NOTE: What follows is a hastily composed, mostly unedited account of this year’s AWP from my perspective. I don’t claim that it’s representative of anyone else’s experience.
Today, we might have grouped most of our experiences under the general heading of “mishaps.” You can’t use something with a darker, more serious connotation like “disaster” or “debacle” or “catastrophe,” because nothing terrible happened, but a lot of little inconveniences added up to a day that was less than it could have been.
At 9 am CST, the first of our alarms sounded. We shut it off. At 9:30, the backup alarm blared until somebody smacked it upside its head, after which it got the message and left us alone. We awoke at 10 am CST and ordered breakfast—in my case, ham and eggs, fingerling potatoes, grilled veggies, and toast. I did not bother with lunch.
Our hunger and exhaustion having ruined our chances of making our first scheduled session of the day, as well as a friend’s book signing, we finally stumbled out of our room at approximately 11:35 CST, headed for a session on applying for an individual creative writing NEA grant. Having seated ourselves around 11:45 CST, we got word of a minor issue in our room (don’t ask), so Kalene headed back to deal with it. I stayed long enough to discover that I was attending the exact same session that I attended last year, and we were once again discussing poetry submissions because I had somehow missed the fiction submission deadline. This….THIS is what happens when you teach five classes and serve on seven committees while trying to write. Something inevitably slips by, no matter how structured you are, and it’s usually something important. Now I can’t apply for an NEA grant until 2017.
Kalene texted an update about our situation at the hotel, and I wasn’t learning anything new, so I bailed and headed back.
The situation-that-shall-not-be-named required a trip to Target, and it was cold outside (Minneapolis in April, but hey, it wasn’t snowing like it did yesterday), so we decided to take the free-ride bus to the store. We sat down at a covered stop and shivered in the wind, watching buses pull up on the other side of the street and rumble away in the wrong direction until we said, “Screw this,” and started walking. The store lay only three or four blocks to our north (I think), and we were enjoying the chance to see a bit more of downtown—clean, modern, not as many people walking about as you’d think—until we started to cross what I have already come to think of as That Stupid Intersection.
We had barely stepped into the crosswalk when a car driving parallel to us suddenly put on its left blinker and veered our way. “Wait!” I cried, sure that we were about to be flattened, but the car merely changed lanes at seven thousand miles per hour and went on its way. Unfortunately, Kalene tried to heed my warning while walking much too fast for her own good. She managed to step in the one piece of broken pavement that I saw for at least a block. She turned her ankle, cried out, and fell onto her knees, scraping the skin off one of them. Then she rolled onto her back and lay there groaning. By this time, a bus was bearing down on us and showing no signs of stopping, so I reached down and yanked her upright. We stepped back onto the sidewalk and assessed the damage as the bus passed on by us like nothing had happened. The driver didn’t even glance our way.
Like the trooper that she is, Kalene kept going. We reached Target, bought our supplies and some snacks and first aid stuff, and headed back. We were going to catch a bus so she wouldn’t have to walk, but she decided that she would rather not let her ankle stiffen up, so we finished the trip on foot.
Back to the room for a bit of relaxation (for me, that meant a twenty-minute nap) before we headed back to the Convention Center (yep, Kalene was still walking) for two sessions.
The first one featured T.C. Boyle, Ron Carlson (for this semester’s CW students at CSN, he’s the one who wrote “Bigfoot Stole My Wife”), and Susan Straight. The panel was about the importance of place in creative writing (hey, CW students—think “grounding,” “setting,” etc.), specifically the landscape (physical and otherwise) of southern California. Straight and Carlson read short pieces from existing novels, while Boyle read a thus-far-unpublished story about a guy who invents a five-pound burrito. It struck me as very Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I mean that as a compliment. All three were great, of course.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to buy their books and or meet them because our next session started right away—a live NPR conversation with Louise Erdrich and Charles Baxter. The talk veered from memorable bad reviews to books that evoke a certain place/time in the writers’ minds to what the panelists wish that they had known when their careers were just beginning. Both demonstrated a sense of humor that most good writers have and that are often on display only during readings.
We had nothing scheduled afterward, and I had picked up copies of Baxter’s latest short-story collection and Erdrich’s award-winning novel The Round House, so we lined up to get them signed. A first for the Rileys, whose bad luck in minor matters is legendary—we were second in line. Usually we’re more like seven hundred and second.
Mr. Baxter was warm and gracious. He chatted with Kalene about the dangers of Minnesota roads as he signed my book. Ms. Erdrich was more reserved, but not in an unfriendly way. One gets the feeling that, like me, she’s a bit of an introvert and thus more comfortable in front of large crowds than when she’s chatting with people one on one. In spite of that, she took Kalene’s hand and complemented her on her style. I told Ms. Erdrich that this moment, speaking with her one-on-one, was our main motivation for coming this year, and I wasn’t lying. The pedagogy and craft talks are invaluable, and I admire the various other writers very much. Who could possibly dismiss T.C. Boyle or Baxter or Dybek or Prose? Still, I find that Erdrich’s work speaks to my own individual sensibilities in ways that I can’t quite explain, so I really wanted to meet her. She seemed surprised but touched that we felt that way about her books.
From there, we picked up Maya and sent across the street to the Hyatt, where we ate supper at the Prairie Kitchen and Bar. I had a ribeye (I’m eating more meat than I should on this trip, which is to say more than almost none, but after a rough day, I was in the mood to rend some flesh), while Maya chose a burger. Kalene had a mac and cheese dish with some kind of chicken in it. It was all good, made even better for me by a couple of margaritas on a mostly empty stomach.
Afterward, we returned to our room, where I graded a few papers and wrote this dispatch in about fifteen minutes.
I’m beginning to think any profundity in these little pieces may have to come later, upon reflection, because by the time I’m ready to write them, it’s late and I’m tired and I’ve still got grading to do. Still, this was our least busy day in terms of conference activities, and I’m just now winding down at 10:40 CST.
If any of my CW students are reading this, though, I’d like to share something that Ron Carlson said about place: “Nothing happens nowhere.” Every story has a setting, and every setting has a feel, a texture, an atmosphere. Within that setting—desert landscape or bedroom, alien planet or storm-tossed ocean liner, meth lab in the California mountains or a dude ranch or an urban diner—people live. They act. They talk to each other. They think. They react, to each other’s actions and thoughts and to their own emotional turmoil and to the setting itself. Place is not just a backdrop. It’s a living, breathing, absolutely necessary part of any story, and a writer at any stage ignores it to his/her peril.
If any of that sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve said it before, as have thousands of writers before me, as will thousands after I’m gone. If you’re a writer and you haven’t learned that lesson yet, there is no better time than now.
Given world enough and time, more tomorrow.
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