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."

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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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