I am a writer

It’s been quiet here on the blog for a while, and there’s a reason for that: we’ve been moving. My wife has an amazing new faculty librarian job in Tacoma, Washington, so we’ve been spending the past couple of months transporting our lives and our minds a few hours north from our beloved Portland to this charming little city on the Puget Sound.

It also means that I’ll be taking a year off from the classroom to write full-time from our new home. It’s something I’ve done once before, back in 2010-2011, the period when I drafted Hagridden, finalized and/or published many of the stories that became Box Cutters, and put together the book-length story collection I’m shopping around now. So I’m looking forward to a similar period of creative output, with a forthcoming novella I need to finish revising, two novels trying to pushing through front of my skull and onto the page, and a few other projects rattling around behind them.

All of which means that, when we meet new neighbors or my wife’s new colleagues and they ask what I do for a living, I say, “I’m a writer.”

And that feels strange. But then, it’s felt strange for a long time.

See, I have a thing about labels. It took me years to feel comfortable claiming to be a vegetarian, so I kept explaining to people what I would or wouldn’t eat instead of just using the label. It took me years to feel comfortable telling people that I was a Buddhist, until the day I told Burmese Theraveda teacher Thynn Thynn that “I like to study Buddhism, but I’m not really a student of  Buddhism,” and she matter-of-factly replied, “If you study, you are a student.”

And I waited a LONG time before daring to call myself a writer in public, and even now, when I tell people I’m a writer, I often have to fight the urge to look around for the “real writer” who might out me as a fraud.

I revisit this “I’m a writer” thing from time to time, but I’ve been thinking about it especially for the past couple of months because right around the time this whole journey to a new town began and I realized I would be writing full-time again, I read an article in Poets & Writers called “Poet, Writer, Imposter: Learning to Believe in Myself,” by Leigh Stein.

Stein opens her article by expressing, in question form, a litany of self-doubts and, after the list, she explains that everyone who identifies with those doubts “may be suffering from imposter phenomenon, which is the name for those sneaky feelings of inadequacy, despite actual evidence of professional success.”

Later, she describes a commission she received to write an essay in response to an artist’s work, and while Stein initially agreed, she fell into a crippling pit of self-doubt as soon as she saw that the other two people the artist had approached were lit-famous:

I read their names and credentials [of those two other famous writers] over and over until I put myself into a sort of trancelike state of paralysis. I somehow forgot my identity as Published Poet and could only think of myself as Managing Editor of There Must Have Been Some Mistake.

That’s the label thing that I keep turning over in my head. Is it okay for me to claim to be a writer? Even after two books, even with two more books on the way and two novels waiting to get written, I’m not This Famous Author or That Prestigious Literato — so am I, in fact, a writer? Surely “There Must Have Been Some Mistake.”

Stein continues her article with a lengthy, excruciating, all-too-familiar narrative of procrastination and avoidance as she wrestles with whether or not she’s worthy of the assignment she’s been given, and this is where I fell completely into the article, because this is a habit I engage in far too regularly. Of course, I’ve always been a procrastinator in general, so maybe I simply use this kind of self-doubt and these feelings of inadequacy as excuses to procrastinate. But the emotions Stein writes about, and her strategies for nurturing those fears and doing more work than necessary both to avoid the real work of writing and to feel like she has earned the label of Writer, feel terribly familiar to me.

Later, the “Writer” label comes up again as Stein explains a four-stage model for how people perceive their own competence:

Stage one: unconscious incompetence, like writing poems effortlessly at thirteen because you read one book by Sylvia Plath and have no idea that there are any other books in the world. Stage two: conscious incompetence, that feeling of whoa when you’re learning to actually write and becoming aware of exactly how many other books there are in the world. Stage three: conscious competence, or the boldness to answer, “I’m a writer,” when anyone at a party asks, “So what do you do, exactly?” The final stage is unconscious competence, or the ability to easily perform a skill, without thinking as you’re doing it, perhaps even at the same time you’re working on another task.

Stein claims she would like to be at stage three but often exists at stage two. I actually have experienced stage four, but only when I’ve been working alone for protracted periods, like my “sabbatical” several years ago or the one I’m about to embark on: if I sit down and do the work long enough and, most importantly, I do the work out of the sight of others, I can fall into the writing and forget to be afraid of what others might think about it. (This is also one way that I use my procrastination to my advantage: if a deadline looms and I have too little time to worry about what others might think of the work, I break past the fear and just get the writing done.)

But it took me a long time to reach stage three, “the boldness to answer, ‘I’m a writer.'”

That’s where I am now, as I meet new people around our new home and have all these new opportunities to say aloud that I am a writer. Each time, it still takes me a moment to muster myself, to push past my longtime response of “I’m a teacher” and confess — yes, confess, because it feels like I’m getting away with something whenever I say it — that I spend my days at home, in my study, dreaming up stories.

At least now, when someone inevitably asks if I’ve published anything, I can point them to Box Cutters and Hagridden, and announce the forthcoming chapbook and the coming novella; when they ask what I’m working on, I can tell them about my two new novels. But when my study door is closed and I’m facing that blank screen, I still wonder if I’m using the right tense in my nominative — if I am in fact, a “Writer” instead of a “Have Written.”

Because sometimes I think I exist somewhere outside that four-stage competence scale, in some unnamed fifth stage where I know that I have written well, but I fear that I might never be able to write well again. Like somehow I just got lucky a few times, and any day now, the whole thing will come falling in on me.

I think in some respects this is related to the classic myth of writer’s block: as a novice, back in “stage two,” I might have stared at the blank page for ages worrying I’d never find the right words to fill it. But now, having written and published enough work to know that every new writing project is its own creature and you have to relearn all over again how to write each new work, I stare at that old blank page and worry I might have already found all the good words — that I have nothing left to say.

This is a stupid, self-indulgent sort of procrastination. I know it. But there it is anyway, waiting for me in my study whenever I sit down to a project.

