11,800 People Sharing in the Existential Agony of Writing

One truth underlies the sprawling, sometimes contentious, freebie-filled Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference: Making a life in literature isn't easy.
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David W. Brown

Many have observed that writers are rejected for a living. Years of laboring over some manuscript can precede a crucible of:

1. Battalions of literary agents rejecting the manuscript with prejudice.

2. Respected editors at prestigious publishing houses rejecting the (finally) agented work.

3. An editor acquiring said manuscript, and yet explaining that it is in poor shape at best, unsuitable for the masses, and in dire need of major reconstructive surgery (which isn’t wholly terrible news, as at least the editor is returning your email messages).

4. Publication and arrival on shelves at Barnes & Noble and Powell’s, etc., and still one final rejection—this one by readers. The book fails to sell in adequate numbers, the publisher ceases promotional support, and the book is quickly remaindered (i.e. liquidated; reduced in price from $24.95 to $1.00).

5. Critics carving into said book, resulting in point No. 4.

(And this is to say nothing of the many works represented and then purchased but somehow orphaned through no fault of the author's, moldering in a publisher’s basement filing cabinet.)

Those not in or around the business do not necessarily know this. It is very hard to explain to, say, your tipsy uncle during a holiday gathering that, no, the novel isn't ready yet, and yes, it has been in progress for well over three years, and that this is normal—and yes, you are working on it—and that even when the book is finished, it doesn't just go to the printers and hit shelves a few weeks later. And once it does come out—yes, goddammit, I really am working on it—the first question asked by tipsy uncle is, "Are they making a movie of it?" and, statistically speaking, "they" probably are not, and this news is received as some kind of failure, like the book just wasn’t good enough or something. And then you (i.e. the author) are advised to write a book like Harry Potter, because J.K. Rowling is doing quite well (“She’s richer than the queen!”), and perhaps my favorite of all familial declarations, "I'd write a book but I just don't have time," as though a craft you've devoted ten thousand hours to honing is something you do because of a light schedule in a tranquil life. This is almost always followed by the familial postscript, “I’d like to write it from one of those villas in Tuscany.”

The frustrations of the job are not new. Consider Herman Melville, who had trouble getting anything in print after the disastrous publication of his largely unnoticed and quickly forgotten novel Moby-Dick. Melville’s in-laws quietly pulled strings to help him keep a customs job in New York, to which the writer was of course unsuited, and at which he spent miserably the last 20 years of his life. Can you imagine those family gatherings? And Clarel, his final major work (and at 500 pages, one of the longest poems ever written in any language) wasn’t just remaindered when its sales proved insufficient; Melville was summoned to the offices of Putnam’s, the book’s publisher, where he was coerced to personally sign the form ordering the books to be pulped.

* * *

It’s nice to be around a group of people who understand this lonely business of creative writing and the vexing challenge of navigating an inhospitable industry. That’s why there’s the annual convention of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, the largest literary conference in North America. For three days at AWP (only one W, for historical reasons), you are surrounded by tote-bagged and lanyard-draped writers who just get it. No explanations of rejection letters are required.

The host city of the AWP conference this year was Seattle, and on the suspiciously bright morning of February 27, a teeming group of 11,800 writers gathered in the Washington State Convention Center (and a few conference rooms at the nearby Sheraton) to commiserate, share advice, and network. Over three days, the conference would host 550 presentations (out of 1,300 proposals) on the craft of writing, pedagogy, the publishing industry, community organizing, literature, and general trends of note. At any given time, up to 34 programs were held concurrently. The schedule was presented as three massive, multicolored matrices on three full pages. It was a spreadsheet's spreadsheet. The John Galt of spreadsheets. Planning which event to attend was a bit like organizing an amphibious invasion of some European territory, and one quickly found him or herself comparing the relative merits of "The Creative Writer as Critic" versus "Good Luck with That: Writers Paying Bills."

Speaking of paying the bills: Money is no small matter indeed for a profession whose practitioners are not known for being encumbered by garbage bags filled with cash. The AWP conference is an opportunity for aspiring faculty to network, and to perhaps mine some gem of insight (e.g. a job opening for a tenure track position teaching 19th century British literature) from faculty at other programs. I am told this is not often a successful endeavor, as 1. There are no jobs available, and 2. Rumors of such jobs have already been quietly claimed for friends or for the students themselves.  My questions to graduating MFA candidates at the conference re: the job market elicited the following responses:

"Horrifying"

"I might find a job teaching [English as a second language]. Or maybe collect bottles"

"Bad"

"Terrible"

"Bad to terrible"

"Apprehensive"

"Not great"

"Not thinking about it"

[shakes head vigorously, eyes downcast, as though I've asked about some unspeakable personal problem]

"I guess I'll get a Ph.D."

