Looking Back for Inspiration

Back in April, I attended AWP for the first time. The annual meeting of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs is absolutely as geeky as you might imagine. Thousands of introverts — some of them crazy-famous, even among non-writers, some famous only within writing circles, and the rest a mix of aspiring, academic, practicing, and just-getting-by writers — all coming together to talk about their craft, their passion.

I’d never been to this conference before. It intimidated me. But I put on my Big Girl Pantsuit and went, hoping to earn my writer badge, find inspiration, learn a few things, and come away better. It pretty much happened just that way.

I found my tribe, an eclectic collection of people from all walks of life, a mix of ethnicities, and a representative smattering of the people I believe America represents. Sure, the writing world is still too dominated by white men, but strides are being made to correct that. And there’s still not enough room for people of color, but again, those gathered talked about it, pledging to do more. There’s still improvements needed in so many places — addressing disabilities, making more safe space for the LBGTQ community and its voice, the immigrant community and its voice, and so much more — but it was all on the table. It was a five day conversation about craft and inclusion, about differences and bridges, about better tomorrows because of lessons learned today.

As I work to get back up off the floor after this election, I turned back to my notes from AWP, the ones I meant to memorialize but never did because, you know, life. Here’s what I found, what got me up off the floor and reminded me I’m not alone.

There are no answers here, but there’s a compass, there’s hope. And today, I’ll take it.

(Please note: some quotes are attributed to the speaker as my notes reflect; others are not because in my frenzied note-taking mania, I didn’t always make it clear who said what. Rather than get it wrong, most are left unattributed.)

“The pain is not the story. What causes the pain is the story.” — Harrison Scott Key

“Maybe my father was a fucking idiot.”

“The first draft is angry and selfish. Keep going — keep going to find the self awareness, the light, the humor.”

“The power of women’s memoir is that it can bring down the male hierarchy that is outed because of it.”

“‘Navel gazing’ is a male-perpetuated notion to minimize and trivialize women’s issues.”

“Artists are supposed to be subversive.”

“Writing about trauma is subversive.”

“Shame is an effective means of silencing.”

“The logic of patriarchy is gas-lighting and bullying.”

“Bill Clinton never said ‘cities’ in his speeches. There’s a distinct US discrimination against cities.” — Phillip Lopate

“Write an essay about a place (you know well). What’s inspirational? What’s uncomfortable? People and place — it’s never as simple as we think it is.”

“The refuge of anonymity — writers need to hear him/herself. But then they need disruption to find what’s relevant.”

“Write novels because it takes just as long as writing short stories.”

“Let the bottom fall out of who you are.” —Cheryl Strayed, on writing about self.

“There’s so much surprise in memoir. You think you’re writing about one thing and discover it’s about something else entirely.”

“You can’t rely on pity and drama; you still have to tell a good story.”

“Go into the darkness, live with it and overcome it, and come out altered.”

versus

“I walk into the room. I leave the room. And I’m still a dumb ass.” — Strayed

“The most annoying thing about writing memoir is that there are other people.”

“Writers follow their obsessions.”

“What’s the question I’m trying to answer? What’s the universal question it addresses?”

“Even family members who hate my book say, ‘But you really got mom right.’”

“I love that we live in a world where someone says ‘Everyone worships Phillip Lopate.’ I love AWP.”

“Resilience is the number one key to industry endurance.”

“Invest in self every day as a professional writer.”

“It starts on the page.”

“The book ends at exactly the point where I feel I’ve finally become qualified to write the book.”

“You have to write enough that when you throw all the bad parts out, you still have a book.”

“Suffering is interesting, but so is getting better.”

“Writing is the essence of surrendering yourself to writing what comes as it comes.”

“Knowing more drafts will follow lets me keep going, knowing that I can catch it the next time around.”

“Coming back into the wreckage of a draft is what we do.” — Leslie Jamison

“Always be on the look-out for the meaningful detail.”

“I write so I don’t die before I’m dead.”

“There’s no arriving. It’s all a shit-storm and then your’e dead. So get moving.”

“I’ve got an hour. Here I go.”

“The muck is useful to develop discipline.”

“Writing. It’s something you do everyday without any hope of anyone ever seeing it.”

“If you think it when you’re thinking it, you’re not writing it.”

“To be a writer, I had to divest myself of a good credit rating.”

“White supremacy doesn’t just prey on people of color. It preys on all of us.”

“White supremacy makes ‘the beloved country’ impossible.”

“Control the space we control. We begin there.”

“What they learn is what we write,” speaking of students in classrooms.

“You cannot rely on your childhood education. It was wrong.”

“Write not to cure our guilt, but to pay our debt.”

“In our own writing, we lay bear our own fucked up white psyche.”

“That shit’s still in me.” — A comment from a self-identified ‘straight white guy from Indiana,’ talking about racism.

“The first byproduct of good is empathy, so if you can accept my good, we can find common ground.”

On my last night at AWP in Los Angeles, I settled into a back table at Bar and Kitchen, a tiny restaurant near the convention center, and slurped tomato soup with a side of macaroni and cheese — a dinner usually reserved for a nine year old.

It was comfort food, in my moment of solitude and anonymity, remembering that while I sit alone, I am not alone.

Today, I’m holding on to that. As Strayed so famously said, I’m now gonna “write like a motherfucker.”