I usually deal with this self-doubt by embracing it, by remembering Natalie Goldberg’s idea of the “beginner’s mind” (the original name of this blog, by the way). There’s also a cultural concept I read once about the Japanese, and I don’t know how true this is but it’s a good story: when, in middle age, Japanese people awaken in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep, they don’t lie there fretting and worrying over the sleep they’re losing, the work they aren’t getting done, the problems that woke them up in the first place. Instead, they realize that in their hectic workaday lives, they never get this kind of quiet, contemplative time, so they simply lie awake in the darkness and enjoy the gift of a little silent reflection. It’s a habit I’ve tried to embrace, and in some ways, I do the same with my fears of inadequacy as a writer: sometimes, when I have the luxury of time to slow down and do this, I will accept the idea that I do still have a lot to learn, and I start over at my “beginner’s mind” and learn anew how to do the thing I love doing.

In other words, while often I slip into this unnamed fifth stage, I try to trick myself into hopping back to stage two and enjoying the wonder and the “whoa” of learning new ways to write.

But enjoying stage two is easier when I could still claim to be a student, when I hadn’t tricked myself into thinking even for a little while that I’m a professional who ought to know better by now. And that’s what keeps me from embracing stage three — that’s why it feels so strange when I admit to people that I’m a writer.

This was where Stein’s article really drove home something for me, because toward the end, she sits down and talks with an expert in this stuff:

“We look to others to define who we are, [licensed clinical social worker and author Sherry] Amatenstein says. It’s reactive. [. . .] The whole process of writing is so fraught because unfortunately it is so much about what other people think.” For writers, professional value is so tied up in publication: If no one wants to publish that novel or poem you thought was so good when you wrote it, of course you feel stricken. “Artists are always waiting for the next rejection, or the next person to like them.”

I suppose when I tell people now that my day job is writing, it feels like some kind of oral “submission” and I am by habit expecting them to like me for what I do or reject the value my work. I never have this anxiety when I tell people that I am a teacher; I know the value of education and my role in fostering it. But storytelling still feels like something done around a campfire rather than for a living, and because the work itself can so often happen in isolation, without the immediate feedback from — and responsibility to — students or colleagues, it sometimes feels like no work at all.

But I am happy to say that the past few weeks, as I’ve been making this transition from the end of my previous term of teaching to the beginning of my new year of writing, I have been getting wonderful reactions. I met a woman at my dharma center a couple of weeks ago and told her I was a writer, and she cheerfully replied, “Oh, so am I!” and then we chatted about our craft for a while. (Turns out I had just met human rights activist and narrative nonfiction author Lisa J. Shannon. Cue my Stein-like panic in the presence of a terrific writer!) The other night, I met my Tacoma realtor’s husband and told him I am a writer; we wound up talking about Phillip K. Dick and graphic novels all night, and he left with a copy of Hagridden. Our new neighbors helped us unload our truck as we were moving into our new house, and when they asked what I do, I caught myself hedging my bets and declaring, “Well, right now I’m a writer,” as though this was just some temporary gig until I can get back to the “real” work of teaching. And in fact, it is temporary — I love the classroom and will be eager to return to it next year — but there I was, undermining my own self-worth as an artist. But one of my neighbors started talking about his background in theatre, his previous work as a producer and his desire to get back into stagework, and through him, I discovered a bit about the arts community in my new town.

In other words, I am learning all over again — with my newfound “beginner’s mind” — the tremendous value in my work as a writer, not just its personal value to me or its reciprocal value within the arts community but also its social value, its worth as art and entertainment. Sure, I am still defining that worth through the reactions of others, per Sherry Amatenstein in the Stein article. But I have become comfortable again with declaring myself a writer, and I am eager once more to go sit in the chair eight hours a day and do the work of writing — because I am, after all, a writer.

When “Enough!” is never enough

Whenever tragedy strikes America, mostly in the form of mass shootings, I have taken time out of my curriculum to foster a class discussion of the events. I have done this so regularly now that friends have started coming to me for advice about or to share their experiences with fostering such discussions in their own classes. Today, someone told me about a class conversation on this weekend’s Orlando shooting; my friend explained how the students were (as usual, and understandably) reluctant to speak out about how that tragedy made them feel, but then my friend made them write about their feelings, and the results were profound.

It reminded me that I had once done something similar with writing about a different mass shooting, and I had blogged about it. So I went to look up my old blog post and reread it.

And I noticed the date: February, 2008.

More than eight years ago.

And even then, my students and I were talking about how frightening it was that these things were happening with such increasing regularity, and how frighteningly blasé we were becoming about the horror we visit upon ourselves.

Eight years ago. And we’re still having — or refusing to have — EXACTLY the same conversation.

This is our complicity. This is our fault. This is our blood, in our streets and on our hands.

It is long, LONG past time for saying “Enough!” It has been enough for years and years. And we’ve known it, all this time.

I’m not going anywhere with this. I offer no insights, no calls to action. You know the insights. You know the actions. We have spoken out, we have demanded action, we have acted ourselves, and we will continue to do so.

But in the meantime, look at us. Look at who we are. Look at who we’ve become comfortable being.

How I didn’t become a writer, and how I did

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 10.34.32 AMAuthor Gay Degani is running a series on her Words in Place website called “Journey to Planet Write,” where writers describe their path toward their literary careers.

A while back, Gay invited me to participate, which was thrilling! But as I began drafting my literary origins, I kept coming back to the stories I told myself about how I should have become a writer, how I kept imagining the path I wanted to be on and the milestones I was supposed to reach. And how in college I met a twelve-year-old with a better “origin story” than I had.

So I started there, with my literary fantasies and failures, and wrote about how I finally let go of those ideals, and how I’m still in the process of becoming of writer.

Head over to Words in Place and check out my essay, “Why I Felt Jealous of a Twelve-Year-Old,” and then hit the archives for more writers’ journeys and origin stories!

Upcoming appearances and events

Things are picking up again, gang, so if you haven’t been keeping tabs on my Events page or my Facebook or Twitter accounts, you might like to know about a couple of upcoming events in my calendar:

First up is brand-new: this weekend, I’ll be selling books at the Blue Skirt Press Spring Pop-Up Fair in the Jack London Bar in Portland. If you’re in the area, come down and buy lots of books from lots of local authors and local publishers, including copies of Hagridden and Box Cutters as well as the new Microfiction Monday Magazine Best of 2015 anthology, which I’m in. I might even read some new work!

13119910_983492671704204_6637084338580997202_o


Historical Fiction flyerThe other big deal is my four-week writing workshop on historical fiction through WordStudio. Based on my on-going series of tips for research for creative writing, and my experience writing historical fiction like Hagridden, we’ll be working on developing story through research for a whole month! The workshops will be early evenings each Monday (note that we’ll have Memorial Day off in the middle) at the Coffee Cottage in Newberg, OR.

