Senior Moments at the AWP Writers Conference
April 27, 2016 § 16 Comments
By Len Lyons
“Even the registration was overwhelming,” I said to my daughter. We were walking, heads lowered, through a wind tunnel created by the massive Los Angeles Convention Center to our left, and the Staples Center to the right. She told me, “That should be your opening line.” I had just told her my fantasy of writing about the experience that lay before me: attending the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ Annual Conference, where I hoped to reconnect with a world I had once felt a part of, but one in which my citizenship was now arguable. That I had published two books in my thirties, two in my forties, and one in my sixties seemed not to matter. It had been ten years since the last book. Was it too late now to rejoin the cohort of twelve thousand writers attending this conference, most of them decades younger than I.
My daughter, Gila, is a 30-something writer riding the wave of a career gathering gravitas. She had been invited to be a panelist at a session on memoir writing and feminism. Among the thousands who had flocked from around the nation for this event were best-selling authors, aspiring neophytes, and the majority of us somewhere in between. But I felt I was in a category of one: a 70-something sometimes-writer, whose energy for generating books, or even journal articles, was palpably ebbing. I feared that all that was left of my erstwhile waves of creativity was the foam. Because I was in LA for my sister’s 75th birthday party, the conference drew me towards it, irresistibly, like a survival kit, a last attempt to confront the fear that the shelf life of my career had expired.
Earlier that day, when I first entered the cavernous West Hall of the Convention Center to register, I’d observed the long and fast-growing queue warily. As the line zig-zagged at a lazy pace towards the matrix of monitors for self-registration, I surveyed the 70 or 80 people ahead of me. They carried backpacks or dragged carry-on luggage behind them, their conversations were animated, punctuated by eruptions of laughter. There were plenty of tattoos, nose rings, and a remarkably large percentage of women with short blue hair. There were also a dozen or so middle-aged, conventionally dressed types, but no other senior citizens I could spot. Mathematically speaking, I was pretty sure that I raised the average age more than any other individual. Anyone here my age ought to be the dean of writers by now, I thought, not someone trying to get his game back. I wondered what I thought I was doing, I imagined ducking under the roped aisles and heading for the sunshine outside, opening a dependable New York Times, while nursing a nonfat latte at a ubiquitous Starbucks. I knew enough online, millennial English to think to myself, wtf!
What kept me in line, literally, was a snippet of conversation I overheard in the row of fresh young faces in front of me.
“I’m like totally bummed,” said a young lady in a tank top with blond curls falling to her shoulders. She was talking to a guy who gazed at her nodding earnestly, while his thumbs roamed with complete confidence all over the screen of his phone. “The agent was supposed to call me, but nothing. No text, no call.”
“Don’t worry,” said her friend.
“Fuck, man,” she continued, “she’s the closest I’ve been to getting my book published.”
“The conference hasn’t even started,” he assured her, “chill”.
Overhearing her frustration, her longing to get to a place I had already been, I was buoyed, briefly, by the feeling that I did have some right to stand there. At the same time, it didn’t begin to answer the real question: Could I write anything now, ten years after writing the most recent book?
Even more daunting was the question of whether I could write the way I had wanted to early on: from the inside, fueled by heart and imagination. It had always been easy for me to write about a topic, aiming at a known “market” for a book. I had published three books about jazz, composed on an IBM Selectric (William Morrow and Company), and two more about home computers in their infancy (Addison-Wesley), conceived on an Atari! After a brief (18-year) interlude as a technical writer (Sun Microsystems), I came off the bench and hit a solid single in 2007 about Ethiopian Jews struggling to find their place in Israel (Jewish Lights). But these topical books, which promised at least some predictable readers, now seemed like an easy target. But what about creating a feeling, a mood, an imagined story with memorable characters, struggling, failing or succeeding, a plot the reader had to see through to the end? This was what drew me to writing in the first place, the great novels, passionate internal explorations. Those were the targets I was initially after, but I had never really aimed high enough to test myself.
