Letter from AWP

By Meghan O’Gieblyn

The Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, or AWP, the marquee national writer’s conference, takes place in a different city each year and draws thousands of writers, publishers, and editors from places far and wide across the Republic. It is the kind of gathering where you can grab a drink with the editor who published your short story, peruse a book fair where literary journals and publishing houses have set up booths manned by nervous-looking interns, and hear, three times in a single weekend, that old E.L. Doctorow saw about process: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

The first time I heard this quote this past weekend, while attending a panel in a hotel ballroom, an unexpected sadness came over me. The panelist had evoked the metaphor as craft advice, in response to a question about transitioning from short stories to novels. The quote, after all, was about the importance of staying focused. Don’t ask where the story is going. Don’t think about telos. Keep your eyes on the road, write the next sentence, and you’ll eventually get where you’re going. But the Doctorow metaphor no longer seemed limited to the enterprise of prose. The darkness on everyone’s mind was political. The fog had become total. And all of us writers had gathered here in this drafty convention center with our insufficient tools for resistance: our tote bags, our notebooks, our tired metaphors.

This year’s AWP conference was held in D.C., and whatever political undertones might have ordinarily underscored the event were all the more pronounced because of our proximity to the halls of power. Several protests had been scrapped together in the weeks leading up to the gathering. At the book fair, hand-written RESIST signs were taped to many of the booths. A literary journal with no discernible political affiliation was selling T-shirts that said: Fuck Trump. Someone had started a social media campaign called #ThankYouNEA, in response to rumors that the administration was planning to defund the National Endowment for the Arts. The campaign leaders were traveling the conference halls with a white board and markers, and anyone could write a message and have their photo taken with it, to share on social media (“The NEA Makes America Great,” read one).

I came to this year’s conference because my husband, who is also a writer, was asked to read at an event. We try to come every other year anyway, mostly as an excuse to see our friends, who are now scattered across the country and, like us, in tenuous states of employment. Many have spent the past decade “VAPing” or “serial VAPing,” Visiting Assistant Professorships being the one position that offers mid-career writers reliable health insurance. It is an itinerate lifestyle, one that separates spouses and partners for years on end, and that requires a cross-country move every nine months. Everyone dreads VAPs, and yet the people who have them are considered fortunate. There are worse fates, to be sure. Over drinks, one of our friends, a poet and adjunct professor in Chicago, confessed to us that she’d spent several months living out of her car when enrollment dipped at her university and half of her courses were abruptly handed over to tenured professors. “My trunk was my office,” she said.

The last time the conference was in DC, we were all in graduate school. The world then had seemed a more stable place, and we were young and not yet disillusioned of the possibility that our careers might still take a glorious turn — though it would be an exaggeration to say we were naïve, even then. We were a generation who had graduated college at the tail end of the Bush years and had entered writing programs as a way to ride out the recession. None of us had ever really expected to make a living from writing. We just wanted to make a living, period.

But it was difficult this year to separate our private anxieties from the angst of the country at large. Throughout the weekend, there persisted a steady undercurrent of alarm, punctuated by moments of naked cynicism. Two separate friends who had written dystopian novels had been told by an agent or an editor that their projects were now more marketable. One afternoon, a friend who was at the book fair texted me a photo of a flier for an artist’s fellowship in the Arctic Circle. “Let’s do this while it still exists,” she wrote. I stared for a long time at the sentence, trying to decipher whether “it” referred to the fellowship or the Arctic Circle. Several people spoke of wanting to give up writing to run for office, or to go to trade school. A poet told me he was abandoning teaching to become an apprentice to a cobbler. When I relayed this anecdote to a mutual friend, she nodded judiciously and said it was a smart move on his part. “The university as we know it will not survive this administration,” she said. “But even fascists need shoes.”

Nobody had been writing. Nobody at these conferences was ever writing, but in past years it took a little more to persuade people to admit as much. It was a confession spoken in hushed tones, over a third beer or at an airport lounge late on Sunday evening, waiting for a delayed flight. This year it was less revelation than formality, one to be dispensed with as swiftly and inconsequentially as possible. “I’m not writing.” We said this to one another in daylight, over salad, to strangers. Any project begun before the election was now irrelevant, and moving forward seemed impossible. Nobody wanted to be a political writer — it doomed you to evanescence. And yet our crises were so unprecedented, the threats to the Republic so dire, that to refuse to engage with politics was, itself, a kind of politics. All of us, I think, felt insufficiently prepared for the next four years. We had been trained in nuance, had been advised to avoid topics that were too “on the nose,” and yet now the most pressing task was to defend the kinds of banal and basic rights we had long taken for granted. There was no more angling, no more standing along the sidelines, lodging wry critiques of the center. The moment called for axioms and chants that employed simple rhyme schemes. It called for feet on the ground.