There’s still time to register before Monday, if you’re in the area and want to give this a whirl. The registration form is online here.

Balderdash!

When I form small workshop groups in my writing classes, I like to introduce the new groups to each other by playing a game. What we play varies from term to term — years ago, I blogged about playing Taboo with students, and recently I’ve introduced the new Word Dominoes game my wife got me as a gift — but lately, I’ve been sticking to the original, definition-only Balderdash game.

20160412_224701

Because we’re playing in groups — or teams — I play a variation of the rules: we use no board, the teams collaborate on their definitions and voting, and I control the word cards throughout. This year, though, I added a new element: because of the logistics of this particular class, I wound up with three larger groups, which meant we’d only have four definitions to choose from, so I added a definition of my own this term, which was a lot of fun.

I needn’t have bothered, though. I did pick up some “points” by getting the class to vote for mine, but the students chose each other’s definitions just as often because, in their workshop groups, the whole class was in top form on writing convincing definitions! And, as it happened, that same class period, one of the students asked if I ever blogged about my classes, so I decided to share some of their definitions (and some of my own!) with you here on the blog.

(A note: the “true” definitions are those provided by the game, and while they’re generally pretty accurate, I have noticed that sometimes the game authors play with vagaries and short-cut half definitions in the interest of fitting things onto the cards, so any word nerds out there, if you have quibbles with the definitions, blame the game.)


Poonac: “residue left after pressing oil from a coconut”

My definition: a tree nut native to Canada

Definitions from the class:

  • nesting ground for birds in the Middle East
  • the inability for someone to perform a task
  • a coffee bean that is ingested by large cats — the acid from digestion alters it and, after extraction, it is gathered and processed for human consumption (those students were thinking of kopi luwak, and kudos to them for playing off my well-known obsession with coffee)

Dorado: “a fish resembling a dolphin”

My definition: a species of jackrabbit common in the Southwestern United States

Definitions from the class:

  • a Spanish word meaning “cut”
  • another word for gold in Latin America (I see what y’all did there)
  • a fallen angel replevied from Heaven (during class, I had revealed how much I love the word “replevied,” so that group was after brownie points!)

Noddlethatcher (my favorite word of the whole class!): “a maker of hats and wigs”

My definition : an Italian bird that builds its nests entirely from dried pasta (at this point, I began getting increasingly silly in my fake definitions)

Definitions from the class:

  • a type of knot commonly used by deep-sea fishers
  • the practice of repairing leather work
  • a farming tool used for irrigation

Pinchem: “the cry of the wild titmouse” (I can’t tell you how much I love this definition!)

My definition: Appalachian slang for a baby with chubby cheeks

Definitions form the class:

  • a woodwind instrument from the medieval era
  • the process of cross-breeding plants in an industrial greenhouse
  • treated, debarked wood

Jillick: “to skip a stone across the water”

My definition: like a cowlick, but in women’s hair

Definitions from the class:

  • a tool used to sharpen blades on industrial machines
  • a type of folk music from Scandinavian origins
  • a nomadic farming society that herds sheep on the northern coast of Scotland

Carfindo: “a ship’s carpenter (from the word carf, meaning a notch in the wood)”

My definition: a smartphone app showing nearby vehicles worth stealing

Definitions from the class:

  • a fish that is only found in the Mediterranean Sea
  • a music note that demonstrates a slow tempo
  • an Italian wine connoisseur

And that was all we had time for, but honestly this was one of the best classes for fake-definition writing I’ve ever had! It reminded a bit of the chapter in Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man where he has his class write excuse notes instead of essays and is immensely impressed by the creativity and intelligence of his students at faking people out!

That we were playing this game as a group-building exercise and an audience-analysis exercise, and that my class is currently working on writing definition essays? Well, hopefully I Miyagi’d them into learning something while they all were laughing and having fun.😉

Anyway, congratulations, any of my students reading this. You’ve done me proud.

 

Why you should apply to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference

maxresdefault

The deadline to apply for the Sewanee Writers’ Conference is coming up fast, gang. April 15! And it’s FREE to apply, so you should definitely put in for it.

Why?

I’ve written a lot here on the blog about falling in love with the family I found at Sewanee last summer:

But as this year’s application deadline approaches, I thought it would be cool to ask some of my workshop colleagues what they thought of our experience. So here are just a few of the amazing writers I got to work with and what they had to say about their Sewanee.

Shane Collins is a writer in Vermont; you can find him and his work online at shanercollinsauthor.wordpress.com.

Caleb Ludwick is a writer living in the mountains outside of Chattanooga, TN. He is the author of the novel The First Time She Fell.

Stacey Swann is currently working on a novel, an excerpt of which you can read here at A Strange Object.

 

What did you think of our workshop experience?

Shane Collins

I had a fantastic time. Allen Wier and Adrianne Harun were great mentors with teaching styles that complimented each other. Both were personable, approachable, and generous with their time. The same could be said for all of the Sewanee professors. I also really liked our workshop cohort. There was a huge range of stories/excerpts and probably the only commonality was the quality. It was so beneficial — if not a little humbling — to get feedback on my work from so many wonderful writers.

Caleb Ludwick

It was only my second workshop and it cut deep, in all the best ways. I came to Sewanee with a novel 75% finished and realized through reading everyone’s work, and having everyone else read mine, that not only was it nowhere near finished, it wasn’t even a novel. Allen’s close reading and willingness to talk through what I’d written lit a fire for the next 6 months of chopping and reconfiguring, pushing me to write better than I have before, without question.

Stacey Swann

It had been quite a while since I was a student in a workshop, and I loved the feeling of entering each day knowing I would leave with new things to chew over that I hadn’t considered before. Having two workshop leaders was a new experience too, and one that I can’t say enough positive things about. I loved the way Allen Wier and Adrianne Harun came at the stories from different angles and taught in different ways.

 

What was your favorite reading? Your favorite craft lecture?

Shane Collins

My favorite reading was definitely Tim O’Brien’s. I’m biased because O’Brien has been one of my most influential writing heroes but it was so surreal to hear him read one of my favorite stories. I think my favorite craft lecture was Jill McCorkle’s. She had this wonderful extended metaphor comparing a short story to a haunted house that has stuck with me.

