So Ten Thousand Writers Walk Into A Hotel Bar…

March 8, 2012 § 5 Comments

We’ve been suffering from a surplus of opportunities lately, and I’m finally beginning to feel rested and laundered enough to talk about them!

welcome, writersWeekend before last, the Piper Center for Creative Writing hosted the Desert Nights, Rising Stars writer’s conference where the visiting poets included Carolyn Forché, Eleanor Wilner, A. Van Jordan, and Denise Duhamel, and that star-studded list barely scratches the surface of the brilliance we had the pleasure of hosting. It would be hard for me to pinpoint a personal highlight. I moderated a panel on Poetry of Witness featuring Forché, Wilner, and ASU’s own Cynthia Hogue, in which Wilner called for a renaming of “political” poetry to citizen’s poetry. I like that, the sense of belonging, the responsibility it invokes.

And maybe some of you know about an intimate gathering of a few writers in Chicago this past weekend. AWP was a madhouse, and there were 10,000 writers there for the first time in the association’s history. Think about that: ten thousand writers. It was something I tried to wrap my mind around the entire time I was there, watching all of the be-scarved, be-spectacled pea coats waddling around the conference hotels, weighted down from all those books, journals, and lit mags. What can we make of that many writers in one place? What does it do for us? Obviously, the panels and readings and the book fair and all that shaking hands with other people who love what we love—there’s undeniable value there. But it’s something else, too, something airborne.

Margaret Atwood was the keynote speaker this year, and while her speech was delightful (and short), I kept thinking back to a lecture she delivered at Hay On Wye back in 1995 in which she talked about the moment she realized she was a writer:

The day I became a poet was a sunny day of no particular ominousness. I was walking across the football field, not because I was sports-minded or had plans to smoke a cigarette behind the field house — the only other reason for going there — but because this was my normal way home from school. I was scuttling along in my usual furtive way, suspecting no ill, when a large invisible thumb descended from the sky and pressed down on the top of my head. A poem formed. It was quite a gloomy poem: the poems of the young usually are. It was a gift, this poem — a gift from an anonymous donor, and, as such, both exciting and sisnister at the same time.

I suspect this is the way all poets begin writing poetry, only they don’t want to admit it, so they make up more rational explanations. But this is the true explanation, and I defy anyone to disprove it.

She was 16 years old when this happened to her (“I did not intend to do it. It was not my fault,” she says in the essay, and I can vividly imagine the smirk I’d bet accompanied it, since she used it liberally during her keynote last Thursday). And it’s this sense of a “large invisible thumb” coming down from the sky that struck me as I elbowed my way through the crowded aisles of the book fair. That there’s something tremendously moving about people buying plane tickets, booking hotel rooms, spending practical resources like time and money to descend upon a city to be around other writers. What we do can be so lonely at the heart of it, and as overwhelming and hectic as these conferences can be, there’s  reminder in the midst of it all, one to keep in your pocket for those quiet moments when you sit at your desk and wonder, what am I doing: that there are at least 10,000 people who, at any given moment, might feel the same. Who share this shape-making impulse, for all its joys and stresses. And there’s something marvelously big and valuable about that fact.

For more thoughts on wrapping up AWP, what it’s all for, what you go home with other than severe sleep deprivation and 30+ pounds of books, you may also want to check out “Writer’s Respond: What I Learned at AWP 2012,” which has a lot of funny, big-hearted observations (don’t forget to check out part 2 and part 3). My favorite is Brian Oliu’s: “Editors are writers who are publishers who are friends who are drinkers who are huggers who are lovely people, of which most of them are rooting for you on your search for capturing something fantastic.”

And now, I’ll pose this question to the peanut gallery: did you have a “large invisible thumb” moment when you realized you were a writer? Was it a gift from an anonymous donor? Or a birthmark you came out of the womb with? Tell us that story.

