A Day of Books, Stories, More Books, More Stories, and Long Lines (AWP Day 1)

I’ve been at the AWP conference all day. So many writers. So many choices. Such narrow escalators. Book-fair tables for miles. Only three stalls in each women’s bathroom, talk about lines! Let’s just say it’s been a jam-packed day.

The first panel I attended was “Shaping a Short Story Collection”—first thing in the morning, in a giant ballroom lit by golden chandeliers. Choice quote: “There’s one profitable short-story collection published a year, and Jhumpa Lahiri already wrote it.” —Steve Almond

Speaking of Steve Almond, I love that guy’s writing. His first collection is on my list of favorite collections, but what I remember of him mostly was a reading he had at the Sewanee Writers Conference, before that book had officially come out. The story he read, the power with which he read it, damn, it just blew me away. He was just as engaging at this early-morning panel, showing what he really thought of agents and—cringe—marketing, cracking everyone up. Of course, I’m biased, and I’ll admit that while at Sewanee I also happened to be in a workshop with Steve Almond and he said some super-nice things about my piece, even going so far as to read the paragraph aloud because he liked the way it sounded—compliments apparently go a long way with me.

But you don’t want to hear about my unfinished pieces that sound nice but turn out to have no plot, so back to AWP. Everyone at that first panel was good, and coincidentally next on my pile of library books is The Last Chicken in America, by Ellen Litman, the very organizer of the panel—which I am now dying to read, thanks to hearing what she had to say about short stories, my first love, xoxo.

Of course it came up at this panel how agents will look at your story collections, sure, but what they really want you to write is a novel. Editors want novels. Big behemoth corporations like the one that pays my rent (just barely) want novels. Consumers want novels, admit it. So the question short story writers hear is: Where’s your novel? This just happened to me, and I guess it’ll keep happening. I just love short stories so much—why don’t more people read them?

I’m off-track. That panel was only the first hour-and-a-half.

What came next was me, in a room full of literary journals, swooning. Can you picture it? The book fair was on three separate floors. I was joking to E that I could have brought a suitcase to lug all the journals home I wanted to take. As it stood, my bag, and E’s bag, were so full they could barely zipper shut. I guess I can always bring the suitcase tomorrow.

While at the book fair, I paused near the Tin House table (Tin House is quite possibly, okay, most definitely my favorite literary magazine) and E said I looked like I was staring at a puppy dog in the window. With such longing. (Yes, I was.)

Anyway, a cool moment came when we passed by the table for Gulf Coast, the literary journal that published my first-ever short story. The two editors behind the table asked if we’d ever heard of Gulf Coast and here I confessed, yes, I have, some years ago you published my first story! The new editors weren’t on staff then, but they seemed just as pleased to meet me as I was to meet them. I remembered getting that first acceptance letter, stuffed in my own SASE. I opened it on the subway platform, expecting a rejection. Gulf Coast was the first door that opened to me; I will always love Gulf Coast.

There were a few other panels that day. Joyce Carol Oates was worth seeing. I had planned to go to a panel called “Real or Imagined: The Line Between Young Adult, Crossover & Adult Fiction” when I had a sudden intense desire to ditch it and head over to “Off the Page: Writers Talk About the American Landscape”—and it was the right decision. As someone who writes about place so often, a very specific place, what was discussed in that panel really resonated with me. Besides, Margot Livesey was there. Her novel Eva Moves the Furniture is a personal favorite.

It’s funny—I’d been so excited about that YA panel, but then in the last second I changed my mind and wanted to be somewhere else. Maybe, sitting in that seat while the panel was just getting started, maybe I saw a bit of life flash before my eyes—like I knew who I was, and where I wanted to be, maybe. Like I see enough YA fiction at work and it was time to think about something else, the something else I always meant to be thinking about all along? I’m not sure. I just booked it for the other ballroom.

I love thinking about the imagined landscape, the landscape of memory, the landscape in my memories, which sometimes feel like dreams. This place is there, in me, though I haven’t lived there in forever and never again will, thank god. “You don’t have to love a landscape to write well about it. You can put a curse on it.” —Charles Baxter said, while talking about “The Minneapolis Poem” by James Wright, the best poem ever written about Minneapolis, he said, though it’s not very nice. (Read it here.)

And now final quote of the day, passed on from Grace Paley, during a panel called “Writing the Unspeakable: The Truth Behind Fiction, Fiction as Truth,” about the inevitable advice writers get to write what you know, which I was just talking about with one of my writing friends: “Write about what you don’t know about what you know.” Good advice.

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