April 14, 2017 § 1 Comment
Brevity is celebrating its 20th Anniversary! As part of our celebration, we’d like to showcase the various ways the journal is used in classrooms and other workshop settings. Do you teach from Brevity? Send us a brief (but not necessarily Brevity brief) piece about how you use Brevity: a lesson plan, thoughts on a Brevity essay you most like to teach, reminiscences of student reactions to the work. We’ll be collecting these and publishing a selection on the Brevity blog in conjunction with our special anniversary issue, slated for early September.
Send your contributions by August 31, 2017, to firstname.lastname@example.org
April 3, 2017 § 5 Comments
By Kate Parrish
“The most powerful words in English are ‘tell me a story,’ words that are intimately related to the complexity of history, the origins of language, the continuity of the species, the taproot of our humanity, our singularity and art itself.” Pat Conroy wrote these words in 2010, and today, when the arts are under attack—when not even Bert and Ernie are safe—they read more like an omen than a salvation. Without access to the arts, will we lose access to our humanity? How long can we survive without each other’s stories? For us at Rivendell Writers’ Colony, the answers are unknown but our response plan remains the same: create more opportunity for creation. It’s why we’re offering four new two-week residency fellowships this year.
Let us tell you a little of our story. Maybe you’ll find its one in which you’d like to help write.
Rivendell Writers’ Colony, the first writers’ residency in Tennessee, opened its doors to storytellers of all genres in 2013. But, of course, that isn’t exactly where the story begins. Located in Sewanee, Tenn., Rivendell sits atop the Cumberland Plateau, a region forged out of layers of sandstone and shale lifted 2,000 feet above sea level nearly 300 million years ago. Hundreds of caves dot the landscape concealing some of the area’s oldest stories: finger-traced mud glyphs left behind 2,000 thousand years ago by individuals with something to say. Individuals who would have ducked into low chambers, squeezed through impossible passes, and crawled on their bellies deep into the earth to write down their stories. Taproot is right.
Sewanee is something of a literary hamlet, a bastion of the written word. It is home to the University of the South, which is home to the Sewanee Review, the oldest continuously published literary quarterly in the country, and the prestigious Tennessee Williams estate-funded Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Literary juggernauts like Fugitive poet Allen Tate, Agrarian poet Andrew Lytle, novelists William Alexander Percy and his cousin Walker Percy have all lived in Sewanee. In more recent years, John Jeremiah Sullivan, popular essayist and southern editor of The Paris Review, and Kevin Wilson, author of the book-turned-movie The Family Fang, have called Sewanee home. A little more than a decade ago, the university started the School of Letters, a summers-only MFA and MA program, the only one of its kind in the country. For a town with only two blinking red lights, it has a larger literary footprint than many major cities. But what it didn’t have—what it needed—was a writers’ residency.
Built between 1905-1910, the nearly 7,000-square-foot house, referred to simply as “the Manor,” is positioned on the edge of a bluff overlooking Lost Cove. Many mornings the home, the expansive yard dotted with oak and white pine, and the entirety of the bluff are blanketed in a dense fog. Families of deer, fox and skunks move under its protective cover. Lost Cove disappears completely. It is the Manor’s position on the bluff and the frequent presence of fog that inspired one of the property’s former owners to name the space Rivendell after the elven realm in The Lord of the Rings.
Rivendell, which adjoins the historic Brinkwood property, former home of William Alexander Percy, and later, Walker Percy, changed hands for the last time in 1990. Mary Elizabeth Nelson, a Nashville resident with a deep fondness for Sewanee, purchased the property and set to work meticulously renovating it. Today it features two full kitchens, two dining rooms, six bedrooms, seven bathrooms, a wood-burning fireplace, a third-story writers’ loft, and a wrap-around porch with a panoramic view of the cove. Rivendell was the first renovation project in Tennessee to earn LEED silver certification.