That night, alone with my husband in the hotel room, the sadness I had felt in the hotel ballroom returned. I am not ordinarily an emotional person, but over the past month, it has taken very little to bring me to tears. My husband tried to ask me what was wrong, but I couldn’t put it into words. “We’re all growing old,” was all I managed. “Time is passing.” But part of me knew this was only context. It was — to evoke another writing cliché — merely the tip of a vast and endless iceberg, the bulk of which was submerged in darkness. In the end, we walked up and down the halls of the hotel in search of distraction, made a dinner from vending machine snacks and watched CNN into the early hours of morning, unable to sleep.

On Friday afternoon, we gathered with a group of about a hundred writers in the lobby of the conference hotel with a megaphone, letters for our representatives, and homemade signs (“Use Your Words” “Even Fiction Writers Want the Facts”). Together, we marched one mile to Capitol Hill, where we broke off into groups organized by state to meet with our senators.

Our state group consisted of three people — my husband, myself, and another woman. We visited the office of our Republican senator first. He was not in, but we spoke to his staffers, who dutifully wrote down our requests: that the senator oppose NEA defunding and the confirmation of several presidential appointments. We expressed our desire for town hall meetings. The staffers were courteous and shockingly young. They had been in Washington for only a few months, and the one who took down our names was from the town where we lived. She’d gone to high school less than a mile from our house. “That’s a great school,” we said — though later that night, we would write scathing Facebook posts about the hypocrisy and insufficiency of their official responses.

The democratic senator was also absent, as was our democratic congressman — though the staffers at the latter’s office seemed inordinately happy to see us. They gave us free candy and offered to take us up to the House gallery, which required a labyrinthine, half-hour walk through the bowels of beaurocratic offices. By this point of the day, everything was beginning to seem blurred and slightly unreal. I had been worrying peripherally all afternoon about a project I’d been working on for the past couple years. It seemed to me that the world it dramatized was already a thing of the past. Among the many obstacles that had made writing feel impossible this past month, the most pressing was the impossibility of knowing where we were in history — whether posterity would regard us as a dark blip on the modern trajectory of progress (another Nixon or Bush era), or whether we would be remembered as a generation who witnessed total global catastrophe. Still, after spending time with other writers, I no longer felt that I was alone in this uncertainty. We were not hurdling along that dark and foggy road in the isolation of our own cars; we were on a bus — one with a shaky axis and a single headlight already on the fritz, but at least we were all on it together. If anything, there was a new feeling of camaraderie and common purpose. A friend of mine once claimed that writers despise nothing so much as other writers. This year, I despised no one.

We made it eventually to the gallery and took a seat in the upper balcony. The House was not in session, so it was just an empty room, one that was familiar to us from C-SPAN and that appeared neither larger nor smaller than it did on television. We sat for a couple minutes, resting our legs and letting our eyes travel over cornices and the state seals before admitting to one another that the site failed to inspire any reverence.

It was late by the time we left the Capitol. The wind had taken on a sharp edge, and the sky, which had been overcast all day, had deepened to a more sinister gray. There was a reading we wanted to attend at 4:30, so we caught a cab back to the convention center. The three of us slumped into the backseat, our social energies depleted. But the cab driver was chatty and energetic. He wanted to know what the Capitol was like inside. Did we like it?

Yes, we said. It was nice.

My husband asked whether he’d ever been.

“No, I work.” He broke into a resonant laugh that seemed partly at his own expense and partly at ours. Then he grew sober. It was hard, he said, in America to make a living. In addition to driving a cab, he took shifts at his brother’s store in the mornings for extra money, and he drove his cab every day, on weekends and evenings. He’d found better jobs — one in Delaware, another in Alabama — but he’d already uprooted his family once to come here from Lebanon, and he didn’t want to move again.

It was rush hour and the traffic was crawling along the gauntlet of imposing government buildings. The driver waved vaguely at the edifices. “But I don’t think about politics,” he said. Politics was difficult, he explained, and when he thought too much about politics it made everything in his life more difficult. “I just work,” he said. “I do my job.”

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