Swimming in the Salmon Stream

The AWP convention


About two weeks ago, I went to the Association of Writing Programs (AWP) Convention, as I have been doing every year for quite some time. It’s a large gathering, with upwards of 10,000 in attendance, and it migrates from city to city. This year’s shindig was in Washington, D.C., at the city’s convention center and an adjoining hotel. The corridors, escalators, lobbies, and bars were crammed with seekers—writers and wannabe writers—which was heartening and dispiriting in equal measure: the former because it’s good to see so many people still attached to books and literary culture, the latter because, like a minnow in a salmon run, you realize how slim the chances are of getting your own written efforts noticed.

As it happens, I have a new book that has just come out (A Mother’s Tale, published by Ohio State University Press), and was at the convention partly to “promote” it, if that is the correct word for spitting into the wind. In the vast, football-field-sized book fair, with hundreds of tables manned by small presses, established publishers, writing programs, and literary agencies, I sat at the OSU booth for an hour and signed copies. Like any shmata salesman on the Lower East Side, hoping to drum up business by standing outside his store, I was cravenly grateful for those who stopped by, chatted, and bought a book.

As the saying goes, this is not my first rodeo, and you would think that after having seen some 20 or more books into print, I would by this time be calm and indifferent about the process. Not a chance. I am nervous, anxious, edgy, and will probably stay that way until I get a review in The New York Times or some other major media outlet. If none arises, I will brood about the missed opportunities for years. The fact that friends, acquaintances, and relatives have attested to their liking for the book only makes me tenser: now I think I have a potential winner on my hands, and am frustrated because the university press that kindly published it has the enthusiasm but not the means to market it properly, so it will likely disappear from sight momentarily. Yet one must have faith that the right readers will find one’s book in time, if it’s any good. So they tell me, so I tell myself. Oy.

Meanwhile, I spoke on two panels, one on Thursday, one on Friday. The panel discussion is my least favorite form of entertainment: four or five writers get up and speak for 10 minutes apiece, then take questions. It is almost impossible for any subject to deepen, to arrive at insight or nuance; the result is a lot of competitive posturing. Moreover, I am never sure whether to interact with the other panelists or the audience, and so my focus keeps shifting, as does my eye contact. I remember once seeing Harold Brodkey on a PEN panel, putting his head in his hands in a posture of lamentation, like Munch’s The Scream, as though to block out the mediocrity of the other panel-members, and my thinking at the time: How rude! Brodkey was blessed with a vibrant superiority complex, so his gesture was not entirely surprising, but many times I have thought of duplicating his despairing demonstration, not because I necessarily feel superior to my fellow panelists, but just because I am bored with the obligation to act in such a dull play.

On the other hand, there is something I like about getting up in front of a packed house and improvising remarks. My impatience translates into a mischievous comic impulse—I find myself accessing absurd free associations. It is an utter reversal of the solitary act of writing, a repudiation of the alleged lonely soul crying out in the wilderness. I find I trust large anonymous audiences more than I do small gatherings, such as faculty meetings or dinner parties. A therapist once mockingly characterized me as having an “amphitheater personality.” Maybe so: I go into a trance and shed my reserved demeanor. For all my misgivings, the two AWP panels, especially the second one, came off well, and the audience left seeming pleased.

In the old days, I used to roam around and listen to various panels, but now I attend only the ones I’m on, and the rest of the time meet with friends, colleagues, and former students over coffee, a drink, or a meal. These conversational catch-ups are what I like best about the AWP conventions: the chance to hear the next chapter in people’s lives, their children’s recent doings, their own projects, illnesses, and romances, their unsupportive universities, their take on contemporary literary fashions, and their students’ reluctance to read. There is an avidity with which we tear into each other’s lives, and an intense focus that comes partly from knowing we may not see each other for another year or two, and partly from our wish to block out the swarm of literary hopefuls around us. Your awareness that there are ten thousand others in the same boat is an insult to your amour-propre and feelings of uniqueness.

Every year, writers I know tell me that they will never go to another AWP convention again; they are fed up with the mob scene. The implication is that they have matured beyond this cheap need for validation, or for this spurious sense of community—whereas I have not. It’s true, I expect to keep coming back, as long as they invite me to speak on panels. It is one of the few places where I am treated like a macher. Strangers come up to me and say that my books have changed their life. I understand they are just being nice and I remain skeptical, or I translate their remark into: “Before I encountered The Art of the Personal Essay, I was embarked on a well-paying career, but now I am a starving essayist.” Meanwhile, their flattery takes my mind off its anxiety about my new book, for a few seconds at least.

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Phillip Lopate is director of Columbia University's nonfiction program, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, and author of Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and To Show and to Tell, among other books.


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