"Not good"

This was not a cherry-picked sampling of graduating students. Exactly one person expressed optimism to me. "I'm feeling good," she said, though she added that she had yet to begin the job search.

* * *

The Association of Writers and Writing Programs, according to both the first and last pages of its 2013 Annual Report, "fosters literary achievement, advances the art of writing as essential to a good education, and serves the makers, teachers, students, and readers of contemporary writing." This involves awards, scholarships for writers and general support to creative writing programs in North America. (Disclosure: I’m a member.)

Here are the benefits of individual membership. Access to a weekly updated website that lists job openings for writers, academic and nonacademic. Pointers for the job search. Access to something called Career Services, which, for an unspecified fee, will "maintain and update your dossier" and will, at the author's request send said dossier to prospective employers. A running list and calendar of conferences, literary events, etc. "Documents useful to teachers and administrators of writing programs." (Most of the membership benefits listed on the AWP website read like this—vaguely Soviet, or like that list prisons make of your belongings before you are incarcerated.)

The most tangible evidence of individual membership in the AWP is a bimonthly magazine called the Writer’s Chronicle, which sports a slick layout and purports to provide "diverse insights into the art of writing that are accessible, pragmatic, and idealistic." Presented for you is a sampling of topics from a stack of Writer’s Chronicles that have accumulated on my desk: "Is and Isn't: Literary Upheavals in the Post-Real Landscape"; "A Case Study of the Ghazal in the Contemporary American Lyric"; "On Duende: Reading Federico Garcia Lorca"; "Consociational Poetics: An Interview with Anne Waldman."

If these topics do not ring to you as accessible or pragmatic, perhaps the Writer’s Chronicle is not for you. (By way of comparison, the cover of a copy of Poets & Writers in arm's reach: "The Power of Self-Publishing"; "Buying a Book Review"; "How to be a Good Literary Citizen.") But regardless of whether the magazine lives up to its everyman billing, the Writer’s Chronicle is a vital record of creative writing as an academic endeavor. It is one of a small number of journals in circulation whose purpose is to deal with abstruse shifts in the way our stories are told. Still, it is easy to flip to each issue's table of contents and decide that no sane person would devote their lives to this.

* * *

According to its press release, the formal name of the AWP 2014 conference is the "Association of Writers and Writing Programs 2014 Conference and Book Fair," and they're not kidding about that second part. Last year's conference took in $1,605,956 against expenditures of $1,427,425, for a small but sizable (that is, a sizably small) profit of $178,531. Though the publicly available numbers don't break down any further, I suspect that a nontrivial amount of the conference's revenue comes from table rentals for the book fair, which you might fairly describe as the largest bookstore you've ever visited where you've never heard of any of the books for sale.

Courtesy of AWP

No major book publishers were represented, which only occurs to me in retrospect. Each of the 745 tables, by my count, was manned by one of the following types of organization: MFA programs from across the country, both traditional and low-residency (the latter being creative-writing programs conducted largely by way of the postal service, email, or private Internet discussion forums); literary magazines, both independent and affiliated with various universities; independent booksellers,; small literary presses; social organizations devoted to using literature to improve some area of society (e.g. the environment, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, impoverished schools in the inner city, etc.); literary organizations devoted to promoting the arts in general. The largest journal represented, to the best of my knowledge, was The Paris Review, which I've always imagined to be quite large—one of the few seriously respected literary journals that even your average nonwriter knows about and understands to be an institution. I asked one of the magazine’s representatives why they decided to set up shop at AWP, and he said it was in part to sell subscriptions, and also because “A lot of people thought we went out of business when [cofounder and editor] George Plimpton died.” (In 2003.)