But Ms. Nelson didn’t set out to create a writers’ residency or a nonprofit. Rivendell Writers’ Colony was born out of one of those “wouldn’t it be nice” kind of conversations that only a long lunch on a back porch in the middle of summer could create. Sewanee friends and colleagues spit balling and dreaming over iced tea and local greens. What if Rivendell became something else? Could it grow into something more? It was the literary piece Sewanee still lacked. Ms. Nelson, a literature lover but not a “Writer” by trade, was listening. And as stories go, the rest is history.
Rivendell, which has now expanded to four residences across two adjoining properties, serves all those who embrace the life of the book. In its brief history as a writers’ residency, it seems to now be fulfilling its intended destiny, as if it had been inching towards this outcome for the last century all along. Over the last four years, hundreds of writers have been able to call Rivendell home for a weekend, two weeks, or a month, joining in Sewanee’s rich literary history in their own way.
We support writers of all genres and writers at varying stages of their literary journeys. Both seasoned and aspiring writers are encouraged to apply. The surroundings, intended to quiet outside distractions (Wi-Fi is limited and there are no TVs), encourage imagination and contemplation. But the accommodations and amenities are anything but austere. Warm and inviting, thoughtful with close attention to detail, this place is meant to feel like home.
In March, we were awarded a grant from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, an organization committed to supporting artists who are also raising families. With this award, we are able to offer four, two-week residencies to writers with a child or children age twelve or younger. If making time and space for writing with no children is challenging, writing while parenting young children can feel almost impossible. Applications for the Sustainable Arts Foundation 2017 Fellowship for Parents are being accepted April 1-May 31 for residencies September-December.
In addition to the SAF fellowship, Rivendell also offers five other fellowships, each made possible by the generous contributions of private donors and our past writers-in-residence. All new applicants are considered for one of these awards.
While it appears there are tough days ahead for those of us in the arts, awards like these stand as evidence of our steadfast commitment to providing writers with the time and space to imagine, create, and examine. We are honored to be a protector of the art of storytelling. We look forward to hearing your stories.
Kate Parrish is a writer, MFA candidate at the Sewanee School of Letters, and doer of whatever needs doing around Rivendell Writers’ Colony. She can be found at kateparrish.com or @parrishdontperish on Instagram.
March 16, 2017 § 11 Comments
By Dinty W. Moore
I am reviewing a blank book. The pages are entirely empty – not a single word. That makes it nonfiction, yes?
Because there is no fiction printed within.
And the title is Alternative Facts.
Facts are nonfiction, yes?
This is important, because the Brevity blog only reviews books of nonfiction.
So here is my review:
It is an interesting book. A quick read. The paper is nice. The cover feels solid. The entire package fits neatly in your hand.
By the way, royalties from sales of the book are being donated to ProPublica by the publisher, Abrams. ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.
So there we go. More facts. More nonfiction.
I am beginning to feel pretty good about my book review. I might write some of my good feelings down – in the book, on the blank pages (shown to the left).
Something like this:
“I’m feeling very good about my review.”
Except, hold your horses. (Not literally! “Hold your horses” is just a metaphor.)
But it seems I’ve told a lie here.
So is this review now fiction?
Or is it back to nonfiction, as soon as I admit to the lie.
I don’t know. Ask D’Agata.
But there are, after all, words in this book, but only a very few, printed on the very last page:
Two days into the Trump presidency, the thesaurus gained a new synonym for falsehoods, lies, distortion, deception, and total BS (take your pick). The phrase “alternative facts” has sparked laughter at its absurdity, but also disbelief and fear that this administration shows no hesitation in blatantly rewriting the truth to fit its narrative.
In response, this journal offers the opportunity to ground yourself in reality, to collect and record in writing whatever you wish, and to record your own alternative facts.
Pretty cool, huh?
Here’s an Alternative Fact: I am being spied upon, at this very moment, by my microwave. Someone in Russia is watching me write this review. He or she, I can’t be sure, is quite bored by it all.
