Sunday, March 23, 2014

Writing Conferences, AWP and the Las Vegas Hardware Show

Why do people go to writing conferences?

Everybody likes to talk about risk in the arts, and there is no denying that risk is important. One has to meet the wolves on their territory. So there is this part about bringing one’s most recently drafted gift to the pack, watching them feed— all the while hoping for the word “brilliant” to escape around those critical, masticating, jaws.

There is the bit about reading something to people, always dreamt in advance without pants. (Someday someone is going to take their trousers down on stage, and we’ll all be thrilled. Or has that happened?)  For some, it’s the piece about standing up in a panel where someone might actually prove you wrong. Or foolish. Usually both. (And what, you may ask, is a picture of a squid doing there?)

Of course, there is the terror of crowds— the certainty, for instance, that you will be embraced by someone whose intimate physical characteristics are entwined in your memory without benefit of an attached name, or perhaps even gender preference. Risk. Part of the game.

But there is a lot to be said for a particular kind of safety to be found at a writers’ conference.

Since it has so recently passed its season, consider the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference.

At one level, no matter what it may have once been, it resembles a trade show. I’m thinking specifically of the National Hardware Show, aka the Vegas Show. In May, more than twenty-five thousand sellers and buyers gather a block off the strip to pitch hand tools, lawn implements, hoses, hammers, and big-deal, new products desperately seeking Home Depot shelf space. It is an orgy of salesmanship. The bookstore at AWP comes to mind. And now, the size. Every year a few thousand more: hovering around thirteen thousand this last time up.

At a hardware show, these people know how to sell! Anyone, for instance, who buys a product at the Vegas Show is only thinking about how it will sell to the realm of customers she has had in mind every minute of the three day sales frenzy. And it’s all about the money, every bit, my boss would say, as we flew home defeated. What I learned during my one visit to the National Hardware Show was that I couldn’t sell dog food to a starving Doberman.

What I also learned, I wasn’t alone.

Okay. I love tools.

I like to look at tools. I like to handle tools. I like to dream about what I could make with a tool. I keep tools that are no good, some that are outmoded entirely. I know how to use some tools whose place on the planet has been lost.

And, here’s the point, it wasn’t all about the money.

There were lots of us there for the tools. We all were supposed to be selling something, and everybody did it a little bit. But because we were there, our very presence at the show, told us we were the elite of the tool-obsessed community. Our obsession was not only with the tool, but with the craftsman, the expert in trade.

Just so with the AWP Conference. At some level, people are selling themselves, their ideas, their books, their poems, and often being paid on the spot with an attentive ear. But I go back to AWP now, whenever I can, not to sell anything at all. Rather, I go out of the love of the tool and the craftsman.

There is risk, I suppose. Rejection, of course. Embarrassment, maybe, or in my case, most assuredly some level of remorse.

However, this is not the whole story. It is in the nature of craftsmanship that practitioners will expend their courtesies upon others in the trade. At AWP, you are respected because you are there. You find yourself accepted because because you are on the floor at the conference. There is little risk that you will fail to depart feeling anything but emboldened to chance that awful, eerily inappropriate metaphor in your solitary room. The analogy that somehow mystifies us into our own sense of greatness. One is among other lovers of the tool at the AWP conference, as much as at the Vegas Show.

Of course, there are outliers in any such gathering, and for those persons, the purpose of AWP is different, I suppose. But my sense is they are as oblivious to risk as the wordsmith (and I mean 'wordsmith' in the broadest, most laudatory, sense) who told me, “AWP? Eh, where poets go to spawn.”

Do you suppose he was thinking of someone's intimate physical characteristics? Do you suppose there's any gambling associated with attendance at the Vegas Show?

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