If you are Pank or Carrier Pigeon or The Review Review or Yellow Flag Press or Curbside Splendor Publishing, playing to four-figure audiences at best and hoping to attract new readers from a curious buying public (the final day of the conference allows lay Seattleites free admittance to the book fair), snazzy covers aren’t enough—your best bet is to have killer freebies at your table to attract eyeballs. Items I observed being given away include bookmarks; buttons; tea bags; pocket-sized notebooks; HiLiters; generic highlighters; pens; pens with generic highlighters at one end; Post-It-brand notepads; adhesive notepads (generic); stickers (some of which included such political statements as FREE CASCADIA and I STAND WITH PLANNED PARENTHOOD); luggage tags; postcards; pencils (but not with pencil sharpeners); pencils, sharpened; collapsible Frisbees (well, “throwing discs”); rulers; microfiber cloths; eyeglass cleaning cloths; a fortune teller miracle fish (which and this had to be explained to me, you hold in your hand, and depending on how the thin, translucent red fish bends, folds, twists, etc. in reaction to your body heat, perspiration, and/or chi, your fortune is revealed, or at least your mood, really. For the record, I am fickle); the kind of bite-sized candy you get at Halloween—not the cheap stuff but those little Starburst fruit chews, Twix, Snickers, Milky Way, etc.; refrigerator magnets; chocolate bars with book covers printed on the wrappers; bumper stickers; Olivia Newton John-style sweatbands (head); snake key chains in ultra-blue, ultra-green, ultra-orange, ultra-red, and ultra-pink; lead pencils; matchbooks; chewing gum (printed on label: chewing on life, faith & art); rubber bracelets (wide and black, that reminded me of the thick rubber-leather-hybrid bands that engage the roller in old Kirby-brand upright vacuum cleaners and are a general pain to replace); fake tattoos; cupcakes; fitted insulation pouches for 12-ounce beverage cans; licorice discs (which looked exactly, and I mean exactly, like black tar opium); wristbands (the kind they give you at concerts to denote an underage drinker); ingeniously-designed wristbands that double as flash drives; condoms; fortune cookies; oranges; lanyards; bottle openers; lip balm (in egg form and traditional Chap Stik form); coffee mugs; shots of MacNaughton Canadian whiskey (distributed in plastic, disposable Jell-O shot cups); tote bags; cigarettes (like, real cigarettes, both light and full-flavored, in the kind of large wooden presentation box that you'll see in black-and-white films); 2" toy rubber frogs, green; containers of various types of Greek and Lebanese cuisine (though no plates, and so I'm not sure if you were supposed to just eat the stuffed grape leaves with your fingers or what, and notably there was no hand sanitizer to be found in the vicinity); adjustable measuring tablespoons; tape measures with integrated bubble-level; pistachios (in plastic cups, though it was unclear whether you were supposed to take a handful of nuts, or whether you could just take a whole cup, or what); coasters; cookies (diced); Teddy Grahams in a large communal bowl; a chocolate cake (whole, with plates and a knife to just slice yourself a piece); chocolate rocks (which resembled the colorful, glossy rocks processed through a rock tumbler); squeeze balls; cereal bars (blueberry, chocolate chip chewy); and clothes pins (though I don't understand why). This list is inclusive.

I asked the editors of two-dozen journals to briefly describe their publications and what they look for vis-à-vis content (genre, aesthetics, etc.) and the response was universally this sentence: “We publish poetry, fiction, art, and creative nonfiction. We’re looking for anything good” (with the occasional rearrangement of said words). While I do not doubt them, I wondered how such journals (and there were legions present, though I couldn’t get an exact figure, as some were under the guise of host MFA programs) could distinguish themselves in a wildly overcrowded field. (While the freebies were great, the AWP conference comes but once a year.)

To find an answer, I headed to a presentation titled “Let’s Avoid a Quick Death, Please: Starting and Sustaining a New Literary Publication.” I was pleased to hear the panelists say that a good journal’s identity should extend beyond “anything good,” though none of the four journals represented on the panel explained what they were looking for. Likewise, I was curious to learn how these journals were sustaining themselves. After all, major multi-million-dollar publishing ventures fold every year. Was there, perhaps, an underground network of journals making real money—journals that might one day supplant the established order?

The panelists first described the teams necessary to put out a quality publication. A really good designer, they all agreed, for both print and the web, and a strong team of editors, each focusing on fiction, poetry, etc. This is obviously an expensive proposition, and so I was in awe of these young literary entrepreneurs who had discovered the secret of success. Here is the secret of success: You have to use your own money to keep the journal alive, or in the case of one panelist, you have to use your university’s money. Sometimes you can Kickstart each issue. None of the journals represented on the panel were reported to be moneymaking propositions. It was never explained how this is sustainable.