Dinty W. Moore is founding editor of Brevity magazine and this blog as well. He is being spied upon, at this very moment, by his microwave
March 14, 2017 § 6 Comments
By Shuly Cawood
I’ve been listening lately to a new podcast, Book Cougars: Two Middle-Aged Women on the Hunt for a Good Read. I don’t know how in the world the hosts read the number of books they do, but they each read about ten books at the pace I read a measly one. This podcast is where I have learned about free audiobook resources. It’s the podcast where I learned about Roxane Gay pulling her book from Simon & Schuster. It’s the podcast where I can get someone else’s take on the book versus the movie. The two hosts are Chris and Emily, and they take listeners on a tour of their latest reads and biblio adventures, discuss cultural and political issues that come up in the books, provide information about resources at libraries, and share laughter when they find something funny.
It’s the laughter part I love—though don’t get me wrong, I like hearing about authors and new and old books, and just plain learning since I am an author myself. But it’s the laughter that gets me the most. There’s a reason for that, beyond just plain liking to hear joy in people’s voices.
But to explain, I have to tell you a story—well, actually two: one from my life, and one from someone else’s.
When I was in my 20s, I lived for almost two years in a quaint, picturesque college town. The emphasis is on “almost two years,” not picturesque or quaint. I was struggling with love and life and working too hard at a job at which—I heard through the office grapevine—the boss didn’t think I was putting in enough hours, though I was averaging 50-60 a week. To say I was unhappy is putting it lightly. I cried way too much, and I had to push myself to get through the day.
My unhappiness was not the fault of the town or my boss or my job or the apartment I lived in that felt lonely or any one thing but mostly everything all piled together—which means mostly me. At a little over the one-year mark, I wanted to get up and go, but I did not. I was afraid leaving my job would be failing. I realize now I stayed longer than I should have. Even when I had been sad before in my life, I had always been able to find beauty in the landscape—in a sunrise tinged with pink or the swaying of trees—but I remember one day feeling like I couldn’t see beauty anymore. It was winter, and even with the glitter of snow, beauty had vanished for me when I looked out at the world.
Finally, at just over the one-and-a-half-year mark, I got up the courage to give notice—six weeks, so that I would not leave my employer in a lurch. All these years later, I still remember the final day, when I drove with the last of my things on the two-lane then the highways and away from that cute little town that should have been perfect for me but instead, even now, is washed in sadness in my memories of it. They say you can’t escape by leaving. They say that sadness follows you, but mine didn’t. I remember thinking on that drive that the world looked beautiful again, and I had that same feeling the day after, and the next. What I’m trying to say is I know what it means to have to leave a place in order to survive.
I grew up with a friend who was always yearning to leave our hometown. And leave she did—she went to another state for college and then moved to the East Coast where she had her two kids. Then she came back. Not because she missed our hometown but because she knew it was a great place to raise her children. And it was. But, as her kids got older, she kept saying as soon as the youngest was out of high school, she was heading to the East Coast. Meanwhile, she was making friends, running her own business, parenting her (wonderful) children. The years went on. Her first kid graduated from high school, and three years later, her last one did. Still, she stayed put. I knew she was itching for a change, but those roots were deep. It isn’t easy to just drive away when you have a mortgage and a business and long-running friendships and a history. At the same time, my friend knew she had to go, that she just couldn’t live in our hometown anymore. Two years ago, she got rid of most of her belongings, rented out her house until it sold, and got in her car and drove away, landing on the East Coast.
Leaving took guts. If you meet this friend, what you’ll meet is loyalty, endurance, integrity, and strength. She has always been those things. But now she is also happiness—I hear it in her voice, and I can see it in her whole being. This friend loves books—has always loved books. And when she talked about starting a podcast about books with one of her friends, I heard joy in the telling. Yes, she is the Emily of the Book Cougars. So when I listen to the podcast, I hear great conversation, interesting book news, banter about the latest reads, but best of all, laughter.
Hearing her laugh is my favorite part.
March 9, 2017 § Leave a comment
A guest post from New Ohio Review editor David Wanczyk:
Last year, I wrote a post for Brevity about what I seek in Creative Nonfiction as the editor of New Ohio Review. It was 605 words, but it could have been three: Intensity, Ambivalence, Nostalgia.
