Last February, just a few days after I moved from San Francisco back to New York, I went up to Boston for the annual Associated Writing Programs conference. AWP, as it’s commonly known, is basically the industry convention for the literary world. There are panels throughout the week, ranging from talks given by well-known, award-winning authors to how-to-get-published seminars to silly academic discussion groups that exist so a few friends from an MFA program can say they hosted an AWP panel.
The highlight of the conference is the Book Fair, which consists of a couple of very large halls lined with booths manned by any literary journal, writing program, or independent press you can think of. The spectacle is a bit overwhelming at first, but it’s great fun once you get a handle on it, as you get tons of books for cheap or free and, in general, you’re surrounded by people who are really enthusiastic about literature.
I’ll admit that there were occasional moments that I felt like I was standing on the outside, looking in at a group of cool kids—I basically feel that way everywhere I go—but I found my trip to AWP to be really inspiring. At the end of the conference I went back to New York feeling like I was part of a community, and with a ton of motivation to step it up with my writing.
Instead, I’ve written barely a word of fiction in the last year, and when a friend tried to get me to go to Seattle for AWP this week, I said, absolutely not.
I don’t intend to write a screed against AWP. It’s just that I’ve been thinking a fair amount lately about how I’m using my time and creative energy and, beyond that, how I look at and define myself. So, what’s changed? And what happened between AWP 2013 and 2014?
I’ll answer the second question first. When I left Boston last year, I used my festival materials to draw up a list of journals to submit to, and over the next month or so, I sent out several short stories and novel excerpts, along with a couple of full novel manuscripts, to journals and publishers. I sent off around 50 submissions in total.
Now, for those who don’t know how the literary world works, basically there are a million small literary journals out there, some print, many now online, that publish short stories and novel excerpts. These journals are where you find the best contemporary literature being written today, and publishing your work in them is one of the two main ways to build your profile/career in the literary world—in other words, to give yourself a shot at getting a novel published someday. (The other way is to go to a hotshot MFA program like Columbia or Iowa, which of course also helps you get published in literary journals. That tail is looking tasty, isn’t it, Ouroboros?)
By 2013, I already had plenty of experience submitting to these journals. Hell, I remember the days you had to actually print out your stories and mail them to the editors’ offices in New York or Alabama or Nebraska or wherever. These journals get far more submissions than their meager staffs can handle, because writers submit to far more journals than they actually read (I’m as guilty of this as anyone), and as a result, it often takes six months to get a rejection. And the rejections they will come. You learn not to take it too personally.
I’ve actually had a couple of pieces published in small journals—actual print ones, even—so I know that it is possible to get work accepted, even though it often feels hopeless. And I think I was pretty smart about how I did my post-AWP submission round. I cast a wide net: I read a bunch of journals, submitted to a mix of both print and online pubs, didn’t bother with any of the big names (I gave up on Ploughshares and Tin House long ago), and submitted a range of things, from 100-word flash pieces to 10,000-word sections of my novel.
And I waited. And the rejections rolled in. They came in waves—I’d go a month without anything, and then get five in one day. A couple of months ago I looked across my spreadsheet, and realized every single one of my submissions had been turned down.
Again, this wasn’t my first rodeo. I can’t even tell you how many short stories I’ve had rejected. My novel, Stumptown, USA, which my MFA thesis advisor told me she was sure would get picked up by an agent and then published, got turned down by more than 100 agents and publishers. I know my book is good, and I know that it’s never going to see the light of day (unless I self-publish it), and I’ll never understand why. And when I looked at the bloodbath that was my publishing record in 2013, I said, Fuck this. It’s not worth it.
To tell the truth, I think I’d been building toward that conclusion for a while. As I said, I’ve barely written any fiction in the last year, for several reasons. First was this blog. Part of why I never started a blog before last year (by the way, From a Brooklyn Basement’s one-year anniversary is next week!), even though numerous friends had exhorted me to do so, is because I knew I’d have a hard time maintaining an active blog and writing fiction at the same time. I have only so much writing time, and I don’t multitask well. And, as I knew would happen, when I did start writing blogposts, and I found it to be fun (and about a million times easier than writing fiction), I ended up spending my writing time doing those.
The second thing that happened was I found a creative outlet outside writing: I’ve been playing guitar in the Brooklyn jam scene for a while, and a couple of the guys I was playing with invited me to form a band.
Over the last few months we’ve been very active writing and rehearsing songs, and we recently started gigging at Brooklyn bars. It’s going pretty well, but that shift in creative focus has been tough for me. I know I’m a much better writer than I am a musician. Hell, I don’t even use the word musician to describe myself—I tell people I play guitar in a band. That may not seem like much of a distinction, but I think there’s a big difference between saying you do something and defining yourself as that thing (more on this in a minute).
Sometimes I feel bad for pursuing a creative project that I know isn’t my real strength. I wonder if it’s a waste of time—at least relatively. But, on the flip side, playing music is fun. I get to hang out with cool people, drink a few beers, make some noise, maybe even talk to girls. Whereas writing is an almost entirely solitary action, one that involves, to paraphrase the old saying, sitting down, opening your veins, and bleeding. What would you rather spend your time doing?
Finally, as if there wasn’t enough competition for my creative attention, I got a new job, working as the managing editor for a couple of airline magazines. The job was a tremendous score—it’s a huge professional boost, it allowed me to stay in New York, and it’s pretty much the best job I’ve ever had—but it requires me to work a lot of hours, and I often come home late and exhausted, and the last thing I want to do is sit down and write more words.
Allow a short digression: A couple of weeks ago I was watching an episode of Girls in which Lena Dunham’s character, Hannah, gets a job writing advertorials for GQ magazine. Feeling defensive about the implications of the job (sell out!), she tells her coworkers she won’t be there for long because she’s not a corporate stooge—she’s a real writer (paraphrasing again here). They all respond by listing publication records far more impressive than hers. Of course, at the same time, they admit that none of them work on their own writing anymore.
This scene killed me, because Hannah’s initial speech was exactly the sort of thing I would have said when I was 25—and now I’m one of those other characters. I used to think I was going to be Hemingway; now I edit airline magazines.
This sounds like a complaint, but it’s not—at least not much of one. I don’t know why I didn’t have more luck as a “real” writer. Maybe the publishing industry is too screwed up. Maybe I’m just not good enough. But I don’t take my job for granted: I’ve worked enough shit jobs to know I have a good thing now, and I’m pretty sure 90% of the people who went to my (not exactly Iowa or Columbia) MFA program would trade places with me in a second. But I also know that when I used to meet people, I would tell them I was a writer. Now I tell them I’m a magazine editor.
So I hit a dead end with my fiction career, but between the job and the band and what has been, on the whole, a massive turnaround in the quality of my life in the last six months, I’ve never felt better about myself. But going to AWP would make me feel like shit, because it would just cause me to pick at the scab of a huge disappointment. And I’m done feeling like shit about myself.
So, you won’t see me at AWP this year. And really, I’m not all that sorry about it.
Also: Fuck you, Seattle. GO NINERS!