Caleb Ludwick

Reading was Tim O’Brien’s, simply because he read the very line that I read in junior high, and realized that it was possible to create worlds with words in a more powerful way than I had thought before: “Curt Lemon steps from the shade into bright sunlight, his face brown and shining, and then he soars into a tree.”

Craft lecture was Alice McDermott’s. So many insights, shaped into something whole and holy.

Stacey Swann

My favorites were the Fellows readings — always a one, two, three punch of amazing. My favorite craft lecture? Alice McDermott’s.

 

What was your favorite memory from Sewanee?

Shane Collins

Obviously my favorite memory would be the time I spent stalking Tim O’Brien. But another great memory was having Jesse Goolsby as a fellow in our class. I began reading his novel before I knew he would be in my workshop, before I even knew he’d be at Sewanee. It was just a pleasant surprise.

Caleb Ludwick

Long walk alone from the interstate back toward campus, deciding to hitchhike instead and getting picked up by an ex-Sewanee security guard with amazing stories. Having him drop me at the reservoir, jumping in to cool off. Back in time for readings. Perfect.

 

What would you tell someone thinking of applying this year?

Shane Collins

No matter how you get into Sewanee, whether as an auditor, contributor, scholar, or fellow, I guarantee you will have a positive and worthwhile experience. Workshop was wonderful but I also learned so much by attending panels, readings, and craft lectures, not to mention the connections I made at the numerous social events.

Caleb Ludwick

Bring work that you know isn’t perfect, but aren’t sure why. Also, some advice Rebecca Makkai gave me — make friends. You’ll keep them.

Stacey Swann

The rumors of the amazing Sewanee community are not overstated. I was blown away by the kindness, intelligence, and talent of everyone I met — attendee, faculty, and staff alike.

 

I also heard from Sewanee Writers’ Conference faculty (and my mentor last year), Allen Wier!

I thought our workshop experience was inspiriting. Not only did the group include a rich variety of literary approaches, talented and inquisitive writers, but, also, we had a lovely sense of community almost immediately. I would certainly encourage any writer seeking an intense two weeks with like minded readers and writers to apply.

You have one week, folks. Get your applications in ASAP! If you get in, it will change your life.

AWP 2016: the bookfair haul and the photos

I keep thinking about recapping the last of my AWP experience, but I realized that everything I forgot to say the last few posts — events I witnessed, readings I attended, sites I saw — I can also show you through the pix I took:

Los Angeles

If you’ve been following the last week’s posts, you know I walked myself raw: I wore a pair of socks on day one that I didn’t realize had worn thin in the heels, so I wound up with fairly massive blisters right from the start. (They’re fine now, by the way.) That meant I didn’t get out and explore as much as I usually do during conferences — but I did snap a few photos as I walked to and from the conference site.

Flying in over LA

Flying in over LA

 

Walking through film sets

Coming back from the conference one evening, I noticed the roads were wet from rain, though I hadn’t noticed any rain that day. Police blocking the road and lights everywhere. Then I spotted a crane parked in the middle of a road suspending a huge, dripping bar overhead — it was a rain machine. The next morning, I walked through another film set immediately outside my hotel, and later that day, I finally saw a sign in my hotel lobby explaining what was going on.

 

The Biltmore

Speaking of my hotel: I waited too late to book my conference hotel and wound up grabbing the first room I found in the last overflow hotel available. That happened to be the Biltmore, but I didn’t realize its significance until I was there in the building: the Biltmore is where the Academy Awards and the Oscar statue were invented, and the hotel hosted the awards for several years back in the early days. Which is important in our household because my wife — whose side-project research area is on librarians in film — is a HUGE Oscars nerd. So while I couldn’t get into the famed Crystal Ballroom where the Oscars used to happen, I did snap up as many photos as I could to share with her (and I hit the gift shop to buy her a small “Oscar” statuette labelled “World’s Greatest Wife,” because she is).

 

Panels

I only attended a handful of panels, most of which I’ve already written about, but I have to say that, in retrospect, I’d like to attend more panels next AWP. The panel load I used to stack up was, honestly, too much, so this year’s much-lighter load was a nice change. But I enjoyed these panels so much that I’d like to have squeezed in a few more.

Something else I’m noticing, now that I’m looking at these photos again: Women writers rock! All but one of these panels included men, and on the first panel I attended (on chapbooks), I didn’t know anyone presenting so I didn’t snap photos. But on every panel, pictured or not, the stand-out awesome folks were the women writers. They were the smartest, the funniest, the fiercest, the most insightful, the most memorable.

 

Readings

I backed off panels in year in part to make room for more readings, which was wonderful. I only snapped photos of two of the readings, and my phone is notoriously poor in low light, but no photo would have done these readings justice anyway. From the brusk but charmingly hipsterish bandana-ed doorman guarding the reading in the whiskey library so no one would interfere with someone’s poem, to the epic “literaoke” reading/karaoke mashup in a Filipino restaurant, this year provided some of the most colorful readings I’ve ever attended!

 

Bookfair

Most of my AWP this year was in the bookfair. In recent years, I lamented having too little time to see the whole exhibitor list or hang out at particular tables, but this year I committed to walking the whole floor, table to table, row by row.

For some reason, this year looks a little less wacky than years past in the photos I took — fewer costumed writers shilling for their publications, fewer loud displays, and (for reasons of Convention Center policies) far fewer exhibitors pouring shots. But it was still plenty fun, with a lot of interactive displays and, most interestingly, a lot more exhibitors that weren’t writers or publishers or programs but creative businesses related to writing and publishing: digital typewriters, audio narratives that look like payphones, even a perfume company selling scents crafted after dead writers (the “Death in the Afternoon” Hemingway scent smelled like raw musk sprayed over a sweaty bull, which was alarming but perfect; I bought my own Lizzie Bennett of a wife the “Pemberly” scent).

 

So what did I pick up while walking the bookfair this year? Not as much as I wanted to — I took a lot of cards and bookmarks so I can continue shopping later, but when I left for AWP my luggage was full of books to sell, so I only had room to buy as much as I sold. Which I happily did, and I’m eager to start reading these new books and journals!

20160402_211322

And, of course, I snagged a couple of awesome tote bags in the bookfair, too.