Essentially, is there a conflict in the essay/memoir? Is there hard thinking and debate with oneself? And are there detail-rich descriptions that enliven a scene (potentially from 1986)?
I thought I’d been somewhat clever, laying out a writing schema that was not quite as general as a daily horoscope or as specific as an Ikea manual.
But it turns out that these three key concepts were only the product of cleverness inasmuch as they were basically cribbed from Phillip Lopate, one of my favorite writers, and New Ohio Review‘s 2017 Nonfiction Contest judge.
On intensity/conflict, he writes, “I was always waiting for life to become tragic, so that I would merely have to record it to become a powerful, universal writer,” and in that recognition of a desire for dramatic struggle, which he plays as partially naive, he reveals that it isn’t necessarily conflict that makes a good piece of nonfiction.
On ambivalence, he writes, “Personal essayists converse with the reader because they are already having dialogues and disputes with themselves,” and there he teaches me that self-debate helps us communicate; but at the same time, Lopate writes with absolute directness, refusing to dwell in any muddle. He’s not speaking from a place of ambivalence for the sake of it; the thing he’s chewing on is what’s important, not necessarily the mode of chewing.
On nostalgia, he writes, “One has to guard against the tendency to think of one’s youth as a time when the conversations were brighter, the friends truer, and the movies better.” With this, he would seem to pooh-pooh my suggestion that essayists should infuse their work with a sense of wonder about the past, and yet he consistently writes, in a lovely way, as though he were a documentary filmmaker of his own memory, even admitting that he occasionally felt like a cameraman when he was young: “I wanted life to have the economy and double meaning of art,” he admits. “But more often I simply felt torn by a harsh, banal pain that had no cinematic equivalent.”
Lopate’s work—searching, funny, and sometimes uncomfortable—stays in that space between artistry and banality, and because of that, we feel like we’re with a friend on his smartest day, a friend who, like us, doesn’t quite fit in.
“I believe in the aesthetically impure as an accurate reflection of reality,” he wrote in his book Getting Personal, and, as I look back at Lopate’s work I’m happy to go along with that idea, too. For this year.
Intensity, Ambivalence, and Nostalgia? Eh, maybe.
But for all you Scorpios and Tauri out there in the Brevity community, maybe we should shoot for an impure reflection of something true, first and foremost?
If this sounds intriguing, please send New Ohio Review and Phillip Lopate your brightest impurities, your canniest reflections, your things-that-don’t-fit.
Deadline: April 15th
Prize: $1000 and publication in NOR 22.
All submissions will be considered even if they don’t win, and the entry fee—$20—gets you a one-year subscription to the magazine. We’ve also got fiction and poetry contests, and we’re at https://newohioreview.submittable.com/submit
February 28, 2017 § 3 Comments
Brevity assistant editor Alexis Paige discusses the art of writing place and grief with Angela Palm, author of Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize:
PAIGE: First, I have to say that I admire this book so much—for its technical and emotional acumen. Kafka famously said, “We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” I favor such grievous reading. I want to be moved, I want blunt-force trauma to the head and heart. Riverine accomplishes both; it made me puzzle over and admire technical and formal maneuvers and also made me swoon at its beauty and keen pathos. Did you set out to reach the reader on both fronts concertedly? Were you conscious about achieving certain effects with readers, and if so, how did you conceive of those effects?
PALM: Alexis, thank you! That’s the highest compliment. It was part instinct on the front end and part crafty planning on the back end—lurching into the magic that’s generated while writing, then trying to make editorial sense of what I was drafting. Early in these chapters, I wanted to bring together my tendency to think peripatetically, my curiosity and loneliness which have followed me everywhere, my sense of longing and loss, and my love of language. Topically I wanted to investigate the way places shapes us, the marks we leave on each other through both love and violence. I wanted to show the way I think—amused at the way that physics and biology and nature play out in everyday life. I needed a way to tell what is, aside from the event of the crime and my relationship with the boy who committed it, an otherwise ordinary tale. And so the way that I wrote about the ordinary became very important. Nothing around us is ordinary, I found, looking closer. Everywhere, the land is not ours. Everywhere, the past has a dark underbelly. Everywhere, what appears to be one thing is something else. What I lack in narrative impulse—sometimes sidestepping intense, revealing scenes in favor of the quiet image or the extended metaphor, I try to make up in intellectual inquiry. Writing this way began to take on a swirling quality, and I wanted the reader to feel that with me. This vortex of thinking through experience. Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t just a love letter to the world that says, is anyone out there who experiences life the way I do?
