Back from the AWP, all of this is pretty easy to mock: panels with folk sitting on the floor, waiting with their hands up for someone or anyone to call on them, call out to them, to share some wisdom with the masses.
Each question begins with some variation of “Well, now, in my own unpublished novel…” Each answered by the same long line of advice, platitudes, affirmations: Work. Write every day. Don’t write every day. Plot. Outline. Start from scratch. Let the characters guide you. Let the spirit of the word move through you. Make it your job.
Throw three chicken knuckles in the air and watch where they land, but don’t bid them to land.
Breathe in your characters. Swallow your fears. Conduct a daily enema, drawing inspiration from your insides like some sickly bowl of tea leaves, still wet from the night before. Shake hands and reaffirm your belief that each one of us is special. Shake hands and reaffirm you are afraid, you are clammy, you are never good at handshakes. Try an awkward hug instead before the crowd swells to overwhelm you.
The barrel we all swim in shrinks on a daily basis and all the fish here are pretty slow.
Over ten thousand of us crammed into a convention centre, gulping in recycled air, four-dollar bottles of water, our flasks stuffed under tables or inside messenger bags. We are all prostrate in one way or another. All easy targets, wide circles painted on asses swollen from hours spent sitting on the floor.
It’s too easy to fire into this barrel, too easy to watch some bodies float to the top, caked in the pages of someone else’s chapbook, someone else’s thesis in epistolary form. But when the panels have titles like “Post Post-Memoir” and you hear of a novel out there about being in an MFA program, you might feel like you have no choice but to pull the trigger. You might feel like this is one insufferably long, expensive joke. You might call it a mercy killing and clean your hands in the aftermath. You might be right.
But it comes down to the same bullshit you’ve always known, the kind of shit your dad might say when the fort you built tumbles down around your head out there in the snow—you get out what you put into it. You avoid the giant panels, the hit-and-run submission style. You talk to the authors you want to read, you take an interest in someone else’s work, in someone else’s style. You read things you would never write, and you buy things for other people you’d never buy for yourself.
It may seem alien when you believe you’re above all this, but you aren’t. You are floating in the same messy barrel, the same bloodied water.
The system may be flawed, the structure may be far from sound, but pitching rocks from inside the building has never really worked out too well. We are building our own tunnels, connecting with the others struggling around us. We are using the rubble to build something tougher, something made of discarded bones and tendons and little bits of light.
So you put in the work. You read someone new. You meet someone new and you don’t bring up your own work: you don’t hand them a synopsis, you don’t link them to your Twitter or your website or your online series of poems inspired by taxidermy in the lower Midwest.
You ask them what they do. You ask them why they’re here. You listen to a story and you forget to pull the trigger because you’re realized we’re all in the same barrel in the end.
We all have our hands up.