20160402_211340

And then I packed all that up and headed home, eager for the next chance to hang out with writers and talk about craft and publishing and community — which is actually right around the corner, at the Terroir Creative Writing Festival in McMinnville, OR, where I’ll be talking about building stories from ephemera and trash! If you’re in the area, come join us!

AWP 2016: Day 3: All the books and all the hugs

It is late Saturday night. I am exhausted. I have blisters the size of my thumbs from the daily 2.5-mile walk from my hotel to the conference and back (not to mention all the walking in between, in search of books and in search of presses and in search of panels and in search of food and in search of drinks and in search of friends . . .). I have accumulated and laid out the swag I picked up in the book fair — a relatively light haul this year but plenty of amazing stuff for me to look at it later. I have taken stock of the books I brought and accounted for the ones I sold or gave to friends. I have downloaded all the photos I’ve taken and typed up all the notes I wrote during panels — craft notes and story ideas and observations.

I’ve said more than once in these posts that this year’s AWP was different from any other AWP I’ve been to. Today, I realized it was in many ways the reverse of most AWPs, at least in the sense that I started the conference exhausted and burned out and crabby, and I ended on an exhilarated high from all the connections I made, ideas I gleaned, hugs I gave and received . . . .

In fact, today was so full and productive and pleasant that I imagine this will be the longest of my posts, because I have to account for the experiences I had and the memories I created and notes I took. I also attended as many panels today as I attended in the previous two days combined, so there’s a lot to report on. And of course there are other photos, though I’ll probably save those for tomorrow. (If you’ve been following me on Twitter or Facebook, you’ve probably seen many of the photos already, anyway.)


I would like to begin today out on the streets, where, mercifully, I did not awake to construction for a change. Instead, I walked through a shootout in the streets — and a director yelling into a megaphone as the cameras rolled. Seems CBS is launching a tv show based on the film Training Day, and I walked through their set this morning. But television is small potatoes compared with the literary world of AWP! So, as I shared on other social media, instead I have to tell you the story of the woman I met in the elevator this morning.

Yesterday, I stopped by The Writer’s Hotel table in the bookfair and, after a conversation with the representatives, went ahead and signed up for a 30-minute manuscript consultation with an editor. Every little bit helps, after all! (More on that experience in a bit.) So this morning, I was going down to my hotel’s business center to print several pages from a novel manuscript so I could take it to the editor today. I wasn’t leaving the hotel, I wasn’t going to the conference yet, so I didn’t have my usual AWP paraphernalia with me: no tote bag, no name badge. And yet, when I got on the elevator and found a woman, similarly unidentified, riding down to the lobby, I was surprised when she glanced at me and asked immediately, “AWP?” I said yes and asked who she was with, and she told me she was representing Juxtaprose. Then the elevator dinged and we got off and went our separate ways, but I kept wondering how she knew I was part of the conference. Then I caught myself in the mirror and realized I was wearing my Portland Review tshirt, which I had brought on purpose to advertise the magazine and Oregon writing in general — but I had forgotten its relationship or, more accurately, its abnormality outside the writing world. Of course she knew I was a writer; of course she knew I was with AWP.

I told this story on social media this morning because it amused me, but this evening, I also discovered that Juxtaprose had reblogged my first post from AWP, so it turns out we had more connection that I realized in the elevator. I wish I had asked her name. I will definitely be paying more attention to the magazine.


I’ve been saying all along that this year’s AWP is different from years past, but I realized today that I’ve had a bit of a backward AWP: I started the conference cranky and sleep-deprived and ended it boisterous and eager to meet everyone.

And boy, did I meet everyone!

The theme of my conference this year, I think, has been no-win choices: it seems like everything I went to this year meant I missed something else equally amazing. Last night, for example, I was attending one event at the expense of another that I had been eagerly looking forward to for months. But it was one of those situations where, if I bailed on one thing, I would’ve been heartbroken to have missed the other. So I had a wonderful evening last night, and also was heartbroken to have missed a bunch of other wonderful people. The good thing was, today I managed to run into most of the people I missed last night, and many hugs were shared and many selfies were taken. So I suppose the takeaway is that, if you fully commit to AWP,even when you think you’ve missed the people you need to see, you will eventually see the people you need to see. Or at least that’s the way it played out this year.


One thing I think everyone needs to know about AWP is that Saturday is the free-for-all. AWP typically opens the bookfair to the public on Saturday; and also, because it’s the last day of the conference, exhibitors and vendors are eager to distribute their stock at whatever cost rather than have to ship all those books and journals home. So it’s a day of steep discounts, and seasoned AWP goers know this, so they frequently wait until Saturday before loading up their tote bags.

This was more obvious this year than I’ve ever seen it, and while there was a lot of interest in both my novel and my chapbook, I only sold one copy of each on the first and second days. Total. Both of them on the first day. Today, however I blew through two thirds of my stock, and I gave away a lot of bookmarks and business cards as well!

I also staffed the Literary Arts table during the lunch hour, and we distributed a lot of scout books and tote bags then as well. This is, in fact, good business practice, because people do eagerly take these items and often follow up on them. But it’s also a convenience for people like me whose luggage is already over stuffed with the things they picked up from other people’s tables. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to fit all of my stuff in my luggage — a common problem in each year — but today I sold a lot of books and made room for the books I bought, so I’m doubly happy.

Most gratifyingly, I’m told that while I was sitting at the Literary Arts booth, a pair of men were so interested in the last copy of Hagridden at the Blue Skirt table that they were nearly ready to armwrestle over who got the book. Apparently, they settled the dispute more amicably, and shortly afterward I brought in more stock from my backpack. But it thrills me to think that any two people were interested enough in my fiction that they were ready to wrestle for it. I wish I could’ve witnessed that.


When I signed up for my editorial consultation today, I wasn’t quite sure what manuscript I would bring, because I hadn’t intended to consult on my work in the first place. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, an “impulse purchase” even though it was free. And the consultation was actually more an advertisement for The Writer’s Hotel Master Class, a kind of mini conference/workshop/retreat, but I listened to the pitch because I was genuinely curious, and when I saw that my friend Bill Roorbach was on the faculty, I knew it would be something special. So I went ahead and checked out the consultation.

