One of the gems of the writing industry, and attending AWP, is listening to your favorite authors read from their work and engage in conversation. At AWP, think of this as attending a local bookstore reading, but on steroids. Throughout the day, and into the evening, the conference keeps on giving with dozens of well-known and even famous authors who, in addition to reading their work, share their writing wisdom. Some readings were arranged by theme, such as, “Poetry, Myth and the Natural World,” or “Writing Place, People, and Culture: Nonfiction at Its Finest,” while others stood on their own, such as this year’s keynote address by George Saunders. Whether of regional, national, or international fame, I searched out the authors that have resonated with me over the years, putting me under their spell, at least temporarily, to live in the worlds they have created through their storytelling. Similar to the panel discussions highlighted yesterday, I was not disappointed with AWP’s author reading selections.
The Keynote Address by George Saunders was, as expected, fantastic. Saunders recently won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, and, as someone new to the profession, I could hardly wait to absorb what he had to say. Pen in hand, I wrote down each pearl of wisdom, intent on bringing it home with me, sleeping on it or with it (author’s preference J), and applying it to my own writing life. You know what I mean…shamelessly mirror and steal from him…all that fake it until you make it blah blah. So there I am, scribble scribble scribble, when Saunders admits that as a writing student he’d tried to “climb Hemingway Mountain, working diligently to turn himself into Ernest.” Unfortunately for him, he stumbled, fell down the mountainside, and had to pick himself up again, which is what he did, just before charging up “Kerouac Mountain,” only to arrive at the same non-scenic view of his unsure self. The point being, it took Saunders a long time to find his voice, which, for a new writer like myself, resonated close to home.
Raised in New England, I longed for home and popped into the New England Review 40th Anniversary Reading. Carolyn Kuebler, NER editor, gathered some of the journal’s distinguished authors over the years to share their work. Hai-Dang Phan, whose poems can be read in The New Yorker and Best American Poetry 2016, read “My Mother Says the Syrian Refugees Look Like Tourists,” which contrasts the refugee crisis in Syria with that of his mother’s immigration to the U.S. during the Vietnam War era. Very poignant and illuminating. But what really caught my attention was Kate Lebo’s essay, “Loudproof Room,” which was anthologized in Best American Essays 2015 and tells of Lebo being partially deaf and, as a result, teased at school, which is why she used to cry so easily. As a child, Lebo had difficulty hearing conversational tones and for a long time tuned out the world around her, lived in her own space of books. Curiously, though, her condition allowed her the unique ability to listen to the insides of her body, such as hearing her eyelids blink. What a fascinating world. Older now, and with a new hearing aid, she shared an intimate moment when “a man cups her face with his hand and kisses her, the pressure of his fingers against her ear setting the [hearing aid] speakers off.” Lebo’s reading of “Loudproof Room,” was a brief saunter into the beautiful and sometimes scary world of the deaf.
Next, I attended a reading and conversation with Nathen Englander & Lauren Groff, Sponsored by Penguin Random House Speakers, moderated by Colette Bancroft, the Tampa Bay Times book editor. Here, Pulitzer Prize finalist Englander admits that he took so long to write “Dinner at the Center of the Earth,” a novel about the insoluble Israel and Palestinian conflict, that when people ask him what he does for a living, he often responds, “I write a book.” Funny, or not, consider this inspiration for those of you slogging through your drafts and revisions. The conversation with Groff and Englander also highlighted some similarities between the two authors. For example, when starting a new book, they often write in the opposite direction of their previous book, e.g., from serious to funny, or happy to sad. The intent is to kill the fear, exhaustion, and anxiety they’ve accumulated while working to finish their novel, and open up mind-space to create once again.
When the time came for NBCC Presents: Jeffrey Eugenides, Lorrie Moore, and Dana Spiotta, I arrived at the auditorium early and secured a seat up front. I love all three of these authors and wish I had time to give you all the juicy he said/she said details, but time is not our friend. So, dwindling it down, Moore was the standout and had the audience laughing in their seats with a soon-to-be-published personal essay in which she recalls with depressing, melancholic humor, her decision to get married. The essay is set around the couple’s journey to City Hall as they obtain a marriage license, which, as if to “question the success of the marriage from the very beginning,” the clerk tells them they only have, “45 days to do the deed.” Along the way, Moore considers the relationship as one in which “love went without saying, so we didn’t say it.” She reads like she writes and enthralled the audience with the lugubrious and humorous telling of how her marriage began.
AWP delivered this year on author readings and conversations by bringing serious writing talent to the table, allowing us mere mortals, for at least a while, to dream the dream and to put other’s wisdom into practice. It was great listening to some of my favorite authors, as well as hearing from some of the industry’s wonderful up-and-comers. I left the readings inspired and encouraged to know that with perseverance, talent, and authenticity, I too can achieve my writing aspirations.