PAIGE: What were the origins of this book? Did you have the concept in mind before you wrote it, or did the concept emerge as you wrote?
PALM: Avoidance was its origin, then a gradual acceptance of my own truth. I wrote around the heart of the narrative—around the crime, around the boy. The earliest essays are located in the middle of the book. I couldn’t untangle my life in this river home, so I broke it down into smaller “maps” I could tackle, as if cutting cross-sections from experience and flattening them in order to see them. I mapped the bar I grew up, I wrote an essay that toured the different churches and religions I tried, another that takes apart the cornfields I worked in and looks at them politically, socioeconomically, and so forth. When I read what became the epigraph—“Every map is a fiction” by D.J. Waldie—the rest clicked into place. The mapping became an organizing principle, as well as a method of thinking about experience. A gigantic metaphor for life. A map, after all, never stays the same and contains a hundred misrepresentations, summaries, erasures in every iteration. Maps are a kind of precise lie.
PAIGE: Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here is rich with place identity, from your hardscrabble Indiana hometown to the menacing pastoral of Vermont. (Thank you for resisting the romantic portrait here, by the way.) The book’s central river, the Kankakee, figures as a literal, metaphorical, and even stylistic force. How did place identity, and the rendering of micro- and macro- portraits of place, shape the book’s structure?
PALM: I began writing with flashes of scenes—writing those important moments that define a life. In those scenes I discovered the personal set of symbols that visually represent the same stories, the places I’ve inhabited. So in the book, place—the window, the mapped cell, the river, all appear as images, which become story, which become metaphor, and unfold again as images in a different location. The mapping recurs, the window watching recurs, the jails, fishing, abandoned structures recur. Vacancies recur in the forced vacation of the Potawatomi, in Corey’s absence, in the loss of life inflicted by his crimes, in the aftermath of a hurricane, in the one square inch of silence, in my thinking of the children never born to the sterilized Abenaki of Vermont. The river works the same way, even stylistically as you say—story meandering, then forced by my own hand to run elsewhere, then spilling over itself to where it naturally wants to be, flooding a map, rendering it false. All the while leaving stories in its wake. All of this is to say out loud what I most feel about place: something happened here. It changed people. It changed you. Don’t forget. Notice the linkage across time. Notice everything still alive in a single moment, a single vista.
PAIGE: In addition to the book’s focus on maps and mapping, the narrator/ writer seems driven to map not only places but also individual subjects and how they fit together. You deliciously and obsessively catalogue and map subjects ranging from sex offender registries to entropy to cultural violence to desire to eminent domain. So many ranging curiosities and events come together, as if the narrator understands the larger world through the act of putting it together fragment by fragment. The book’s identity too seems to emerge out of the narrator’s impulse to suture fragments and to impose order upon them, beautifully, I would add. Can you describe your process of managing such a range of subjects with depth, and with such a varied approach formally–from cinematic scenes to philosophical musings to research-driven expositions to lush, lyrical passages? There’s so much to talk about regarding the relationship of form and content in this book. How did you navigate all of it?
