What Not To Wear (and Do) at the AWP conference: Why I Can't Say What I Really Want to Say

I'm getting nervous. In two weeks, I will be in Washington, D.C., at the Association of Writing Programs conference. I'm nervous for several reasons: (1) I'm worried my current wardrobe won't measure up and I'll be caught out by this blogger , who tracks bad fashion at the AWP (2) I'm still a little afraid of flying and (3)I'll once again be among my peers. But as challenging as 1 and 2 could be, it's really #3 I'm worried about.

For the past slightly over a year, I've had the luxury of being able to work on my novel and teach pretty much what I want to, without the scrutiny of other academics. Because I teach at the prison, most people don't care what I teach, as long as I'm engaging the students. Because I'm an adjunct, as long as my evaluations are good, nobody says anything to me, and for that I am very grateful. For so many years, I was scrutinized so much by so many different people, and while some of their criticism was sound, so much of it, I felt, had no bearing on me as either a writer or a teacher. I often felt like people were trying to turn me into something I was not, to make me squeeze inside their dominant and uncontested paradigms.

In two weeks, I'm supposed to present on a panel about bringing in the works of local writers into the creative writing classroom, and my portion of the panel is to talk about how I bring in local writers on the last day of every fiction seminar to discuss the business of writing. You wouldn't think this would be controversial, but it is. After all, D.W. Fenza, the very president of the AWP has the position that "an artist must often stand aloof from crass considerations, or away from the shallows of a spreadsheet" , which makes even addressing the business side of things at all a bit dicey in the creative writing academic community.

But my position is that we have to address it, at least a little bit, and why not bring in local commercial writers to help us do that? The thing is, that as soon as I use the word commercial, I have a feeling that I'm going to ruffle some feathers, so I'm struggling to make my talk acceptable to the academic audience. And yet part of me just wants to go all out and say what I want to say. But it's a hard call, because I'm still undergoing a paradigm shift of sorts myself, and still trying to figure out where I as a writer stand between two very different ways of thinking about writing. In many ways, 2010 was one of the hardest years of my life due to the enormous cognitive shift from sixteen years of graduate school (yes, sixteen years!) to life with one foot in and one foot out of academia. Right now I still straddle the fence. But I know where I want to be and I know where I want to end up, and part of me wishes I could just say it.

I wish I could challenge D. W. Fenza directly, to say that the most creative artists are still able to be creative even with those "crass considerations," and that sometimes deadlines and contracts are a good thing. That agents and editors are not always the dampening of a creative fire, but sometimes the very people who reignite it. That it takes more skill and more analytical ability to plot out a mystery or a thriller than it does to write a piece of literary short fiction. That sometimes, the confines of a genre are not a bad thing, and that the artist can exercise creativity within those confines. In short, I wish I could say that the very business aspects of writing are what finally shook me out of my artistic stupor and actually made me take myself seriously and start working. And being a working artist is not at all bad.

Given the audience, I probably won't say much of this, or even any of it, but I really wish I could. And if I did, I really wish they'd listen.


Mylène said…
I wish you luck, my friend. Honestly, the "crass considerations" line makes me smile. It makes me smile because I have yet to make the acquaintance of any writer--literary or commercial--subsisting on air and good reviews. No, every writer I have ever met has fully taken into consideration the crass--i.e., how she is going to eat--and then decided how to go about the important business of eating. I believe most who travel in and through academe are accustomed to receiving a paycheck generated by a spreadsheet (so base of us) and like that better than, say, chewing bark and living in a tree. And while I agree it isn't particularly helpful to think of dollars while you are trying to craft a narrative actually capable of moving another human being, I think Jonathan Franzen knew exactly what he was doing when he decided to write another installment in the grand tradition of American Domestic Fiction (i.e., What I Did Before That Worked Out Pretty Well For Me) rather than, say, penning a novella exploring his private fascination with carpet fibers.
Joy said…
I think that one of the things that we do as writers and as intelectuals (academics) is to grapple with controversy. And the truth is, in many circles, including ours, it is indeed considered "crass" to speak of the mechanics of getting noticed and/or producing a work that moves people, and yet, as you and Mylene have so elquently put it: it must be done. Firmly. Gently. Abstractly. In a round about way. Some way, and however way it works for your audience: it must be done. And interestingly enough, I think that you have done it, and done it well even as you have shared your thoughts with us.
Colleen said…
I tried living on the fumes of my artistic integrity for a while, but it turned out those fumes were really vapors given off by the homeless dude sitting next to me in the alley.

LOL. Kidding on that part, but you know me. I do think art and commerce can peacefully coexist.
Joni Rodgers said…
Dear Academia:

Good luck with that.

See you after I get back from Paris.

Novabella said…
While I'm not a writer, I'm a veteran of going to conferences and pushing/poking/shaking up the status quo.

There will always be one or two people in the audience who nod their heads and totally get what you are saying, however you say it. They are the ones who will be your friends, colleagues, and mentors for life.

Go get em! Robin
Mira Leighton said…
I love the part about the artistic fumes above ... My hope is that all the AWP folks will see your post online. :) I wish you could have been with me at a writer's group last week. The group boasts the largest number of author awards from the Oklahoma Writers Federation annual contest. There was a panel on entering contests because two deadlines are coming up this week locally. The woman who wrote the book that almost won the Oklahoma Book of the Year Award last year publicized her weekly writer's workshop and referred to the "literary crap" of some people who like to write what can't be published successfully. It was a fascinating moment and I thought of you. Up here there is a working class mentality about writing in some parts, kind of like collaborating with friends while fixing a car in the front yard.

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