Dispatches from AWP 11
I had never been to this conference before. I wish I’d gone back in 2008 when it was in New York City AND I had a book coming out. This year’s was in D.C., and it was awesome. I collected a bunch of notes I re-posted for my Mediabistro students and figured I’d put a little truncated taste here on this blog as well. This selection comes courtesy of one of my very favorite panels, about being a writer without a full-time academic job. These days, it seems creative writing and the academy are very merged, and it’s harder to imagine doing it the Kerouac or Heming – way of living some kind of more extreme life and translating that to the page. There are various kinds of writing lives within the larger concept of “The Writing Life” and that was always the one I was drawn to, ever since I was a teenager. Maybe it was just a way to avoid feeling like I had to grow up and work in an office, but I still think there’s something to trying to keep things (ie, your time) open in your life, and how that might be better for your writing.
I’ve been able to do some travel writing as a result, for instance. It’s all about striking a balance, but it isn’t easy or everyone would do it. A more recent example can be found in Elizabeth Gilbert, who shunned the MFA route in favor of working in a bar, traveling, listening to people…the school of life. When you’re a writer, every room you walk into is a classroom, everything that happens is a lesson.
Knowing there are many possible tracks is a comforting thing in a career that’s heavy on risk.
Here are my notes, transcribed verbatim from notebook, from that humorous, edifying, and inspiring panel featuring Steve Almond, Cheryl Strayed, and Kerry Cohen among others.
Being a writer without a full-time academic job:
Some really great writing life advice came out of this one. Also, the panelists had excellent senses of humor.
*you have to be temperamentally ok with instability
*some months are better than others. you have to be able to write what you want to write and protect your time when you are most creative.
*don’t do horrible adjunct jobs!
*Have a job where you don’t need to take stuff home (ie, stacks of terrible undergrad papers)
*Philadelphia is a city where you can live on nothing
*the good thing about writing outside the full-time academic job position is you don’t have to publish things that are “acceptable to the academy”
*Work with other weird people
*You never know what is going to happen next, it’s about long term plans, how you’ll piece the puzzle together. It’s like being a professional gambler. You have to be ok with instability.
*Uncouple economics from creative work (advice from Steve Almond). Needing to make money off your work can be crippling, do something for income then write without thinking about the market (LM note: this advice is obviously not for everyone)
*writing is undervalued overall
*make an inventory of what you need, what your material needs are. If you’re miserable, you can’t do good work.
*Know that what you love can lead to paying gigs – remain open to crazy connections.
*”I’m from Sri Lanka and we don’t have long term plans; whoever has money gives it to those who don’t” (thought that was an interesting tidbit about Sri Lanka…possibly good place to be freelance writer
*”Get a divorce; hope people die who are leaving you inheritance” (humor advice on getting money as a writer)
*Go to Bread Loaf, AWP, network, go to residencies
*measure success in non-monetary terms
*think about “the deathbed feeling” – if on deathbed, what did that fulfilled you vs. what was “expected” of you