Step Right Up

March 13, 2012

I recently spent four days at the AWP Carnival at the Chicago Hilton; there were, according to various reports, anywhere from 9,300 to 10,000 in attendance, and I saw most of those attendees standing ahead of me in line at Starbucks or waiting for a seat at Kitty O’Shea’s Pub. This was the annual convention of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, where “writers, editors, and publishers come together.” And like most carnivals, it dealt in dreams.

There were 450 panels to choose from — all holding the promise of some magical connection, some dim and dimly borrowed light. This last was sometimes the literal case: a session on writing for radio involved the audience sitting in the dark and listening to the panelists’ favorite segments. Their advice: storytelling is key (well, yes) and audience members should feel free to look up any of the panelists online.

Interestingly, the session audiences’ biggest applause seemed to be reserved not for resume line-items involving publishing coups (such as one, two or even three memoirs -- that particular author deserved a round of applause for the sheer stamina involved not only in the life she lived but also her determination to write -- and write -- about it) but for announcements by panelists regarding tenure. At one session, a mystery writer announced that her recent MFA in playwriting had led to a tenure-track appointment; at another, the crowd literally went wild when a poet panelist announced that she had just received tenure. The irony of the fact that she was part of a panel promising to reveal what sort of work outside academia could bring MFA graduates, if not fame and fortune, then at least enough money to pay off their loans, went largely unnoticed. As for that session, the lead presenter was absent, and so the others valiantly soldiered on. It turned out that for these panelists, at least, “outside academia” meant working on the edges of academia. The advice included:

  • Hold creative writing salons in your home.
  • Be fortunate enough to have a thesis adviser who is selected to be Poet Laureate; then work as an intern for him/her.
  • Go back to school! Specifically, go back to school for an MLS degree. (Libraries are among the first to be hit in recessions. A master's in library science will only qualify graduates to attend future sessions entitled “What to Do with Your Library Degree.")

No one mentioned going back to school for classes in business or info tech or community planning. No one mentioned that you can be an accountant (or a health care worker or a plumber) and still write. The single poet most responsible for changing poetry in the .21st century was a doctor who made house calls. But there was no recognition of William Carlos Williams or of any other physician writer. Nor did anyone mention Wallace Stevens, who combined a career in life insurance with a life of poetry. No one mentioned the missing panelist, who has admirably combined a life of business and poetry and who served as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. No one mentioned that there are, in fact, plenty of paying writing jobs available. Or that a one-time prize of $1,000 or a free trip to a writers’ conference isn’t enough, in the long run, to sustain a life.  Or that one might apply imagination and creativity to finding or creating a job. Yes, poetry is the news that stays new. But you can do something else and still write poetry. And someone should have told you that before you started your MFA program.

Of the 9,300 to 10,000 attendees, one third, according to AWP executive director David Fenza were graduate students. Of these 3,000+ individuals, a handful seemed to be interested in nonfiction (or at least the memoir category of nonfiction) or playwriting (playwriting! Why not, at least, screenplay writing?); a number were engaged in fiction writing, but the vast majority were poets. The final (and recently tenured) panelist suggested volunteer work and offered a twofold rationale: that volunteer work might lead to (academic) connections and  that poets already receive nothing for their work, so why not consider doing more work for nothing? This line received the most laughter that I heard in two days, and was far more amusing, albeit in a grim existential sort of way, than the ones I heard at a session titled “How to Tell a Joke.”

Of course, if you’re a poet or a jokester, you didn’t even have to buy a conference pass; you could skip the panels and just cruise the hotel lobby. Or go straight to the bars. Or you could, on the last day of the conference, hang out for free at the midway, the literally underground portion of the event — the book fair with its more than 550 exhibitors’ booths located in the basement of the Hilton. Here a few big-name academic publishers (whose displays featured textbooks about writing for teachers of writing) and venerable publishing houses shared space with many more small presses, small literary magazines, several individuals selling their single works, and reps for MFA programs. The atmosphere, like that of any other carnival, was crowded and noisy, with hawkers pushing their wares and onlookers seeking the lucky chance. Most attendees that I observed followed a similar pattern: upon first arriving, attentive perusal of each table, to be replaced, by the fifth row, by a sort of quick jog down the middle of the aisles.

There were some striking moments. Donovan Hohn, author of Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea..., delivered one of the best conference presentations that I have ever heard. Derek Alger and his panel of writers talking about memoir writing were funny and frank. Esmeralda Santiago and Jesmyn Ward read and spoke powerfully and beautifully.

The two most interesting people that I met during my time in Chicago were Margaret Atwood, the famous Canadian author who delivered the keynote address, and Cindy, the cab driver who drove me to and from the hotel. “Met,” in the case of Atwood, is a slight exaggeration; along with 139 other devotees, I had won a lottery for the book signing. By the time I approached her at the signing table, she looked so exhausted that I contemplated jumping the velvet guide rope and running away. As the woman waiting next to me on the line said, “My God, do you think we’re killing her?”

Atwood’s speech, listed in the program for an hour-and-a-half slot, ran about 25 minutes. This meant, if I added up the registration fee, the plane fare, the hotel bill, the bar bill, and Cindy’s rides to and from the airport, that I had actually paid about $75.00 per minute to sit in her presence. But it was, after all, Atwood, and it was worth it to see her and to hear her — wryly brilliant as ever — deliver a speech that began with her remarking that when she stated writing, there were no organizations like AWP — it was just her, writing and then tearing up drafts and then writing again.

As for Cindy, she’s been driving a cab for 18 years, or nearly all of her adult life. She’s looking, however, to get out of the business, and so she’s going back to school next year. Someday, she told me, she’s going to write about her life as a cab driver. In the meantime, she’s signed up for a community-college program -- in radiology.

Bio

Carolyn Foster Segal left a full-time tenured position in Dec. 2011. She currently works as an adjunct at Muhlenberg College and as a book-group facilitator for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. She has had over 25 other jobs, including waitressing, sitting as an artists’ model, and working on the assembly line in a pickle factory.

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