so I just hung back until I could say a quick hello. Tommy spotted me first, and after I hugged him and Beth Ann, they introduced me to the guy they’d been chatting with — and it was Dennis Lehane! You know, the guy who wrote Shutter Island, Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River . . . .

I’d heard Lehane on the radio awhile back, doing an interview on public radio about craft and fiction, and I found him profoundly interesting. And here I was shaking his hand! Then Tommy (who blurbed my novel Hagridden) told Lehane about my book, and Lehane leaned in with his phone and snapped a photo of my business card so he could look up my book later.

It’s like everyone’s dream version of AWP, and here is was happening to me!

I had goosebumps for half an hour.


At one point midmorning I slipped away to attend a panel headed by my friend Mo Daviau. The panel had the excellent title of “We Got Here As Fast As We Could: Debut Authors Over 35,” and I went partly because I love Mo and her work, and partly because I am a debut author over 35 — my chapbook came out when I was 37 and my first novel arrived on my 38th birthday.

It was a great panel, full of humor and insight and some hard truths, and it did what great panels do best for me: it made me think. Better still, it made me write. Seating was scarce so I stood in the back, leaning against a trashcan, and not five minutes into the panel I heard something that made me whip out my notebook and use the trashcan as a desk.

This (more or less) is what I wrote:

I’m struck by how layered writers’ lives are. One of the panelists said she was baker — that baking took up the bulk of her time not spent writing. She said how much she valued the physicality of baking, that she couldn’t imagine a life in which her job mostly sitting down and working on a computer eight hours a day and then coming home to sit down and write on a computer.

And I caught myself in a kneejerk reaction: Oh, so you’re a baker who writers — you’re not a writer.

Which is a stupid, snobbish reaction.

I think many writers work so long and so hard — we invest so much time and money and energy and love in our work — that we feel anyone who does anything other than writing is just a dabbler, an unserious interloper into the profession. And it’s true that my job — teaching writing — allows me to pretend that I don’t segregate my life, that my writing is teaching and my teaching is writing, so I am a “real” writer.

It’s an attitude many people share, even non-writers. Another woman on the panel talked about telling people she wanted to write and how people would respond with, “Oh, then you want to be a teacher!”

But the real truth is that we all fill so many roles in our lives. I am a writer and a teacher. A friend of mine is a writer and a bookseller and a publisher. Another friend is a writer and a librarian. Another friend is a writer and a manager of a college’s student union. Another friend is a writer and a casting agent. Another friend is a writer and a patent attorney. Another friend is a writer and a cabbie. Another friend is a writer and a musician and a school lunchroom worker.

We could have another conversation about compensation for writers — for artists of all kinds. There are certainly plenty of us who would love to make all our living from our words. And just as certainly, the industry we work in and the society than supports literature afford too few of us that choice.

But I think there are plenty of us who would choose to teach, or bake, or work on patent law, or work as a casting agent, or drive cabs, even if they could just quit everything and write for a living.

Because we can be more than one thing. We can have more than one identity. We can do anything we are attracted to doing or anything we have to do to pay the bills, and we will still be writers.

If AWP teaches us nothing else, it is how huge — how expansive, how inclusive — the world of writing and writers is. It’s academics and publishers and full-time writers, yes, but it’s also everyone else. Anyone who wants to put the best of themselves, the worst of themselves, the purest form of themselves into words and to share those words with others.

That’s what a writer is.

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