My appointment was with Scott Wolven, and, on a whim, I decided to print out a chapter from my novel in progress. This is the same novel I took to Sewanee last summer, where I workshopped the first couple of chapters with Allen Wier. Again, I have waxed rhapsodic about Sewanee before and will do so again soon, but I need to say here that Allen’s insight to my book was deeply helpful, because he showed me the process that I could follow to develop the story and also, more importantly, he showed me the heart of my book and the humanity of my characters. In other words, he showed me my novel; he showed me myself as a writer.

Which is why, not under Allen’s advice but because I knew it was the right thing to do, I tossed a lot of the draft I had written beyond what I took to Sewanee, and last fall I started over with a new framing narrative to reconnect with the people in my book. The short chapter that I brought to Scott Wolven this morning was the first of that new material, because I wanted to see if I was on the right track based on Allen’s advice.

What wound up happening, in my brief 30-minute conversation, was fascinating to witness. I handed Wolven my pages, and he asked me for a bit of information about the book so he would have a context in which to read the pages, so I explained to him the plot as well as the thematic grounding of the book. And then he read a few sentences and out came the pen, and while I sat there watching, he started scratching at and scribbling all over my words, line by line, slash mark by slash mark, tearing the piece to shreds. And yet I could tell that he wasn’t simply digging into it for the sake of making my time worthwhile; he had found something immediately and was using that as a guideline by which to read the rest of the work, something I sometimes do when grading papers but haven’t witnessed from the other side like this before. Even when I was a student (well, more formally a student — in truth I will always be a student), all the response to my work happened “off stage,” so to speak. So it was harrowing to witness today as a writer, but it also was instructive to watch as a teacher, which made the second half of his reading all the more gratifying: eventually, he sat back in his chair and just read, nodding in places, getting my work and following my story and what I was trying to do because he was seeing it as a reader.

When he finally put the pen down and begin speaking to me again, explaining the notes he was writing on the first several pages, he showed me my own worst faults. He revealed to me the language things that I suspected I was doing and worried might be problems, but he didn’t simply point them out and tell me to stop doing them. He explained to me what they were doing in the text, how they affected the reading of the work. He became my audience, and then he spoke up.

So I knew the problems that he was telling me about, even before I showed him the text, but they were the kinds of problems that I allow myself to ignore because I’m still drafting, or because they’re stylistic choices, or because “that’s just how I write and other people need to get used to it.” And what Wolven explained to me today is that while other people might be able to “get used to it,” agents and editors and publishers don’t have time to get used to it and this is exactly the kind of thing that I need to be cautious with in my work if I want to share my work with a wider readership.

And he was exactly correct. And I knew it.

Some of his tips I’ll be sharing with my own students when I return to the classroom next week, or will file away in my brain to recycle on individual essays when I begin grading again myself. But mostly, it was a thrill to sit there as a writer and watch a reader — an intelligent, insightful, careful reader, exactly the kind of reader I want to write for — react to my work with mindfulness and constructive criticism. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that in action. It wasn’t the kind of feedback that would help me develop a whole book; it wasn’t the kind of feedback that would allow me to tell this story in the first place. But it is the kind of feedback that will help me sell the story once I’ve told it. So while today’s consultation was free, it also was invaluable.


I think later, when I post photos, I will try to take inventory of all the people I met whose work I love so much. Tonight, let me focus instead on the panels I attended.

The details might also have to wait for a future post because I took so many notes and I felt like I had so many epiphanies today that I can’t cram them all into this tonight. If you’ve been following me on Twitter throughout the conference, you’ve probably seen some of the things I felt most noteworthy, but trust me when I say they were but a few drops in many buckets, so I have a lot more to share.

I will say this: I think it is perhaps not coincidental (as though the universe is my writing program) that I began today with a panel about memoir in which my friend Jane Rosenberg LaForge discussed her own book, a mashup of sorts, a blurring or even an ignoring of lines between fiction and fact, between memoir and fantasy; and I ended my day on a panel about poets transitioning into the memoir, in which the brilliant Beth Ann Fennelly insisted on maintaining the lines between genres if only to understand how to write one thing rather than another.

Jane’s book, An Unsuitable Princess (Jaded Ibis Press), is described by her and her press as both a “true fantasy” and a “fantastical memoir,” because it is in many ways both autobiography and fiction; or, more properly, it is an autobiography about the fantasy life she lived as a girl, so that we get to juxtapose the life that existed in the “real” world with the life that existed in her child’s mind. The concept, at least superficially, reminds me a bit of the “Expectations/Reality” split-screen sequence in (500) Days of Summer (also an LA story!).

It’s an idea I love, and I began my day thinking that there is no such thing as genre anymore — in fact, I caught myself telling that to more than one person in the bookfair this afternoon.

But then Beth Ann Fennelly, in the last panel of the last day, talked so eloquently about the distinctions between poetry and memoir, between fiction and memoir, between one mode or medium and another, that I remembered how important some of those boundries can be. I have long described Beth Ann as my favorite living poet, but I also have long extolled the beauty of her first nonfiction book, Great With Child, and I adore the novel that she cowrote with her husband Tom Franklin, The Tilted World, and, at least based on her work, I absolutely believe her when she says that poems and memoirs can never really be the same form. They are discrete forms, with different paces and different meanings.

It feels weird to write this, because years ago I attended an AWP panel in which Beth Ann talked about the similarities and relationships between prose poetry and flash fiction, and here, today, she was arguing something like the opposite. But what actually happened is that I am seeing that earlier talk in a new light, and she is so intelligent and so thoughtful and so precise in her definitions of how words and sentences and lines and narrative pacing function that I find myself agreeing with her whatever she says.

This all sounds contradictory, because I’ve been following her work for a long time and have a long, nuanced perspective on her evolution as an artist. But I’m telling you, her discussion today was brilliant and convincing, and I’m happy to report that she brought hardcopies of her prepared comments, like a President delivering her State of the Union to the press before she delivers it to Congress, so I can quote her verbatim in a future post and I intend to. Let me tell you now: you are going to thank me for this.

I often tell people that Tom Franklin is the writer I want to be when I grow up, but that’s partly because I don’t know how to be Beth Ann Fennelly. They are, collectively, the two people I most admire in the writing world, and even the little bit that I know them, the ability to send them an email once in a while or sneak up behind them at a conference and get a hug or sit in the room and hear them speak, has been such a privilege in my writing life.


