|An Iowan should not be cold in Seattle. But I am cold. |
Hats in hotel rooms. It happens.
So, I'm here in Seattle on Day 2 of the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) Conference. Twelve-to-fifteen thousand writers have converged upon downtown and, surprisingly, we have not overtaxed the plethora of Starbucks in a four-block radius. I'm spending time with lovely friends, eating good food, selling books, and listening to dynamic (and not-so-dynamic) panelists while taking mental notes on the conference and my fledgling writerly endeavors:
1. Instead of a cab, take the city rail from the airport with a woman you barely know that becomes a friend. Wander through an empty bus station and then through city streets, first this way then the opposite direction, late at night while you're starving and your back aches from the weight of your luggage. Congratulations, you saved $42.25 and you laughed a lot.
2.. Take the time and opportunity to talk to people you know and love and would be sorry to have missed a meal with.
3. Talk with friendly, non-competitive strangers. Trade names, cities of origin and, possibly, your web sites. If you talk long enough, you might evangelize them into reading Christian Wiman's My Bright Abyss, and they'll say, That sounds so familiar!! I'm going to check that out!
4. You may not understand most of what you hear on the poetry panel--the one that was supposed to help address your life-long struggle regarding the tension between the sentence and the poetic line, but the panelists are too smart for your own good and one talks about Augustine the entire time. You find out afterwards that the real poets in the room don't understand much of it either, which is comforting albeit unsettling, because then what was what you just sat through for an hour and fifteen minutes?
5. You are not a poet. You thought you were. You were a poser in college; you tried for so long. But You. Are. Not. A. Poet.
6. Nor are you a fiction writer. Sitting down to write a made-up story would be like sitting down to find out you don't have a brain.
7. Ear plugs are important when you share a hotel room even if you have the best possible roommates one could wish for (and you do).
8. If you've written a book and people ask about it, speak in an engaging way. But don't promote it when nobody's asking. If and when they buy your book, say thank you, smile, offer to sign it, and thank them again. They may have just shelled out ten dollars, but they've also given you the gift of audience, which is priceless.
9. Imitate the locals when at all possible, This means you should refrain from standing on a street corner with two of your roommates while all three of you stare intently into your smart phones and look up directions/restaurant information. Also, take off your conference badge. It's Friday night, and you're not at the conference.
10. Imitating the locals would also mean not dropping your water bottle, coat, books, and wallet at various points throughout the day as you try to manage the growing mass of conference survival paraphernalia that grows inside your backpack and threatens to spill out every time you need to unearth a credit card to pay for a cup of coffee.
11. That you have a backpack indicates you cannot avoid appearing like a tourist.
12. You lose your favorite hat (at the airport). You almost lose your favorite water bottle and have to retrace your steps on an escalator or two to recover it. Do not travel with anything you would describe as "favorite" ever again.
13. You get excited about the Cheesecake Factory and your friends, with more experience in bigger cities, say, "What's that?" You realize that you really are the hick from Iowa who is excited about a chain restaurant. Meanwhile, one friend wants to visit a local joint whose name, Radiator Whiskey, would work just as well as a book title or an indie band.
14. There are homeless and hungry people everywhere. Figure out your responsibility to them. Figure it out ahead of time. What will you say when, not if, you're asked for bus fare, for food, for money, for a blanket. Get creative. Maybe the money will get spent on booze, but you can buy extra fruit at the Pike Place market to give away to the next person who asks.
15. Writing and craft in and of themselves are not an end in themselves. The state of your art does not hinge on whether you are "allowed" to write a whole essay in the present tense or second person or in couplets. You can do what you want. Just make sure it's good.
16. And make sure it means something. Make sure it matters to you and to strangers.
17. Some panels sound like blah blah blah blah, blah blah blah...blah blah.
16. Practice reading your writing aloud. Be a good reader. Take acting lessons if you have to. Take note of all the panel attendees who walk out prematurely from what appears to be profound and insanity-enhancing boredom. Note that you too could have this effect on an audience if and when you ever are so honored with the opportunity. Knowing is half the battle, as G.I. Joe so frequently cautioned us throughout childhood. Prepare in advance.
17. Promote good writers and speakers and otherwise exemplary human beings who are making a positive contribution in this world. There are so many. Be generous in your sincere praise. Acknowledge the good. Writers are anxious and insecure people (you know; you are one of them). A little love goes a long way.
18. You are reminded of the Fred Rogers statement you saw on the Facebook, which so aptly fits your reflections today: "I believe that appreciation is a holy thing, that when we look for what's best in the person we happen to be with at the moment, we're doing what God does."
19. So appreciate the people you're with, the people who've sown into your writing and your reading and your understanding of the craft. Appreciate the many kindnesses of a roommate who will hat-shop to replace your lost one and lend you fleece zip-up jackets when your hotel room thermostat is set to 64 degrees. Appreciate the investment in your work, real money people are using on your book when they could buy others. Appreciate the way-makers, the handouts, the generosity of others who've helped you get to where you are. Be a way-maker for someone else.