PALM: I realized about halfway through compiling the narrative stories that I didn’t want to write a straightforward narrative. It pained me and bored me to be in just my own past for as long as it would take to finish a book. I had just read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and David Shields’s Reality Hunger and John D’Agata’s edited anthology The Next American Essay and Wendy Walters’s Multiply/Divide and Matthew Gavin Frank’s Preparing the Ghost. These books excited me formally and gave me permission, somehow, to pursue this more Frankenstein-like narrative that stitched together and wove together the narrative with my ideas about the world and with the external world itself—other books, films, history, physics, notes from a congressional committee’s findings, and so forth. There was little order, almost not at all until the last edit when I arranged the pieces into a chronology and stitched through them a connected narrative. Writing this way was like Pac-Man. Consuming all of those things outside of my own story and digesting them. The book is a little wild, it’s not as restrained or held together as you might expect of a memoir. I took some satisfaction in preserving this wildness and letting the accumulation do work I couldn’t plan for—I wholeheartedly believe in Judith Kitchen’s admonishment to writers to follow digressions to see where they lead—both in writing and in life. To do it again, I might exercise a bit more control. But I don’t know—it’s a record of my intellectual excitement, a record of what I felt after reading those works that moved me to try what felt natural to me—this piling on of seemingly unrelated things until every last one became inextricable from the rest. It was a risk and there was definitely some push to be slightly more focused, or clearer about how certain things connected, but I think we found a compromise that everyone was happy with. Sometimes you read a memoir full of characters and situations that entertain but still come away not knowing its author. I didn’t want that. I think the form and content of this book reflect exactly who I am, in all of its human messiness.
PAIGE: You won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize for this book. What was it like when you heard the news, and what has the larger experience been like? Any advice for aspiring contest entrants?
PALM: I already was in talks with Graywolf about a book deal when I received the call from Fiona that Brigid Hughes had selected Riverine as the prize winner. Because I wasn’t expecting a phone call from the press, I immediately thought they were calling to drop me. Silly—and certainly evidence of my feeling like an imposter. But it was good news! I was shocked, I cried. It was way better than what I imagined winning the Publishers Clearing House scam that I bought into as a kid would feel like. I remember telling Fiona that this would change my life. The book has a narrative hook to be sure—my relationship with a man convicted of murder and my thoughts about class in white, rural Indiana and its attendant issues. But the formally peculiar approach to telling that story was another part of why it was chosen. That meant everything to me because when I was experimenting with that Frankenstein-like approach I was discouraged from it by my writing peers—those same peers who admired the unexpected styles and forms we see in Maggie Nelson or Eula Biss or Leslie Jamison. But I pressed on privately, certain I was on to something, even if I wasn’t executing it very well yet. To other writers I would say don’t let everyone else tell you how to write. Trust your ideas, follow your own digressions, read work that informs your work in some way, and assume you will get to where you want to go. Assume you are able to endure rejection and various other roadblocks. You are. I never assumed failure. I assumed if I kept working hard, looked at each step as an opportunity to learn, kept reading and writing with my whole heart and head, I would succeed. The prize has opened doors for other opportunities but as yet, I haven’t had the time or mind to sit and write something worthwhile. So what I take away from the prize, in addition to the great honor of being published with an extraordinary press, is an endorsement from people I admire and respect that enables me to keep trying my ideas—some people will like them. Try your story in an unexpected form, try it in a dozen different structures and see what happens. Maybe nothing, but maybe something.
Angela Palm is the author of Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here, an Indie Next selection, winner of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, and a Kirkus Best Book of 2016. Palm was awarded the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Axinn Foundation Fellowship in Narrative Nonfiction. Her work has been published in Ecotone, Creative Nonfiction, At Length Magazine, Brevity, Paper Darts, Post Road, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. She lives in Vermont, where she works as an editor.
Alexis Paige is the author of Not A Place on Any Map, winner of the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award. Paige’s work appears in Hippocampus, New Madrid Journal, Fourth Genre, The Pinch, Pithead Chapel, and on Brevity’s blog. Her essay “The Right to Remain” was named a Notable in the 2016 Best American Essays, nominated by The Rumpus for a Pushcart Prize, and featured on Longform. Winner of the New Millennium Nonfiction Prize, Paige holds an MFA in nonfiction. She lives in Vermont and can be found online at alexispaigewrites.com
February 14, 2017 § 2 Comments
By Kim Liao
As I packed for AWP this year, it occurred to me that my first conference in Atlanta was now ten years ago. I stopped sorting toiletries and thought, Who was I ten years ago? I was a writer in zygote form, somebody who was impressed by cocktails with paper umbrellas and awestruck by Tin House. I’ve experimented with several different AWP personas in the last decade: student, first-year writing instructor, journal section editor, book reviewer, slush reader, and panelist. This year was the first time I attended simply as a writer.