That is probably the thing I have been thinking about the most this final day of AWP: the privilege of knowing these people, of working among them. I think this every year at AWP, as I make my way through the bookfair or the readings or the panels, as I hug writers I know and buy their books and beg them to sign their books for me. But I was thinking about it today in particular as I staffed the Literary Arts booth in the book fair. People would come up and ask what Literary Arts was, and as I began my spiel — they are a nonprofit in support of the literary arts in Oregon, they organize the Oregon Book Awards and Wordstock and the Portland Arts & Lectures series, they support Writers in the Schools, they are a host for or promoter of other reading series and other writers — I found myself each time, with each new person to the table, flush with a sense of gratitude. Not just for Literary Arts (though of course for them, because they made my first novel possible), but also because of what they represent. Obviously, they are a facet of the multitudinous, interconnected, beautifully mutually supportive writing community in Oregon, but they also are emblematic of the community that existed already. Literary Arts is possible because the writers are already there, they are already supportive of each other, they already make so much possible for each other. And that’s not just the case in Oregon but throughout the US, throughout the world. And AWP, for a few mad, exhausting days each year, represents that massive community. That flood of support and love. That depth of genius in craft and artistry. That I can even for a short while tap into even a small corner of that has been a tremendous privilege, and it has opened up so many doors creatively, professionally, emotionally. It seems strange to consider people that I see once a year and I know otherwise only online as genuine friends, as family, and yet that’s exactly what they are. We are family, related not by blood but by ink.

I didn’t use to be a hugger. I used to be fairly reserved, happy to shake a hand but always wary of too much intimacy. I am extroverted professionally, as a teacher, but my preference is for introversion, for solitude and quiet. Give me a choice between a party and a night home with my wife and cats, and I will choose my wife and cats every time. I like smallness and quietude and simplicity. Conferences like this, where tens of thousands of people congregate, many of them with an agenda —it can overwhelm a person like me. And yet, for these few days, it feels so necessary because it is, actually, not an opportunity for networking or salesmanship but a reunion. For a bringing together of the vast diaspora family I’ve found in art. I love these people.

I was not a hugger, but I became a hugger in the presence of so much love.

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.

AWP 2016: Day 1: LA, the bookfair, and hanging with writers

I’m writing this post in two parts. I began it in the morning, wearily sipping coffee at the desk in my hotel room, but I will finish it late tonight.

This morning I’m writing about my journey here last night and my exhaustion (already!?) this morning; later, I’ll recap the day.

The trip here, really, was fairly uneventful. I taught class yesterday (hi, WR 115 students!), so I had to catch a late flight, but I had already planned and packed so I didn’t have to rush for the airport.

And I had a charming taxi driver. We talked languages — he’s Kenyan but after he had a brief phone conversation with his roommate, he explained to me that he had been speaking Somali on the phone. He was trying to explain that he wasn’t speaking Arabic, but I told him I already knew that: I only know enough Arabic to give directions to a taxi driver, but I knew whatever the tonal similarities in modern Somali, it wasn’t Arabic.

He chuckled at my “Arabic for taxi drivers” line and told me he didn’t speak any Arabic at all. “I really only speak two languages,” he said. “Somali, even though I’m Kenyan, and English.” And he explained he was still struggling with English. I told him I understood — I had a little French from high school, but I’d mostly forgotten it.

“Yes!” he said. “It was like this too, for us. We learned Arabic, they tried to teach it to us, you know, in the schools. In the high school. I did okay I guess, but I forget most of it now. I’m learning English.”

While we were talking, an obnoxious, repetitive, oversimplisitic pop song was playing on the radio, and during the chorus the driver started laughing at it.

“Music today!” he said. “Makes it hard to learn English, yeah? That’s bad English, yeah? But it’s how we learn!”

I laughed along with him and he switched off the station, but he pointed at the silent radio. “It’s hard, though. Learning English. I try, but all the new words! English takes so many words, so many. All the time, new words coming in, yeah? We can’t catch up!”

I told him he wasn’t alone there — I could barely keep up myself!


On the plane, I noticed that a woman in my row was writing in a notebook. I knew immediately that she was headed to AWP, same as me — same as most of the plane, I suspect. I even tweeted about it (though in the dark in my hurry to tweet before shutting off the phone, I misspelled “I love writers!”).

Turns out the guy seated between her and me was also a writer, also headed to AWP. I didn’t catch the woman’s name because it’s always awkward talking around other people, but the guy I sat next to was J. Andy Kane, a fiction writer like me. (The woman at the end of the row was also a fiction writer — we enjoyed the fact that we were on Prose Row in the airplane.) Andy and I struck up a conversation because he was curious about the novella I was editing, and when we landed, we split a cab downtown and talked about Cormac McCarthy, because really, you get two white male writers of a certain age together long enough, sooner or later they start talking about McCarthy. Especially if I’m one of those writers.

So, all in all, a pleasant trip down, even though I didn’t get settled into my hotel room until 1 am.


And then the construction began.

Seriously: after just a few hours of sleep — before the sun was even up — I awoke to raucous construction sounds: machinery, crashing rubble, jackhammers, shouting men, that beeping alarm of a big truck backing up. Sometime around 5 am!

I’m up on the 8th floor in my hotel, and I can’t even see the construction out my window — I think it’s down the block somewhere — but I might as well be standing on the sidewalk watching it. The way sound carries in these urban canyons is amazing.

I’m usually not this tired until day three of AWP, day two at the earliest, but man, I’m starting this conference off exhausted already, so who knows how long I’ll manage to keep up with all my busy, hard-partying friends. The second half of this post might be awfully short.

But I have a full day ahead, and I’m eager to get to meeting folks, so I’m off until tonight.


Well, it’s currently 8 pm. I should be at a pool party right now. But it turns out that I’m nearly 40 years old, and my knee hurts, and I slept too little, and whatever other excuses I can pile on here. And even though those are all just excuses, I’ll add one more — the most important – and tell you that I’m making good progress on the novella revisions I owe Blue Skirt Productions, and I’m perfectly happy for any excuse to call it an early night so I can sit in my (now relatively quiet) hotel room and write.

Not that it hasn’t been a full day.

But, as I hinted in earlier posts, it’s been a different kind of full, one in which I get to do my own things according to my own agenda, and much as I love having students assign me homework (tit for tat, y’all!), I am liking this new, arguably purer way of experiencing AWP.

