Thursday, March 14, 2013

It's Not About Ego

I’d been warned there’d be 12,000 egos to contend with.  I’d prepared myself for that, as I’d prepared myself before for writerly gatherings.  It’s easy to dismiss ego, even in yourself, to say: there it is, the worst of me, on display.  So I landed in Boston for AWP and for four days wandered in a maze of snowy sidewalks and sky bridge and mall – past the Louis Vitton store over and over – and into panels and meetings and, yes, the bars, expecting plenty of ego.  But I did not find it. 

Instead I sensed yearning.  Desperate palpable yearning.   Times 12,000.   And I was unnerved.

I wanted to dismiss this, too, chalk it up to fame-envy, the every-writer desire to be Terry-Gross-ed, Oprah-ed, Pulitzer-ed.  As if AWP were American Idol.  But that was not true, or not wholly so, either.  The yearning felt closer to the bone.   I went to one panel on how not to alienate your friends and family when writing memoir.  (The flippant answer “don’t write” was followed by nuanced answers, and two hundred heads nodded.)  Another panel on how to write political memoir without being polemic addressed real hard every day writerly decisions that require grace and courage, not just a grasp of story arc or dialogue or, god forbid, an effective social media platform.  I realized, slowly, over four days and with both relief and terror: All those people yearn to tell the story that’s inside them, to tell it real and tell it right and tell it beautifully.  And to be heard.

Enter the terror.  When I walked through the book fair and saw all those booths for lit journals and small presses, all those stories being told, I had to wonder:  Does anyone listen?

I wasn’t sure until I got on the plane to leave.  Late on Sunday after a run along the Charles River and some fine sushi and negotiating the subways, I walked the aisle of a super-packed Boston-Seattle nonstop and noticed everyone was reading.  Must’ve been conference attendees, I realized, because these were not just mega-sellers, but modest books of poetry, story collections, even essays.  Essays!  It’s easy to dismiss ours as an esoteric world, academic, insular.  Easy to say: Do you only write for writers?  (Well, maybe, but only to the extent that ballplayers only play for other ballplayers.  I figure the percentage of my readers who are non-writers is higher than Mariners fans who've never touched a glove.  But I digress.)  The thing is: I adore these books.  They say to me things that the mega-sellers don’t or can’t.   I love listening to people—musicians, artists, filmmakers, and especially writers—say what they must say as beautifully as they can.  People on that plane did, too.

So … I told myself not to buy more books than I could afford, but there was no point controlling that urge.  Among the fine writers whose books I hauled home in the roller bag were:

Amy Fusselman
Elena Passarello
Joy Castro
Harrison Candelaria Fletcher
Bonnie Rough
Roxane Gay
Lia Purpura
Barrie Jean Borich

Then there were the inevitable craft books:

Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Nonfiction
Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction ed. by Nicole Walker and Margot Singer
Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder

Finally there was To Show and To Tell by Phillip Lopate.

Lopate hardly counts as a yearning new voice, but I had to buy this book anyway.  I went to his signing and told him the introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay changed my life in 1994.  He shook my hand and said “I hope for the better.” 

Was AWP a good experience?  On balance not as good as hiking the Lakeshore Trail today with two good friends and the first wildflowers of spring and, yes, 12 000 ticks.  But it was good, and it certainly changed my perspective.  For the better.