I spent last week in a bubble. A beautiful, word bubble filled with writers and wordsmiths and the people who publish them.
Well, maybe it wasn’t so much a happy bubble as it was a vacuum, a wordy place from which no air could escape.
I guess it was a little bit of both.
Last week I attended the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference and bookfair (a place from which you cannot escape without being forced to take a tote bag). The AWP conference brings together more than 12,000 writers, teachers, students, editors, and publishers from all across North America who sit inside an otherwise bland convention center and marinate in each other’s words for four days. There are readings, lectures, panels, Q&A sessions, hook-ups (both literary and some slightly more personal in nature), drinking (and the apparently necessary “meetings” for those who drink too much), and a whole lot of “what genre are you?” chats. (Note: it’s best not to say you are a blogger, for bloggers seem to represent all that is unholy in writing. Just offering a bit of fair warning.)
And then there is the bookfair! Think State Fair hawking but with poetry journals.
Some people LOVE the bookfair—HEY, FREE STUFF—but I found it overwhelmingly repetitive. One booth was very much like the next. And their market seemed limited to the people in the room—MFA students and writers. No best sellers here. Just finely crafted poems and stories—some of the best writing I have seen. Beautiful and moving, but not really the kind of stuff that will pay the bills.
But that is really the point, isn’t it? Writing for dollars doesn’t always produce the words we need to read. The general public doesn’t want to read the poetry, the prose, the essays, the angst, the words that reflect back at us all the things we are trying to ignore and avoid in our everyday lives.
Outside of those convention walls Twilight, Divergent, and Fifty Shades of Grey mock what was going on inside. And inside the walls the contempt for commercially successful books was palpable. It’s not that there is anything wrong with commercial success, but in this particular company of writers, success is measured in blood, sweat, tears, and how often you’re published in a literary journal. THAT you wrote it outweighs the importance of how many people read it. In other words, write like nobody is reading and you’ll probably find peace as a writer (and with writers).
(Being the cynic that I am, I’m convinced there was not one writer at AWP who would turn their back on a big money deal. Even a writer’s soul has a price.)
All things being equal, I was probably out of my element most of the time at AWP, but I was not out of my head and I came out the other side with some new writing words to live by:
- Do not be afraid of “cliché” or “trite” for they are just starting points.
- Since, statistically, no one is reading your words you may as well take risks.
- Online writing doesn’t (or doesn’t have to) last to be valid and legitimate.
- Think of social media as a gentle matchmaking/community building tool, NOT a megaphone.
- Trust that “funny feeling” in your gut that tells you the writing isn’t authentic.
- Write by the moral code YOU define for yourself: “I was there. This is what I know.” But remember to respect the reader. One lie and the trust is gone.
- Two truths can coexist when each character is given the time to share their perspectives.
- Do not fear the BIG MESSY DRAFT for without it you have nothing to revise and edit.
- Kill the words—even the ones you love—if they don’t serve the work.
- Write like nobody is reading!
Now go write the words!