So, things I’ve gotten up to today while I’ve been my own boss:

By the time I’d walked the 1.2 miles from my hotel to the conference, found the line for registration, navigated my way through the meandering ropes in order to register, and then found my way to the post-line line to pick up my tote bag and a lanyard, I had not only missed my 9 am panel, I was nearly running late for the 10:30 panel.

Still, I made it to a solid panel — right there in the bookfair itself — on chapbook publishing. I can’t say that I learned anything I didn’t already know (I’ve written about chapbooks here in this blog before, and I’ve published one already and I’m publishing another later this year), but it was a good panel, full of quips and one-line advice, some of which I tweeted during the discussion.

More interestingly, though, one of the panelists is an editor at a press where I’ve recently submitted a chapbook (fingers crossed!), and even better, when I laughed at a panelist’s line disparaging a certain Hollywood celebrity who thinks he’s a writer, a friend of mine recognized my laughter (apparently, I have an immediately recognizable laugh) and snapped a photo of me during the panel. Thanks, Jane!

Photo courtesy Jane Rosenberg LaForge.

Photo courtesy Jane Rosenberg LaForge.


Afterward, with no other panels on my agenda, I headed to the Blue Skirt Productions table to help staff it for a while.

I love helping friends sell books that I believe in, and sure, Blue Skirt is publishing a novella of mine later this year and is including me in their microfiction anthology that comes out in May, but anyone who followed my AWP posts last year knows that I’ve been a fan of their books for a long while. So it’s no trouble for me to hawk Blue Skirt‘s not-really-YA child abuse series by Gayle Towel, or their haunting psychopathic-prophet novella, or their veterans’ War Stories anthology, or their Butch/Femme photo anthology, or their adult coloring books. Also, they’re sharing a booth with Sally K. Lehman, who has two books that I have blurbed before, her parental grief anthology Bear the Pall and her powerful novel In the Fat, so it was no trouble to help sell those books either.

What I found interesting today was how quiet I become and how strong my impulse is to slink into a shadowy corner and disappear whenever anyone at that table celebrated my work. Blue Skirt and Sally were kind enough to let me set out copies of my chapbook Box Cutters and my novel Hagridden for sale, and they sold books for me. But to hear anyone describe my novel, for example, as one of their favorite novels ever, to hear people compare it to books like Slaughterhouse-five or The Red Badge of Courage — I honestly don’t know what to do with praise like that. It’s one of the things that makes me such a terrible salesman of my own work. I believe in the stories that I write, and I believe that they are worth sharing with other people. But I don’t know how to celebrate them in the same way that I celebrate the works of others.

So that was an interesting experience today.


Eventually, my poet friend Brianna Pike found me and we went to a late lunch, where we talked about fitting our writing into our busy lives, and teaching at community colleges and the pleasure we take from that — the essential importance of that level of work — and how fortunate we feel to have spouses who support our creative endeavors.

Bri, some longtime readers might remember, is the friend who brought me to her community college in Indiana to speak about and read from my novel in 2014; she is also the friend whose panel on maintaining a creative life while teaching I attended and wrote about from AWP last year.

She is also a dear friend, and she is one hell of a poet. One of my all time favorites. And over lunch we talked about her own manuscript, which is coming together, and which I am so eager to see in print.


Bri and I had a lot to catch up on, so our lunch ran long, and afterward I stopped in at the bookfair only long enough to sell a copy of one of Blue Skirt’s coloring books before I had to grab my bags and head off to another panel.

I chose a panel on teaching students who want to write about social justice, mostly because last term, in my introduction to composition class, I had a student write about her experiences as an immigrant to America, and another student write about her experiences as a woman in a male-dominated profession, and another student write about his experiences as a mixed-race child in an impoverished, single-parent family. Each of them touched on so many deeply important issues that I, as a cis white male from a moderately impoverished but relatively privileged to background, could never write about myself. So I wanted to learn some techniques for how to guide students through writing about experiences that I don’t share.

The panel was good, though mostly the panelists adopted a formal, “academic conference” approach and simply read from papers, so while I learned some things, it wasn’t as engaging as I wished it had been. Still, I took note of their names so I could look up their work elsewhere and continue to learn from them, because they had some good ideas.

And then it was off to a reading hosted by the American Literary Review, the magazine I used to work for when I was in my doctoral program at the University of North Texas. I’ve always had an affinity for that magazine, and I have become fiercely defensive of it in recent years as the university has cut its budget and taken it from a renowned print magazine to an online-only magazine. (I love online mags and ALR is still a hell of a publication; it’s not the medium but the budget issues that bother me).

And UNT continues to draw strong writers as students, so I always enjoy meeting the new cohorts in my old program. Last year, in fact, I met the former managing editor Caitlin Pryor, who impressed me tremendously at the time. Later that same summer, we reconnected at Sewanee Writers’ Conference, where she was studying with the poets, and we became good friends. Tonight, I reconnected with Caitline and some of the other ALR alumni from last year, and I also met another fellow fiction writer and another poet, as well as the new production editor (my old job at ALR), and every one of them made me miss my old grad-school days!

20160331_175234This year’s reading was at a whisk(e)y library, a dangerous place for me because I am such a fan of whisk(e)ys. The back room that the magazine reserved was small and a bit crowded, but it was a perfect location for a literary reading, and the work people read was beautiful. Most interestingly, from a personal perspective, was that one of the poets is a newly transplanted Portlander (I got a lot of laughter when I woo-hooed a shout-out to Portland during his bio) and another was, to my surprise, a fellow Sewanee alum from this past year. So it was a fantastic way to end my evening.

Not that the evening itself has ended. Most of the people at the ALR reading — and a few other friends who messaged me later — tried to convince me to join them for a dance party later this evening. Because sometimes I think this is the real purpose of AWP: to bring writers together not to share their work or sell their work or even to talk about their work, but simply to enjoy each other’s company, in party after party.

And there was a time I would’ve joined them, even though I look terrible in a bathing suit and I can’t dance for anything. But the truth is, I am now middle-aged, and I feel it. Particularly after such a rough morning, after so little sleep, with so much work ahead of me.

I found, walking away from the bar tonight, that I was looking forward to my hotel room, where I could pull out my writing and get back to the work of revision. Because really, whatever else we’re here for, isn’t that the point?

Aren’t we all here for the words?