Day two of the annual pilgrimage for writers-who-work-in-academia begins on the night of Day One, during which I call Joel and ask him to put me on the next flight home. It’s snowing outside and my strategy to bring no jacket on account of my being across the street from the convention center is backfiring with droplets of ice which melt on my pants and sweater and keep me frozen the whole time.
“Get me home,” I plead. “I don’t want to be here anymore. I don’t want to do this anymore.” Ponytail guy at the restaurant really got me down. Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott were brilliant in the keynote but gazing from the nose-bleed sections at the crowds they draw makes me realize that I may never achieve the kind of recognition that I aspire to: filling up at least half an auditorium of writers.
Time to let the usual insecurities kick in: I’m not good enough; being published means nothing; the whole system is just eating itself and starving; if it were to happen (what will happen? Something elusive like enlightenment, some magical aha, blast of the trumpets and ring of the bell moment when heavenly voices sing “Laura is a legitimate writer”) it would have happened by now. Joel says he worries about me, and because I know that man to have some powerful mojo, I am not surprised when I find myself sleeping peacefully without a worry in my heart only moments later.
Magically, in the morning, my phone begins to buzz with texts from old friends and colleagues I had imagined as considering an evening with me as a waste of their networking capital. This is Joel’s mojo working: out to prove that I do have friends, and that they do like me, even though I may not be much of a blurb for their next book.
Naturally, the second agent’s panel, “The Right First Book” is filled to capacity. This time, instead of letting writers camp outside the doors, looking morosely for a relinquished seat, a man in uniform approaches me with his hand up even before I’m in the foyer. “Full,” he says. “No room.”
“Can’t I just wait for a seat?” I propose, just as a woman struggling with a big puffy coat and catching her breath sneaks past him.
He misunderstands my question: “She just went to pee.”
I consider sneaking in from the front door, but nah, Security Man peaks over the column at me, and I imagine being arrested for breaking into the literary sanctuary.
In search of a substitute I accidentally stumble into a Tribute Reading to Gail Mazur: exactly the kind of thing that a fiction writer and possible new magazine founder needs to be doing at the AWP. I stay for long enough not to declare myself the uncouth poetry snubber that I am, and when a break in the reading gives me the opportunity, I quietly sneak out.
Panel #3 is the WITS Alliance’s Founder’s Toolkit:How to Start a Nonprofit in Your Own Backyard. This is the panel I should have aimed for in the first place. By the time I get here, the panel talk is wrapping down and getting ready for the Q&A, but already a panelist rattles out the name of a software that does projections and other analytics for free and I try not to make an ass of myself as I do what my students often do when they arrive late, craning my neck to look over my neighbor’s notes and whispering, “What is the name of the software he just mentioned?” Like, “What did I miss?” or my favorite: “Wait, what are we doing?”
Either I mumble or I my tardiness spoke through me because the very patient neighbor who has endured my jacket wrestling, tote searching, and pen clicking is now giving me a “sum up” of the entire panel. “No, no,” I say. “I just want to know the name of the program he just mentioned.” She gives me the title of the panel and at this point, I nod politely and pay attention, trying to catch up and scribbling furious notes. It turns out that the WIT Alliance totally has it together. Even at these late stages, it’s a powerhouse of information for getting academia to support and sponsor literary programs as well as a how-to for avoiding the usual bureaucratic pitfalls.
Next is “The Future of the MFA program,” mostly brilliant, raising challenging questions similar to the ones brought up in Stephanie Vanderslice’s groundbreaking book, Rethinking Creative Writing. The only downer is the journalist professor who manages to insult his audience four times before admitting that reporting is very much all about storytelling.
I run into an old friend, Sandy Barron, whose literary career has had far more success than mine, and together we head for “Authors Who Rock Social Media to Sell Books.” The cavernous room is just starting to fill and there are plenty of seats and space for our now journal-filled, pamphlet brimming totes to rest beside us without cramping us. We fall into easy conversation and catch up on old times as well as discuss some of the panels we’ve been to when we realize that it’s 25 minutes into the session and the panelists have yet to show up. The projector is on, however, and the internet connection sound. The techs at Georgia Southern would balk at the wasted use of those expensive projector lightbulbs.
I look around the room: most of the attendees are engaged in significant conversations with each others, while a few are looking around or looking at their watch to figure out if they are in the wrong room, or in the wrong time zone, or in the wrong dimension altogether. But no, it’s just that the panelists are not here. Rocking Social Media, they might have sent an FB message or Twitter or Text or Pinterest or Stumble Upon or whatever, but no, just an empty room. Too late now to go to another panel.
We spend another 20 minutes trying to treck an AWP organizer to ask if there is any chance that the panel might have been rescheduled or changed. No one on the third floor; no one on the second floor, but we are redirected to the registration area to share the complaint. At the registration area, we are told, “What? And they didn’t even Twitter?”
And then we are directed to “a web link right behind you” (?) and he points to some tables where exhausted writers are blogging. “Fill out a complaint,” they say. “So we know these are not trustworthy panelists.” Instead we just go to lunch.
It snows like a m.f. and now it’s sticking, really sticking, and the line at TOSS is so long that I miss “How To Break Into Book Reviewing” Although the answer seems obvious (read book as early as possible; write review; submit; repeat process querying increasingly prestigious publications) nonetheless I’m bummed out.
I make it in time to The Origin of Contemporary Fabulist Fiction just in time to score a seat, a rarity at every fiction-themed panel so far. Jammed in the cramped seats I learn that Raymond Carver and Dirty Realism are, in a sense, origins of Fabulism. I’m skeptical at first but by the second paper I’m persuaded. This panel gets an A+ and already I’m more optimistic about this whole endeavor.
Off to “Born Again: The Rise of University Literary Journals.” Had this panel been offered last year, when I was charged by the Dean to find out the operating budgets of every University-connected journals in the country, and where they get their money from, and how they justify it, I would have cried on my knees with joy and gratitude. As it is, I’m scribbling furious notes, nodding, nodding, pleased and grateful that the editors of this panel are so generous, so open, and so forthcoming. Where were you, people, when all those phones were slammed in my face, and when all those emails that at first promised a “sure, I’d love to help you out” turned silent once I posed my questions? I am so glad for you. So glad.
My phone is buzzing with more texts from old friends, people I really love to see. A pleasant dinner with Margaret Luongo and Sandy Barron, and the conversation turns from “remember Sewanee? Remember Richard Blanco?” to religion in the classroom, author photos, Amy Bloom’s bisexual life, and war and art in literature.
Off to Amy Bloom and Richard Russo. Bloom makes me laugh, but Richard Russo, who reads from a memoir about his cousin’s work with cow hides tanning and curing brings tears to my eyes. The takeaway: be grateful that you don’t have that life; what have you done to merit your privileges? I ask myself this question all the time, and it’s heartening to know that Richard Russo, too, whose career I envy and whose work inspires me, is conscious of the fragility of our condition, and gracious enough to remember what it’s like to be teetering on the brink of financial disaster — something most of us teachers and writers know a little something about .