AWP surprised me.
Not because of its size – with 14,000 participants, it’s an enormous conference, a kind of Comic Con for literary snobs, but I was prepared for that, and, perhaps oddly, I didn’t feel overwhelmed by it.
No, what surprised me was this: I thought I knew MFA culture. The kinds of things that it is okay to talk about in this world (plot, point of view, how to craft a sentence) and the things that it isn’t (commercial fiction, self-publishing) and the things that technically could be, I suppose, but not that many people are that interested so we don’t talk about them much, really (translation, writing across languages, writing about famous people, pen names). AWP defied those expectations.
The very first talk I went to set the tone, my own personal theme for the week: permission.
I was late, of course, because my flight had got in late and I am not great at the whole getting up in the morning thing, let alone the whole finding where I’m going in the pouring rain without an umbrella. I scribbled notes messily in a notebook other than my Official And Very Neatly Written AWP Notebook. So I don’t remember much of what it was about. The topic, the reason I’d even attempted to get there for 9 am, was “Pop Goes the Headline: Crafting the Popular in Literary Fiction”. Received “wisdom” is that it’s not okay to put popular references in novels because it dates the book. (Which I’ve never understood – to me, it adds to the flavour of the book, to its setting. One of the reasons I loved One Day was the cultural references I recognised from the 1990s and beyond into the twenty-first century. Yes, of course the author is writing after the fact – why is that different, though? Stories don’t exist in a vacuum. They are a product of their time, even if they are trying to be timeless. The timelessness comes from the themes and the characters, not which Britney song is in the charts or whether they are using iPods or walkmans to listen to them. Anyway, rant over.) Point being, my first novel, so far unpublished but on which I have by no means given up, was written at the height of my West Wing fever. My characters are West Wing fans. Somehow, this is not okay in the way that it would be okay if they were, say, obsessed with the Mets. Obviously, these things should serve the story; I think that my characters’ obsession does. Well, I asked the question. Was it okay to do this? The panellists said, go for it.
I could have gone home at this point.
I can be me and still be a legit writer. Yay.
I’d paid for a hotel and a flight home three days later, though, so I stayed.
The nerd novel panel on day two scratched some of these same itches, even more deeply and satisfyingly. Defined as “a novel that depends on a specific, esoteric body of knowledge”, the nerd novel is arguably having something of a heyday – among the examples given was “The Dismal Science” by one of the panellists, Peter Mountford, which depends on his “expertish” knowledge of economics. But we went back over history and looked at examples such as HG Wells’ novels and Dr Lydgate in “Middlemarch”, whose character and professional life are intertwined; how he operates as a doctor directly affects the plot. (This was by far the most information-rich, deeply researched and fascinating talk I heard at AWP – as evidenced by the amount of notes I took. It was like sitting in what I had hoped my lit classes would be.) The most interesting thing about a character, argued one of the panellists, is what they are interested in. I love the idea of this – the idea that if you write a compelling enough character, the readers will be drawn into the subject, sometimes despite themselves. Practicalities were discussed at this panel, but overwhelmingly, again, what I came away with was permission. I can write about people obsessed with politics. Or French grammar. Or grammar in general. Or really anything I become reasonably proficient in. Expertish, in other words. What a great opportunity to learn new things and go down some fascinating rabbit holes! And thank you for letting me be me, AWP. And for giving me hope that someone might want to read what I write.
When I got to the nerd novel panel, though, my heart was already full. I’d spent the last hour or so listening to four wonderful women talk about their experience with English as their “stepmother tongue”, of their experience writing of other cultures, blending English and other languages. Often, when people talk about this kind of stuff, it’s in reference to Junot Diaz, and I think to myself, “yeah but that’s Spanish and Spanish is cool. I could never do that with French”. Or it’s about faraway countries, and I think to myself, “yeah, but no one wants to hear about Belgium”. Or it’s about the immigrant experience and that isn’t quite me, either.
Well, these women were writing about Cyprus and Cuba and Serbia, blending English with Greek and Spanish and Serbian. I realise those are probably deeply exotic places to an American audience, but to me, they feel much more familiar than a lot of other places. It’s a short step from Cyprus and Serbia, from Spanish and Greek, to Belgium and to French. I have been thinking a lot about my bilingualism lately, about whether translation can be a viable career for me, about how I can bring what feel like two very separate parts of me together to enrich my writing. (Okay, maybe I hadn’t been thinking about it with anything like that clarity, but my thoughts had at least been orbiting those realms.) This talk was inspiration, comfort, encouragement. It reached further than my brain; it reached my soul. I was so grateful for it.
I was grateful, in general, for the many different panels along these lines – for the one on “third culture kids” (people who grew up in a country or, most likely, several countries, other than their parents’, never quite being able to answer the question “where are you from?” with anything like ease). For the many approaches to translation and to writing between languages. I didn’t, of course, go to all of those talks. It’s not even close to possible to go to everything you want to, since most of what you want to go to runs concurrently, especially if, like me, you have many interests and write across several genres – but I was so thankful there was so much space given to these issues. There is room for me in the literary world! I so often feel like I don’t quite fit – and sometimes I’m not even sure I want to, so I’m okay with that, I think, except that I also want to be published, and I also, of course, want everyone to love my writing, because I’m human.