There was one more fleeting rush of confidence. A short story of mine, sent out on a whim, had been published in 2013 (jewishfiction.net). Full disclosure: it had been written 15 years earlier. Yet it was the kind of sustained, imagined truth that drew me to writing in the first place. That lonely spark from an internal fire, now mostly ashes, also helped to keep me in this line of writers, if only to find out once and for all if I belonged there.
The next opportunity to be overwhelmed came quickly on the morning the conference began. The program book offered a feast for anyone with an appetite for indecision. More than twenty panels met simultaneously during the first session at 9 a.m., but there was no doubt which one was meant for me: “Crashing Through Barriers: Confronting Writing Barriers and Rebooting Your Work.” It was comforting to be among close to a hundred writers for whom this panel was a compelling way to start the first day. By the end of the 75-minute panel, I had picked up one new attitude – writer’s block serves a creative function, letting your voice well up behind it, until it flows. I hope so. There were many practical tips. “Never throw out a draft,” said one panelist, a fiction writer who also edits a well-respected literary quarterly, “because you may revive it later on successfully.” Later that morning, I crossed paths with that editor and told him about my 15-year old story that, after some polishing, was published in a good online journal. “And I have more of them,” I said, as nonchalantly as possible. He invited me to send it and claimed he would remember me.
Not all picks were as obvious. “The Jazz Aesthetic” panel took place at the same time as “Grove Atlantic Writers Question Race: What difference does it make?” As a jazz author, who would love to incorporate the spontaneity of improvisation into fiction (think Murakami), I couldn’t pass that up. But my book about Ethiopian Jews had drawn me into investigating other Jews of African descent and ultimately the trope of “race,” which has recently been rejected as bogus by geneticists and anthropologists. The venues for these panels were a five-minute brisk walk from each other. I shuttled between them twice! Neither one lived up to my hopes, but I got my aerobic exercise for the morning.
Of course, I went to the panel “It’s Not A Love Story,” which featured five women writers, most importantly, my daughter. Among the 60 or so in the audience, there were only two men, and the other one looked close to my age. His daughter must be on the panel too, I thought. But this panel was enlightening for a guy like me who reflexively thinks of memoirs as a genre for famous people who hire ghostwriters. But memoir writing is not that. It is really not “navel gazing.” It is best explained by a book Gila gave me to read, The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick. The “I” is a character in the work, not the “I” who writes in a diary. For me, the most memorable statement in the session came during the Q & A from a young panelist who was responding to a question from the audience. She began by saying, “I actually had two boyfriends when I found out I was pregnant.” Did she realize that would be a perfect opening line for a short story?
Over the three days, I jotted down some pithy remarks that I think of as blossoms without stems, because I no longer know who said them. But they are in my notebook between direct quotation marks. Each one massaged my imagination and gave me something to contemplate that promised to nourish, mysteriously so, my quest to return to “real” writing. Here are a few: “A short story is like a bubble. Its surface reflects the world around it.” . . . “We don’t need chase scenes or shootouts to make a story succeed. We need to identify what is happening internally that transforms the self. That is drama.” . . .“It [the memoir] can’t just be about you, but about what other people can identify with in you.” . . . “I gave myself permission to write a thousand bad pages because writing badly is better than not writing at all.”
For the past ten years, I had committed the worst sin, worse than a thousand bad pages – not writing at all, or at least not the kind of writing that made me want to write. As the conference ended, I felt myself starting out again, rejuvenated or at least with a remodeled interior, an aspiring writer once again, now in his 70s. The question I had asked myself – Can I? – turned out to have an answer, but not the one I expected: I want to try, even if I can’t. I had to leave the landscape of known markets, topic-driven writing, and instead follow the writing itself and whatever creative instincts remain. There’s no telling where this will lead; so far, to what you’ve just read.
Len Lyons, Ph.D. in Philosophy (Brown University), is the author of six books on a variety of subjects, including jazz, philosophy, and computers and religion. His most recent book is The Ethiopian Jews of Israel – Personal Stories of Life in the Promised Land, about the struggle for acceptance in Israel of 140,000 Ethiopian Jews. His work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, Downbeat, Tablet, The Forward, Jewish Review of Books, JewishFiction.net, Journal of African Religions, and more.