At AWP in Atlanta in 2007, I was 22, and just before I left for the conference, I kissed a poet in my graduate school program. I was aflame with possibility. I took copious notes at panels, seeing the study of writing craft and literary theory as an alive, pulsing thing. I discovered my love of dirty vodka martinis and the Book Fair. Working the Redivider table as a fiction reader, I got hooked on chatting with writers who stopped by, our would-be subscribers and submitters. It conjured up my love of selling books over years of working in my town’s independent bookstore in high school and summers during college. That summer I started submitting my first essay to journals in manila envelopes with enclosed SASEs. My relationship with the poet didn’t even last a week.
At AWP in New York City in 2008, I was full of sophomore swagger, the rising Nonfiction Editor of Redivider with my first publication forthcoming in Fringe Magazine. I shared a hotel room five ways with my closest Emerson friends, who were also my trivia team. I played with them every Tuesday night after the Nonfiction Book workshop class I was taking with my mentor. This was the book project that would turn me into a writer, with its magnetic pull encouraging me to dig deeper into the suppressed stories of my father’s family and with its endless frustrations along the path to crafting compelling storytelling. The manuscript would take much longer to finish than I could ever imagine. On late Saturday afternoon of the Book Fair, we auctioned off Redivider issues for rock bottom prices, and I ran around to other journals’ tables in a frenzied haze, swapping Redividers for journals that would become the basis of my authoritative lit mag collection.
At AWP in Chicago in 2009, I shared a hotel room with my writing group. We danced on our beds and drank beer and took photos before they were called selfies and laughed endlessly. I was about to graduate, almost finished with my thesis, an excerpt of my family memoir about retracing my grandparents’ footsteps through the Taiwanese martial law period. Through the writing process, I realized that I would need to go to Taiwan in order to get the whole story of what happened to my grandparents after World War II. I gushed about the free issues of Poets and Writers at the Book Fair to my friend in the conference hotel elevator, only to have Kevin Larimer say next to me, “I’m the Editor of Poets and Writers,” as he departed to his floor, leaving me a deep shade of magenta. I went to the Dance Party on Saturday night with two girlfriends, feeling drunk on the intoxicating force of women in control of their destiny. After accidentally falling asleep in my friend’s room, I took the elevator back upstairs at 7am in party clothes and bare feet. When travelers looked at me with judgment in their eyes, I just gazed back at them and smiled.
In 2012, at AWP in Chicago, I spoke on a panel about finding funding opportunities such as fellowships and residencies, having just returned from a Fulbright year of book research in Taiwan. Someone mistakenly put us in a lesser ballroom. The other panelists did fine, but I crashed and burned, and did so slowly, because an hour an fifteen minutes is not a short amount of time. Before the panel, I poured bourbon into my paper coffee cup, in case I got anxious and needed to relax. That probably didn’t help. I wasn’t working on a journal anymore, and felt lost and untethered as I walked through the Book Fair. I stopped by the Fourth River table, who had finally published an essay I wrote five years earlier. They were polite. Right before leaving Boston for AWP, I kissed the same poet again. Have you learned nothing??
A year later, at AWP in Boston, every Emerson alum, student, and faculty member who I’d ever met attended AWP. We all recognized each other with more warmth and charitable familiarity than we showed one another as classmates. I was almost done with the first draft of my family memoir of the Taiwanese Independence Movement, but this draft had exacted a toll on my body and soul. Writing this draft felt more like vomiting than like composing, and being almost done was like being almost finished with an exorcism. Someday the demons would finally exist outside of my body. I shared a hotel room with one friend, and we marveled at finally having our own beds. We felt so grown up.