* * *

A presentation called “How Twitter Works (and Doesn’t Work) for Writers” played host to an overflow crowd of writers closer in age to AARP cards than birth certificates, all of whom were eager to understand the weirdness that is the micro-blogging service and what pound-sign-A-W-P-one-four meant exactly, and how will it help me find an agent/find an editor/sell books? I have taken the liberty to condense for you the takeaway message to the length of a tweet: Try to get a lot of followers, and do your best to get retweeted by famous people. While, yes, this is technically true, for those in attendance it was a lot like being advised by an accountant that the best way to really make money this year would be to get a high-paying job.

Those panels orbiting closer to craft, literary theory, and the pedagogical were top flight and impossibly comprehensive and invaluable. Here, bestselling authors of literary fiction like Summer Wood and Tara Conklin explained the structures of their novels, and why, and how they arrived at their methodologies. Lan Samantha Chang and Marjorie Celona and Leah Stewart described “the mechanics of plot in the realist novel.”

Courtesy of AWP

The changing nature of books and learning was much discussed. As low-residency programs move online, it has become a pressing issue to determine how to recreate virtually the physical-space “workshop experience” (which generally involves students as a group unpacking one another’s stories, noting weaknesses, and making suggestions). The consensus of the panel was that Blackboard, a ubiquitous, bloated discussion forum and file distribution service generally foisted upon English departments by universities everywhere, is inadequate to the task (“I dismissed it out of hand,” said one professor). Some creative writing programs have taken to using lightweight bulletin-board systems, and one has found great success with email, which everyone already knows how to use. The panelists rarely admitted to using Skype, as geographical diversity (one program represented has a student in Hong Kong) made schedule coordination impossible. Still, went the consensus, the very idea that workshops could play host to students not only in different time zones but on different calendar dates altogether makes manifest the need to figure out online education, and soon.

* * *

The most interesting panel I attended, by far, was titled “How Far, Imagination: Writing Characters of Another Race in Fiction.” Serious literary fiction takes the reader deep into the mind of a character. This is fine if you are, say, John Updike, and you’re writing about white men. But what if you want to write a character of a different race? How can you really, really understand what that means? The consensus of the panel was that this is a very hard thing to do indeed. But, said Mat Johnson, a professor and author of the acclaimed novel Pym, “I’m trying to write about the world, and if you’re trying to write about the world, usually other ethnicities, other cultural backgrounds, other genders, other sexual expressions, come into the text. And so I understand why some people get very uncomfortable very quickly about the question of writing outside of one’s race, particularly, but also writing outside your personal identity.”

That said, he said, “It’s very easy and quick to say ‘I can write whatever I want to write and I can do whatever I want to do.’ The next step is a responsibility—you have to really engage the character, engage in a historical understanding of how characters of that race have been portrayed, engage in, really, something beyond ‘I’m just going to have a puppet that holds up my preexisting notions of how this race acts.’” To do this, the author must understand racial stereotype and the history of propaganda, to say nothing of the complicated history of race and racism in the United States.

It was a compelling argument. When the panel took questions, however, things got really uncomfortable really quickly. The first questioner was a white guy who spoke with a kind of cowering nervousness that proved prescient, as he was cut off and then engaged by Randa Jarrar, a professor and sometimes-contributor to Salon. Here is the exchange:

NERVOUS WHITE GUY: I tend to work with undocumented immigrants in Washington there are a lot stories there that need to be told but that's not a group that's gonna be able really to tell those stories—

RANDA JARRAR: How do you know that? I'm sorry. [but in a definitely-not-sorry tone]

NWG: Well because first of all, and again I feel a little out of place doing this because as a white male I feel like—I'm a little out of place. First of all a lot of them have a fourth-grade education. Second of all, they’re not native—this isn't the culture they're telling the stories to—my goal is to tell their stories to the broader community and having worked—

JARRAR: You mean not to their community?

NWG: Well to their community too but this has to do with getting their stories to the dominant community so they can understand what's going on in this community. Does that make sense? I mean, I feel an obligation to help—

JARRAR: What's the "dominant community"?

NWG: The Anglo community.

JARRAR: So you're appropriating stories about—by immigrants with supposedly 4th grade educations and selling them to the dominant white community, and I think you really want to interrogate that.

The moderator tried to inject a little levity, but the whole thing went downhill from there. NWG then added about a dozen apologies, and then kind of gave up and said, “You’re right, maybe I can’t do this,” and then offered a blanket apology: “If I have offended anyone—please help me work through this.”

In retrospect I’m not even sure what the guy’s question was, exactly, except that maybe he was just asking permission to keep going on his book. In which case the panel decided that, at best, this guy needed to just get the immigrants’ oral histories and edit maybe an anthology or something, or maybe hook the immigrants up with a nonprofit writers workshop where they can write their own stories—something! anything!—but just give up the idea of writing a book of your (i.e. NWG’s) own.

