Tuesday, February 17, 2009

AWP Report: Why Writers Matter

I just returned from Chicago where I attended The Association of Writers & Writing Programs' annual conference (which is why I haven't posted in a week). According to their website, AWP aims to "foster literary talent and achievement, to advance the art of writing as essential to a good education, and to serve the makers, teachers, students, and readers of contemporary writing."

Obviously, these are my kind of people.

But the conference didn't initially make me feel what I thought it would with its keynote address by Art Speigelman, a Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novelist; its featured reading by Charles Baxter, a brilliant short story writer; its panel with Ben Percy, a recent winner of the Pushcart Prize; and about a thousand other cool people.

Despite the masses of great artists at this conference, I was initially depressed by what was going on at the Chicago Hilton last week. At this conference, there were thousands of desperate fame-craving writers -- people who were there not to celebrate great writing, but to "be discovered."

There were masses of scraggly, unkempt poets. (In fact, I was told twice, "You must write fiction. You're too clean cut to be a poet.) There were hoards of turtelnecked short-story writers and mountains of mid-life-crisis-induced aspiring novelists. There was, to be honest, a component of this conference that was tragically sad. It reminded me of a poem by Charles Bukowski titled "poetry readings." It begins:

poetry readings have to be some of the saddest
things ever,
the gathering of the clansmen and clanladies,
week after week, month after month, year
after year,
getting old together,
reading on to tiny gatherings,
still hoping their genius will be

Even worse, part of this conference (albeit a small part) was about wealth and elevating the individual (a few panels even had titles like "From Publication to Promotion: Capturing the Attention of the Media" and "How to Make Money Writing Right Now.")

All of this made me question why we even need contemporary writers (and you'd have a hard time finding a bigger fan of contemporary writing than me). If today's writers are just as wealth-obsessed and egocentric and impure as everyone else, do they really have anything more to offer us than Lindsey Lohan? Is their literature merely an elaborate ruse in which they feign sincerity, dupe the masses, and stuff their pockets?

So with the question, "Why do we need writers?" blazing in my ears, I settled into a reading of six writers (Charles Baxter, Barrie Jean Borich, C.J. Hribel, Scott Russell Sanders, Sun Yung Shin, and Wang Ping), and let me tell you -- I got my answer to this question. We need writers. We need them desperately.

Here's why:

1) We Need Writers Because Great Writers Understand Grace.

Despite the miles of greasy hair, the racks of homeless-style clothing, and the ragged appearances of so many conference attendees, not one successful writer I saw in Chicago -- not one -- looked inelegant or shoddy. Each one, male or female, moved with a grace and poise that seemed to come from an earlier era. But these graceful appearances were merely an extension of their work. Whether they were writing about the sublime (birth, grief, the nobility of Chinese peasantry, isolation) or the ridiculous (a man who shoots a gun at a nuclear reactor as a form of protest, giant pumpkins that get swept up in a tornado and become vegetative wrecking balls, a couple who get wedding pictures taken at Sears), each writer achieved a simple grace in expression. They used language expertly. They built word upon word to create raw emotion, and they did it with elegance and beauty. We need writers because grace in expression is sorely lacking in contemporary society, and great writers implicitly argue for it's return.

2) We Need Writers Because Great Writers Give Grace.

Here's an example. For years I've been a fan of Charles Baxter, and I hoped somehow I could get him to sign my copy of his book Harmony of the World, but I didn't know how to approach him. I hated the idea of thrusting a book and pen roughly in his face, and when he walked into the lecture hall where I was waiting to hear him read, a mass of fans descended upon him, and I decided it would be impossible for me to get my book signed. I do have a little dignity (very little), and it demanded that I refrain from acting like a groupie.

So I took an aisle seat towards the back, set Harmony of the World onto my lap, and waited for the reading.

A moment later, I felt a hand on my shoulder.

"You have that old, old book of mine," a voice said. Obviously, it was Charles Baxter, who must have noticed my eagerness to meet him as well as my withdrawal from the crowd. And then, he made the perfect gesture. He half held out his hand, letting me know he'd sign my book if I liked but that he also wasn't presuming anything. We spoke for a moment, he signed my book, and he moved onto the stage for his reading.

So what does this have to do with grace?

Great writers, I think, give us things we simply can't get on our own.

Isn't that grace?

Baxter gave me his signature, and while that's an obviously small, silly thing, Baxter knew what I wanted and knew that certain things prevented me from getting it. So, he gave it to me.

And isn't a great book similar? Don't great books give us things we want but can't get on our own? Things like hope, strength, power, virtue, and peace?

So, to sum up:

The best writers, I've decided, understand grace -- both how to act with it and how to give it. The worst writers, who are all too often unkempt and scraggly, who spout profanity as if it's truly original, and who crave their names on book jackets more than they crave good stories, never will.


Jane @ What About Mom? said...

Josh -- I love what you've said here, but I can't help thinking that some great writers (and other artists) have been completely execrable human beings, especially when it comes to how they treat their families.

But your last sentence nails it. True artists will do what they do, will write or create or sing, regardless of the public response. Which scares me, because sometimes that means incorrigibly deluded schmucks on American Idol, but it's also Van Gogh and Dickinson and every starving writer who suddenly makes it after hacking away for years.

I read something about Flannery O'Connor -- how she was writing through incredible pain weeks before she died because she wanted to finish her story. Or that Plato(?) anecdote where he holds the guys head under water and then tells him to come back when he wants to learn as badly as he wanted to breathe.

Professor Josh said...

Jane - yes, I run into the problem that writers are sometimes creeps every semester when I teach Hemingway. (Man, that guy has a bad reputation - and a history that lives up to it.)

I've decided that I'm okay with writers espousing virtues they don't always live up to. While this may seem like hypocrisy, can't I say "honesty is good" and truly believe it without being perfectly honest? Someone has to argue for ideals, and whoever does so will inevitably fall short of living these ideals. Writers tend to do this, but I still appreciate the lessons (i.e., grace) they give and see what they're doing (in their art - not their personal lives) as noble and good.

KW said...

Thank you for this post. I write as a qualitative researcher. My passion for writing and publishing was born of a strong desire to share our study results with others. Unfortunately, recently the unending amount of work involved in writing has stolen the passion and excitement and left only tedium. I have grasped for reasons to write but sadly the only motivation that I have found is the "fame" that comes from publication in a scholarly journal, which alone is a poor motivator. Your post has reminded me why I write, why I love to write, and why it matters that I write.

Professor Josh said...

KW - Thanks for your comment. Yes, sometimes it's hard to atay passionate about writing when writing is our job. That's one reason I created this blog. I needed a chance to write without the pressure of publication or the tedium of the workplace. True, the pressure to publish is often valuable, but we need outlets where we can write without that pressure. Blogging seems to fill that niche.

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