Last year, at AWP in Los Angeles, I came to get a break from the full-time grind of my nine-to-five day job working for an attorney. I packed almost nothing, flying in on Thursday morning and out on a red-eye Saturday night – a parenthetical vacation. I desperately needed a reminder that I could still write stuff and sometimes even publish it. It’s been a long time. I don’t teach anymore. I walked around the Book Fair like a ghost. What do I want? What am I looking for? I met my mentor who was teaching in LA that semester; we had a cup of tea and it grounded me. I told him that after getting blocked on revising the family memoir, I started writing a novel to teach myself how to tell stories again. He thought this was a great idea, and that these things unfold organically. I pitched my novel to an Amazon fiction editor at a party and she gave me kind and helpful notes.
On my way out of the Book Fair late afternoon on Saturday, I spotted Kevin Larimer, the Editor of Poets and Writers (his face etched in my long-term memory for life), and pitched him a Literary Life essay I had been thinking about for awhile. He encouraged me to write and submit it. The essay would not get picked up by P&W, but instead would be published in Lit Hub and directly precipitate my signing with a pair of literary agents. On that particular Saturday, however, I knew none of this, so I celebrated the end of another AWP in the hotel bar with friends and strangers and my world swam back into focus.
On this past Thursday, I flee a blizzard in New York on an Amtrak train. It’s a reunion of three Boston friends in my hotel room suite, and our hotel serves free breakfast. A 9am AWP panel after eggs is literally a revelation. There are 12,000 of us this year and endless possibilities at every time slot. My friends and I mostly want to do different things during the day but agree to meet up at night. Everyone here looks so young. When did we get old?
I go to more panels than I ever have before, since I just want to hear talks by writers who I love. I listen to and fall madly in love with Jennifer Egan, Karen Joy Fowler, Hannah Tinti, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Celeste Ng, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Julia Fierro, Emma Straub, Ann Patchett, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Is AWP getting better, people, or am I just getting better at picking stuff to see?
On Friday, I leave the hotel room at 9am and don’t return until almost midnight. I say hello to the Redivider table, impressed that they have a whole new section for “graphic narrative.” I meet a poet friend for coffee, who admits that the Book Fair exhausts her and that attending panels helps her recharge. I laugh and tell her I feel the exact opposite. My great anxiety is the agency party tonight, because my agents have had my novel manuscript for almost a month and I don’t know if they hate it or not. Do they hate me? My telepathic powers are stubbornly on strike.
At the party, my agent smiles when she sees me, and introduces me to her other authors. I ask their advice, a carefully phrased plea for comfort. “You just gotta be real chill,” says the first author she signed, who has been working with her for a decade. “When they are reading, you just can’t do anything. Try to distract yourself.” Another agent who works on nonfiction asks me for my elevator pitch. “I’m pitching it differently each time,” I say, and give it a new spin. “Would you crack that book open?” Collected together, we are like a little family. The competitive sneer you sometimes hear at AWP is gone, because here, everyone is rooting for everyone else’s success.
On Saturday afternoon, right before that weariness overcomes the Book Fair like a great wind toppling a house of cards, I take a seat at a giant banquet table near the windows. I watch young wide-eyed students, grey-haired older women holding political signs for that night’s White House candlelight vigil, and two new parents with a young infant. I am none of them. Looking back over a decade of growing up, I see that in many ways, AWP is where I found my writer self, my particular mixture of scholar and artist, of salesman and kindred spirit. This year, AWP has grounded me, stabilizing my soul, heart, and mind, even while wreaking havoc on my liver, digestive system, and adrenal glands. When we are here, we are all home. Yet none of us would survive it for more than four days.
Kim Liao’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Lit Hub, Salon, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Another Chicago Magazine, Fourth River, Fringe, Cha: A Journal of Asian Literature, Hippocampus Magazine, and others. She received her MFA at Emerson College, was a Fulbright Taiwan Creative Research Fellow in 2010-2011, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is currently finishing her first novel.