Wednesday, March 7, 2012


When I returned from Chicago, someone asked me what I’d learned at AWP, and also if they could print my reply.
They said they only wanted one sentence.
That’s a little like being asked to barrel rope a steer using duct tape.
Still I did it. I gave my best answer, clipped as it needed to be for their purposes.

But here are some others. Here are more things I learned at the conference…

…Apparently writers have bad days, bad luck, bad marriages, bad parents, bad sex with their bad boyfriends/girlfriends. They get bad haircuts, bad manicures, bad pap smears.
They have bad dreams and seem to regularly contract bad breath. They have bad pets who won’t obey. Karma is continually bad to authors. Writers have bad tricks played on them. They sometimes end up in bad bars listening to a bad ska band, or in a bad company, or even working for a bad company, say one that embezzles employee pensions.
Writers aren’t bad people, not at all, but bad things seem to happen to them all the time, or show up in their writing at least, which is what makes it all so very interesting.

Writers are people like anybody else--persons who’re just as impatient as the next bloke, with irritable bowels when they have to wait over 20 minutes for an elevator. They’re willing to cut you off in order to get a cab for themselves. They have sharp elbows and can be cocky for no apparent reason, or because they know someone who knows someone who has an agent or did have an agent back in the fall of 199_.

But mostly they’re very selfless. Mostly, writers are unusually kind and polite and pacifistic. Mostly, they go out of their way to make you feel as if you belong in their same, shared space.

Many writers are, by their nature, wallflowers. Shy. They color and fidget when you acknowledge their achievements or compliment them. They get suspicious when you do this, eyes skittering, cheek twitching as they ponder, “So what does this guy really want from me? I’m not an agent or editor, plus I’m broke.”

On the flip side, a large number of writers are extraordinarily brave. They’re not scared to stand naked in front of an audience being vulnerable exhibitionists.

Indeed, these same folks aren’t afraid to read their words, no matter how personal. They’re not frightened at all reading aloud very, very explicit sex scenes about orifices and appendages, about what those appendages are doing, and to whom, and for how long, and in what ways…
And on occasion, they’ll even read said sex scenarios while sets of parents/grandparents sit in the audience, straining to construct the erotic images, tapping the table and muttering, “Hold on. Hold on. For crying out loud, you’re reading too fast!”

Writers drink a lot. Some do. They feel duty-bound. After all, it’s a burden passed down from Fitzgerald to Hemingway to Bukowski.

Writers are real people with demons just like everyone else, but they get cathartically stoned when giving their demons names, then slashing them to ribbons, slowly, with barbwire. For most authors, slinging sentences is so therapeutic it’s akin to getting a foot rub from Freud.

Writers are curious, acutely aware of everything in their environs, and generally they are infatuated with the moon. They are moon stalkers. They fawn over it. They gawk and drool and have hundreds of descriptions for Luna. Some want to make love to it. Indeed, if it were human, the moon would need a restraining order.

Writers are generally more supportive than other tribes. They’re huggers, back-patters and congratulators. They know how lonely the craft is, how cunning it can be when one is in the midst of writing a novel or boxing writer’s block. They say things like, “You can do it,” or “Don’t worry what anyone else thinks, you’re talented.” They say, “A shot of Jameson always works for me.”

Writers have a sharp survival instinct. When threatened, even the most soft-spoken writer can transform themself. For instance, when they’re set to read in a raucous bar, before disinterested patrons, without a microphone, below a Boeing 747 engine blowing steamy, stale air—even then, the most meek writer will still do his or her best to bellow, “I SAW THE PALE MOON AND IT WAS WINKING AT ME…”

Writers know an array of swear words and are not afraid to use them.

Writers are more likely than not to play “Words With Friends”, and they would rather have a limb sawed off than let you win.

Writers are, obviously, creative, and this extends to their fashion sense. I saw a writer whose eye glass frames were swirling police sirens. I saw another whose face was masked completely in metallic cement. I saw several wearing ostrich outfits. Many writers, however, are simply your run-of-the-mill skinny-jean-wearing, four-day-old-whisker-wearing, flannel-shirt-hipster-cardigan wearing, thirty-year-olds-trying-to-appear-twenty-something’s—and, surprisingly, they pull it off with aplomb.

Of all the types of people there are on the planet, writers are my favorites. Even boring writers. Even bitter ones. If we can talk about the way words make us believe what we might not otherwise--as long as we can do that for even a little bit—well, I am one happy fellow.


  1. Thank you for giving us the unabridged version, rather than the lone sentence. This is lovely, and it was a pleasure to meet you.

  2. As seat at a bar in a hotel filled with writers is one of the coolest places...cheers, Len.

  3. Love this, wish I could've been there to experience it myself, but will happily settle for this post as the next best thing.

  4. This is great, Len! Missed this year's but made last year's, and think you summed up the experience well. Though you missed the 50 year olds trying to act like 30 year olds ;^) Glad you had fun and saw the best smile ever. peace...

  5. julie, linda, nels, jeffery--thanks for reading. so wish you could have been there. i was buying drinks! here's to boston next year, and julie here's to nyc next month.
    lyra! i lost your tiny little card. please find me on face book. i just became a Follower of your blog. it was a treat meeting you and your hubby.

  6. Hopefully, no Boeing jet engine in Boston! It was so lovely to meet you, said the non-skinny-jean-clad 40-something.

  7. Really enjoyed this post, thank you. It's unlikely that I'll ever go to a writers conference given that we don't do this kind of thing in Europe, but it sounds like a blast and you made those points on behalf of writers everywhere well...though I believe one needs to allow for cultural differences between German, French, British and American/Canadian writers...we from the Old Country are a grumpier bunch overall.