Tuesday, March 27, 2012

AWP: It's about living an artful life

You might not imagine that a bunch of writers have anything in common with the likes of Jamie Dimon or Angela Merkel, but it turns out THEY DO. Specifically when attending conferences among their peers and their competition. "The tension between self-celebration and self-doubt engenders a kind of social electricity," commented a Davos observer, and that same feeling could be applied to the experience of attending the Association of Writers and Writing Programs [AWP] Conference, held in Chicago earlier this month. Really, who is more self-celebrating AND self-doubting than a writer? Whether you were angling through the coffee line (SO LONG), brushing shoulders with a MacArthur Genius in the hallway, or attempting to order a beer at the hotel bar without being ogled, the ego stroking and eye scoping were abundant, it's true.

But stories of conference fatigue have already been well documented throughout the interwebs and snark was never my strong suit. This was my first AWP and I felt lucky to be a little nobody, avoiding the hallway noise to nose about the panels and readings. Here are a few of my AWP highlights:

Back From the Crash: Michigan Authors Reflect on Crisis and Renewal
Panel of Michigan writers reading their work about Michigan. U of M Professor Laura Thomas recounted how often she's asked "when she's going to get the hell out of Michigan," and her essay answered that question with defiance. She cited the fact that Michiganders have always chased "opportunity in mean livings," a sentiment that felt very true (though I did get the hell out of Michigan, for nearly a decade now).

Lolita Hernandez, author and former UAW worker, described her work in the car factories from a first hand perspective, a rare thing. "My life has been shaped by the pen and the hammer," she wrote. Her piece evoked a pride in her community and their shared hardscrabble history. To finish, she aimed a cheeky barb at Chicago, echoing something similar I read in the depression-era WPA guide to Detroit, comparing the drab work-a-day town to the "boom and glitter of Chicago."

"We came to work," Hernandez recited. "If you wanted to play, you went to Chicago."

I will particularly remember Kevin Rashid's reading. He seemed shy at first, and I was expecting something gentle, but after his introduction he launched into a series of "voice monologues," pieces that were adapted from conversations with friends of his, and read in various Detroit neighborhood accents. His performance (that's what I'd call it) was visceral, biting and real. One of his characters asked himself why he'd ever want to live anywhere else, when he could "realize exquisite exile right here at home." Takes a moment before you get how perfect that description is.

Will Write for Food
It should come as no surprise that this panel was packed with hungry writers standing in the back and hovering around the doorway. Too bad AWP didn't provide muffins. I was impressed by Patricia Lee Lewis, who runs a writing center in Vermont and travels the world leading writing and yoga retreats with the help of her assistant/husband. A former politician turned guru, Lewis shared a very personal story with us about what motivated her to write, and I found myself actually considering shilling out oodles of dollars for the chance to write, practice yoga and hang out at some beautiful, far off place under her guidance.

What Are You Going To Do With An MFA?
Ah, the million dollar question. Or, $50,000.00 dollar question to be exact. This panel featured graduates of the MFA Writing Program at SAIC who, 10 years out, had gone on to become television writers, non-profit CEOs, Museum Directors, and writing/yoga/reiki gurus (like Patricia Lee Lewis - there were a surprising number of gurus at AWP). They shared their stories of toil and trouble post graduation, and detailed how they eventually carved out a niche for themselves in the professional world. This panel was useful to me, and I appreciated the straightforward practicality of the subject. We're not all Hemingway you know, and I want dental insurance and a retirement plan just as badly as the next person.

The most valuable moment for me came at the end, during the Q. and A.  A woman sitting a few rows behind me rose and asked the panelists if, considering their present occupations, they still considered themselves writers. The question was dripping with that stuff I mentioned before, that hidden impudence the New Yorker writer was hinting at. And boy, did the electricity ignite. Before any of the panelists had a chance to respond, one of their former professors, who was sitting in the front row, jumped up and faced the poor, bold soul who'd asked. The professor began by stating she was enormously proud of each panelist, and went down the row, one by one, describing their individual writing talents and how those talents help them perform their jobs. The CEO - of 826National, mind you - she remembered as having a remarkable gift for sharing other people's stories, and was now using that gift to change the lives of children every day. Another, a former writer for Deadwood and now House, came to SAIC as a "child" with a wicked good voice and had blossomed to write for two Emmy Award winning TV shows. Another, the Museum Director, used her writing prowess to cultivate and open up art to others in a way that was moving and accessible, all while still managing to publish like, a hundred poetry books. It's not all about making money, or a brand name for yourself, she said - it's about living an "artful life."

She totally kicked ass, and I really wished I had been her student, too. Or that she could just give me a pep talk every now and then when I feel low. At the risk of getting all sanctimonious up in here, I will always believe in the value of people who can express themselves at an exceptional level.  When it comes to the workplace, I think it's a skill that's needed in every industry. People can starve trying to write the next great novel all they want, but you can't escape the basic fact that writers need to eat too. I'm encouraged by those who find a space to work in that incorporates their writing, in any capacity.

Ok, enough preaching. Overall, it was fun to play at being in graduate school again, and reconnect with a few friends -  I was lucky to share numerous drinks and eats with my lovely grad school classmate Lulu and had lunch with a poet friend from Minnesota who was there representing his small press. I'm not feeling too cynical yet - on to Boston!

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