After the discussion ended I bumped into NWG and figured, what the hell, I'd be a journalist and just ask what his deal was.

This was his deal. His name is Greg and for 12 years he has worked for a Catholic charity in Spokane, helping undocumented immigrants. (The nature of the help and the definition of “undocumented” were never specified.) He said: “I just feel there’s an obligation to tell a story that people aren’t hearing.” He explained quite honestly that your average American just doesn’t care about this problem, and isn’t likely to search the issue out at bookstores. “Maybe I have credit, if we’re dividing people into groups like that—maybe I have a certain standing to tell their story.”

Then he choked up, and then he started crying. Not weeping, really. Just a lot of tears and long pauses. He explained that when he goes before his group’s clients, he’s always met with crossed arms and closed ears, and told These people are illegals and need to get out. Once clients learn the human story, however, they change, moved by the torn families and poverty and suffering and so on. "I watch them become receptive,” he said. “My goal is to open up an audience to be receptive to something they wouldn't hear otherwise." It seemed pretty obvious that this was serious business to Greg, who believed that writing this book might make a real difference.

* * *

Amazon is the “presenting sponsor” of the 2014 AWP Conference and Book Fair. In exchange for what I assume was a lot of money, their logo is printed on just about everything. Amazon also provided the free wireless Internet access at the Washington State Convention Center, and each day, authors were presented with two buttons: One, “Get connected,” and two, “Get published.” Amazon, in addition to selling everything in the world, also operates services called CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing. These are self-publishing services, and the process goes something like this:

Sign up. Upload Word file or PDF. Congratulations! You are now a published author. Here is your ribbon.

Words like “gatekeepers” (spoken angrily) and “shortcut” (spoken merrily) burst forth from Amazon’s booth at the book fair like fireworks over Cinderella Castle. The solution to the “changing publishing industry” is to cut publishers out of the picture entirely. And writers at the conference who proved particularly receptive to Amazon’s push for self-publishing really were given a bright, if sad, orange ribbon with "published" in gold lettering, to be affixed to one’s shirt or tweed jacket with a button that read "KINDLE | DIRECT PUBLISHING."

This seems to be a particularly contentious movement in the literary community. Based only on my observations in or around the Amazon booth at the conference, self-published writers spend a lot of time telling one another that self-publishing is “a valid path,” and that self-published writers no longer have “that stigma” and yes, a lot of really bad stuff gets published, but that’s the also the case in “traditional” (or “legacy”) publishing. I know this because self-published writer after writer visited Amazon’s booth and told these things to their allies at Amazon, in a kind of reverse play, like explaining the virtues of timeshares to RCI.

But it seems to be causing a few identity issues for writers. For many, to be published is an achievement beyond simply writing a book. It means having written a book that a lot of people with a lot of differing interests agree is better than thousands of other books, so much so that they’ve staked their own time, money, and reputations on the book’s success. It is something to which one aspires—something worth the nauseating sting of rejection letters (or worse, the eldritch horror of total and eternal silence). It has been an intrinsic part of the author’s experience. No writer ever opened the day’s second bottle of JWB because of a rejection letter from Kindle Direct Publishing. Self-publishing enthusiasts, of course, would say the same thing in advocacy of their model. Beth Jusino, a Seattle-based freelance editor and former literary agent, explained self-publishing to me as a kind of written YouTube, where every once in a while you find something really good and it strikes a chord with a wider audience.

On the third and final morning of the conference, that wider audience—the now freely admitted general public—arrived at the book fair with cash in hand. It was easy to distinguish the writers from the civilians. Three nights of poetry readings on an ocean of alcohol left many writers bleary-eyed and stuporous, indoors and squinting into a sun that isn’t there. The brief weekend drew to close, a weekend in which the paralyzing introspection required for good writing was just understood by everyone around you, likewise rejection, likewise revision. Numbers and email addresses were traded, a job rumor here, a new creative writing program there.

Many will complete their MFA programs, manuscript in hand, and set their sights on the publishing industry. Everyone here knows what that means.

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David W. Brown is the coauthor of The Command: Deep Inside the President's Secret Army and Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry. Generally published under the pseudonym D.B. Grady, Brown is a graduate of Louisiana State University, a former U.S. Army paratrooper, and a veteran of Afghanistan. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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