Thursday, February 19, 2009

Work in Progress: AWP Report

Yes, yes, as always AWP was exhausting and exciting. Steve came along with me, even though I warned him that being around 7000 writers isn’t always pretty. (He noted the waves of clove cigarette smoke wafting around the hotel entranceway…and quickly learned that he had to be aggressive to jam onto an elevator during the 15-minute breaks between panels.)

I thought the Hilton was fine enough, though as usual, the AWP people made some major mistakes in room scheduling (what’s worse, 40 people in a room for 250 or 250 people in a room for 40? I exaggerate only slightly.). So I was too claustrophobic to squeeze into two inches of floor space for “Ways to Read Like a Writer” and had to miss that one.

Otherwise, I saw some excellent panels and some wonderful readings. Highlights include:

--“Fictionalizing Family”: about how to (or whether to) write about your family. No definitive answers of course, but a very well-organized Q&A format with smart writers. Why do we remember certain, seemingly innocuous things from our past? Perhaps it’s best not to show anything to your family/friends until AFTER it’s published, because there’s nothing they can do and no way they can affect the outcome. The famous quote (not sure by whom--??) was mentioned several times: “Write as if everyone you know is dead.” And most of the panelists agreed that, in general, if a family member doesn’t want to see themselves in one of your characters…they won’t.

--“Smart Girls: The Ambition Game”: about how to balance (or is it survive?) the business side of the writing life while still being true to the spirit that makes you want to write. Again, no definitive answers, but some very smart women asking some tough questions. Among the lines I jotted down: “Writing is a spiritual act, not a line on a resume”; a quote from Marge Piercy, “work is its own cure. You have to like it better than being loved”; “we write for the largest sense of the word ‘ambition,’ to change the world…cash is small compared to righting the world.” That last bit is from Dorothy Allison’s (author of Bastard Out of Carolina) rousing charge to write for art’s sake, to reach for the top—for the glory of language and words, to have Olympian ambitions. She got an immediate standing ovation and sent many in the audience digging through their purses for Kleenex. Sadly I missed her Friday night reading, but now that I’ve seen her speak, I’d drive 50 miles through the snow to see her…she was INCREDIBLE.

--I also enjoyed seeing my South Carolina friends read, Rick Mulkey (poet, author of Toward Any Darkness) and Susan Tekulve (fiction). He read some new poems which were extraordinary, and she read part of her novel-in-stories which was achingly beautiful.

--David Vann is the author of Legend of a Suicide, the AWP winner for short fiction, and the story he read was fantastic. (Steve is partway through the book and is loving it.) The woman who introduced him noted that he writes from a dark place that doesn’t have any “convenient light switches.” It was also heartening in that sick writer way that David Vann said he worked on this book for 10 years, and his agent refused to send it out because it’s so hard to get story collections published. (Check the link above for the rave review this book got in the New York Times Book Review…so there, silly agent!)

--The Book Fair was its usual, crazy self…I thought I had seen everything until I discovered a whole giant room I’d missed. I bought some subscriptions to journals I like (Tin House, McSweeney’s) and some new ones (32 Poems, Quiddity) and bought/picked up enough interesting sample copies to warrant a trip to the hotel’s mailing center so I wouldn’t set off the cash register connected to the airplane luggage scale. Note to book fair people: Interestingly, I tended to buy things from people who engaged me in conversation, and not from the sullen people slumping behind tables studiously avoiding all eye contact.

--Steve roamed around the book fair on his own for a bit, and it was interesting to hear his reactions as an “outsider” (“There are a lot of literary journals out there”) and to see what he bought on his own. I was impressed: he bought a well-regarded HC memoir from W.W. Norton, an intriguingly offbeat novel from Tin House Books, and he even took a chance on a poetry chapbook. We read some of it the other night, and I’m impressed with what he ferreted out on his own: Dear Wild Abandon, by Andrew Michael Roberts was selected by Mark Strand (one of my faves) for the Poetry Society of America, and the book is different and wonderful. Here’s one of the poems (yes, this is the whole thing):

“The Moon”
All the other moons
get their own names.

--Here’s a novel thought that probably should not have to be pointed out, people: Babies—and their unpredictable behavior—don’t belong at readings and panels. Toddlers should not be expected to enjoy a crowded book fair.

--Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my fabulous Polish-American colleagues: poet Linda Nemec Foster, short story writer Anthony Bukoski, poet John Minczeski, and poet John Guzlowski. We read at the Polish Museum of America, and then at AWP itself. I wasn’t sure who might show up at such a panel, but it was a lovely and sizeable audience, including one woman who said she had waited all day to hear us read because she hadn’t known there were other Polish-American writers out there. And that, more than anything, is what AWP is about…connections (the nice kind) and community!

And, what you’ve really been waiting for, food highlights:

--Lou Malnati’s pizza with buttercrust
--pumpkin dumplings and (too many) vodka flights at Russian Tea Time
--whitefish at Miller’s Pub
--Valentine’s Day dinner arranged by Steve at the Cape Cod Room, at the Drake Hotel, where we were married.

And people highlights:

--It seems as though AWP brings me in contact with every writer I’ve ever met, but I have a special “hi and miss you already” to Rachel, Anna, Mary, Rick, Susan! Hope to see you next year in Denver!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.