After the “stepmother language” panel, I talked to one of the speakers.
At some point, she told me, you will have to decide if you want to write to make money or you want to write what you love.
That sounds restricting, but it was permission, too.
I want to write what I love.
I want to be published, too, of course. Maybe I can write some of each. But maybe I should write what I love, and give the rest a little nudge with my thumb if need be but basically let it take care of itself. Maybe I should, in other words, be me.
AWP gave me so much permission. Permission to play with my languages, to let the mix of them and of the cultures in me enrich my writing. Permission to nerd out and let my characters nerd out too. Permission, too, at a really fun panel, to write about famous people in memoir, in a way that speaks to larger truths about myself or society in general. (I am not quite there yet; my favourite actor is not an objective correlative, he is a person, screams my heart, but I am increasingly convinced there is such a memoir in my future.)
Permission to be broadly curious, because although it is good to write about what we know, “what we know” is a work in progress. It doesn’t have to be a work in progress. So I’ll keep taking those ballet classes, those acting lessons, even though I’m not really sure why I’m doing them. I’ll learn new things. I’ll deepen my knowledge of Shakespeare (not, I am ashamed to say, difficult). I’ll read Psychology Today for no discernible reason other than to understand people better. I’ll travel and I’ll people watch and I’ll read about current affairs. This is all good. It’s all fuel to my fiction even if I don’t get round to burning that particular fuel for a long time.
Permission to cross genres, to use some speculation in a novel/memoir hybrid I’m trying. Permission, at a panel on commercial fiction, to read Dan Brown. Not that I want to, particularly, but the point was: this guy’s doing something right, we should learn from him. The point was: let’s all look beyond literary fiction. It was also: if I’m entertained, the book is succeeding on some level. Permission, therefore, to write books that entertain. To work a little harder at that and a little less hard at impressing people. Permission, at the same panel, to use pen names and multiple author identities to write different genres – something I have also been thinking about. But also permission, and I’m not just saying this because my classmate Will Byrne and my wonderful professor Stephanie Grant were on this particular panel, to be wowed by beautiful sentences and to seek to replicate something of their sound, their rhythm, their lyricism. It doesn’t have to be either/or.
AWP isn’t either/or, either. It’s both/and. Both exhilarating and exhausting, for example. There are parties and there are signings and there is a book fair – you can spend the whole time fangirling and buying books and dancing and getting drunk with famous authors if you want to – but I don’t know how anyone has time or energy for any of that. Panels start at 9 am and end at 5.45 pm and there are 15 min breaks between each session – barely enough time to fill up your bottle of water and find the next conference room, let alone actually sit down to eat. There were readings or keynote speeches by some truly great writers in the evenings but by then I was at saturation point. All I wanted to do was lie very still for several hours. Maybe next year, I’ll be more chilled. I won’t feel the need to go to another panel on research because it will basically tell me the same thing all the panels do every year. (Do lots of research! Or not! But at some point stop and write! And then cut most of the research out of your novel!) I won’t need to go to panels on the ethics of memoir because now I know that people will probably always be upset if they’re in your book, and if they’re not, they’ll be upset that they’re not, and no amount of sitting in rooms listening to someone else talk about this is going to help me decide if I am okay with writing memoir, given all this. I will know, next year, that the panels on “what to do after your MFA” are not really about how to carve out time for your writing but how to apply for grants and awards and I can probably find most of this information online. So maybe all of this will clear some time for browsing the bookstore. Maybe even stopping for lunch.
Another both/and of AWP: it’s reassuring and depressing too, at least it was for me, if I let myself think about it too hard. Look at all these people, 14,000 of them, and so many of them are working so hard to Get There (wherever There is), and so few of them are achieving it, and so many of those who are not are more talented and certainly more hard-working than I am, so what hope is there for me? On the other hand, so many people here have written books, and even finished them and got them published, and what’s wrong with me?
These thoughts passed, though. They couldn’t not pass. There is something magical, something elevating, about being in such an intense, intellectually stimulating, literature-loving environment. About being in rooms where the vast majority of things said and the vast majority of questions asked were insightful and interesting and thought-provoking. It’s no wonder that the hashtag #awp15 was still going strong the day we travelled home and the day after that; people were having trouble returning to their real lives, thinking about feeding the cat or unpacking their suitcases or going to work. We’d had such an intense experience together, like teenagers at summer camp. I couldn’t have maintained this pace for a single more day, yet I also wanted it to go on forever and ever.
My despondent thoughts passed too, because over and over, I was given this gift of permission. This gift of hope. The world already has plenty of writers who are not me. Maybe it needs someone who is.