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§ 5 Responses to So Ten Thousand Writers Walk Into A Hotel Bar…

  • Courtney says:

    Here’s my charming anecdote: I wrote my first short story at age six. I also illustrated, bound, and published it myself. My mother wanted a copy for my grandmother, so I made another one. Take that, Amazon; I’ve been printing-on-demand since the early 90s. The story is about a girl who wants donuts for dinner. When her mother refuses, the girl throws a tantrum–shockingly similar to tantrums of the nature I was prone to myself, laying on the ground, feet-kicking–and storms off. During the night, the girl grows antlers and is banished to the backyard with the dog. Quite the moral tale! And seemingly so original! My mom was utterly thrilled. But, alas, my first work of fiction was a sham, and based directly off of a book I had seen reviewed by Lavar Burton on Reading Rainbow, which I watched religiously. But don’t take my word for it:

    So, as a writer of hard realist fiction, I have often come across the question (well, okay, Laura asked me once) of why I don’t try magical realism. And the answer is that, even in first grade, I don’t have the originality to pull off the unreal unless it’s a thinly veiled plagiarism.

    See also, my second short story, also at age six: The Littlest Christmas Tree, in which a squirrel sees into a family’s house where a Christmas dinner is going on, complete with a classically trimmed tree. This squirrel takes some time off from acorn-gathering to seek out a small tree for himself, but all of the trees are toooo big to get into the hole in the oak tree where he lives (like all cartoon squirrels). So, he and another squirrel cut a branch off of a fir tree, drag it back, and celebrate the joy of Christmas. This heart-warming tale was another of my mother’s favorite things I had ever done. And once again, she’d been duped by my prowess for plagiarism:

    But later, I was glad to hear Oscar Wilde’s comforting aphorism: Talent Imitates, Genius Steals. A writer was born!

    • Rachel says:

      Courtney, you’re amazing. T.S. Eliot and his theory of tradition and original talent would say that your bouts of plagiarism have energized the canon for the rest of history!

      You know, one of the reasons I ask about all of this is that I don’t remember having a moment like this. I started keeping a note book where I’d write poems and stories when I was about 6. I don’t remember when I got it into my head that it was something worth doing, but from that point on, I figured I’d be a writer. In fact, early on, I decided, practical child that I was, I’d be a baker AND a writer, because I needed a job that would pay the bills. So I’d be a baker and I’d write poems while the bread baked.

  • Sara says:

    Courtney, these are brilliant. I wrote a poem when I was five about a shell; it was quite haiku-like, something about its slope sloping like a snowy hill. I think I was subconsciously paying tribute to my own writerly idol, the one and only Shel Silverstein.

    While I want many and more (and all!) of these stories, I’m also curious about other folks’ reactions to AWP– overwhelmed? Happy to have found one mind-blowing reading/discussion panel? I kinda lurked around behind scenes this year, so fill me in;).

  • Adrienne says:

    Sorry I’m late to this conversation…when I think back, a writer is really all I ever wanted to be, which makes it difficult to pinpoint any one moment of revelation. I can remember being in my grandmother’s kitchen, which always (even after a remodel) smelled like caramelized soy sauce and oil, and deciding I wanted to be a veterinarian because I thought animals were nifty. But then I changed my mind about five minutes later.

    So maybe that counts as a birthmark fresh from the womb? My mother does always say that I was her child most likely to be born with a tail. Which is fairly writerly, I think: almost blessed by peculiarity; damned forever after to tell the tale of what might have been.

    • Rachel says:

      Adrienne, I’m the same way—I was so young when I started carrying around a notebook, I never really had that epiphany moment. Though, i will say, getting into an MFA program was a pretty big high five. For me, it’s hasn’t been the moments I’VE realized I was a writer that made an impression—it’s those little (or sometimes not so little) recognitions from other folks (organizations and institutions, sometimes) that make you stand up a little straighter and think, “Wait. Someone ELSE registers that I’m a writer?!”

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