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Business of Writing, Reading, The Writer's Life

AWP 2013: Not as Funny as I’d Hoped, But I’m Not Disappointed

I’d say it’s one of the traits of a good comedian or comic writer to know when something is not funny. I arrived in Boston on Thursday for the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference, fully intending to find enough weirdly dressed or oddly behaving writers to make for a blog as humorous as last year’s. But after two days here I can’t do it.

Apart from a few backpack people, who still do not comprehend just how far those annoyances jut out from between their shoulders yet continue to spin about in crowded elevators, the 11,000 or so attendees have been remarkably, refreshingly professional. From the larger publishing houses to the lit journals to the indie startups, virtually everyone I’ve spoken to in the bookfair is focused on their publishing goals. And I haven’t seen a single Elvis or Madonna look-alike.

What’s the difference? I can’t help thinking that maybe the economy has turned the corner on recovery, and that people, even writers, are taking the opportunities this presents, after so long in the recession, seriously. Maybe the bad weather here forced people to leave their leather gear at home.

Whatever the reason, the result points to what could be a resurgence in the publishing industry. I stopped by dozens of display tables today, many of them fledgling publishers with interesting new books to accompany their plans and dreams. Surely a more serious public will turn to reading as a break from the corporate pabulum that passes for entertainment that is slathered upon us 24/7 via corporate media.

Or maybe I’m dreamin’.

But with that change in attitude also comes a renewed sense of what it takes to be a writer. On Friday evening I attended and reading and conversation with authors Richard Russo and Amy Bloom. The discussion came around to how each of them balanced the rather disparate, but necessary aspects of the writer-as-God with the ability to feel and communicate empathy in stories. It’s fun, they agreed, to maintain that kind of God-like control in storytelling, even if the omniscient approach isn’t usually the best one to employ. A writer can’t help feeling his/her omnipotence over an imaginary world. But it’s just as important to empathize with one’s characters and therefore, with real people. As Ms. Bloom said, you’re either the kind of person who’s able to care about someone who’s not you, or you’re not. A writer is that first kind of person.

Yesterday, at the bookfair, I purchased a book of essays by Mary Ruefle titled Madness, Rack and Honey, because we reviewed it in LA Review last issue and our reviewer raved about it. I was hooked from the first page of the Introduction. Here is a writer whose perspective on existence resonates with me. An excerpt:

This is what Ezra Pound learned from Ernest Fenollosa: Some languages are so constructed—English among them—that we each only really speak one sentence in our lifetime. That sentence begins with your first words, toddling around the kitchen, and ends with your last words right before you step into the limousine, or in a nursing home, the night-duty attendant vaguely on hand. Or, if you are blessed, they are heard by someone who knows you and loves you and will be sorry to hear the sentence end.

I’ll trade humor for inspiration any day.

I want to stay in my hotel room and read the entire book, but it is time for my shift at the LAR table.

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About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.

Discussion

13 thoughts on “AWP 2013: Not as Funny as I’d Hoped, But I’m Not Disappointed

  1. I too would’ve liked to read more of the book you were reading before it became necessary to get back to the book table–sounds interesting!

    Posted by shadowoperator | March 9, 2013, 1:53 PM
    • It’s rare for me to come across another writer who speaks so directly to my way of thinking. I’m finally done with all of AWP’s requirements, and I’m getting ready to spend to the rest of the evening immersed in this book.

      Posted by jpon | March 10, 2013, 1:20 AM
    • Well, there WAS that girl in the shark suit. but other than that, and the guy in a pleated skirt, it was pretty much a regular looking sort. thanks for this post, and thanks for sidling up to me, as I chatted with the booksters.

      Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | March 11, 2013, 5:11 AM
      • We are the Whidbeys. We are the sidlers. Just ask Ana Maria.

        Posted by jpon | March 11, 2013, 9:56 AM
      • Sorry, I think you’ve made a mistake–my comment was a response to Jpon’s description of a book; I wasn’t at the book festival (or were you just making a joke?).

        Posted by shadowoperator | March 11, 2013, 1:17 PM
      • I think Stephanie accidentally posted her comment as a reply to yours instead of separately. I sidled her at the bookfair, after another friend of ours sidled me. We writers are the quiet, sidler type. We can’t help it.

        Posted by jpon | March 11, 2013, 1:21 PM
  2. Eleven thousand participants. Sounds overwhelming. So there are questions: How ever did you structure your time? What were some of the events you attended? What did you miss that you wish you hadn’t? Are you sad that you weren’t able to wear your Virginia Wolfe costume?
    Oh, and where is AWP next year?

    Posted by Jon Zech | March 9, 2013, 4:03 PM
    • AWP can be a whirlwind. But these days I have my priorities, and as long as I accomplish some of those, I’m satisfied. Mostly I prowl the bookfair, looking to make contact with independent publishers who a) help me do my job at LA Review, and b) might someday publish something of mine. It all works out pretty well, except there’s precious little time to attend the panels. I only got to one this year.

      I left the V. Wolfe costume at home this year, and opted to bring the Oscar Wilde ensemble. It always gets a better response.

      AWP is in Seattle next year, which is where my MFA program is located, so I’m hoping we can pitch a panel of our own for the event. That would be verrrry prestigious, and a I’d make it a priority to attend that one.

      Posted by jpon | March 10, 2013, 1:28 AM
  3. I’m so glad you had fun at AWP. Perhaps I’ll see you in Seattle next year.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | March 10, 2013, 8:30 PM
  4. As a comedy writer, how could you now have written about the moderator at the Amy Bloom and Richard Russo reading. She was so ridiculous, her mannerisms, her facial expressions, her speaking voice were all fodder for comedy. My friend and I were dying in the back and had to restrain ourselves from bursting out loud.

    Posted by onemeanmfa | March 10, 2013, 8:54 PM
  5. The conference, and the book, (and your novel, from the previous post) sound interesting. Congratulations on the nomination for The Next Big Thing.

    Posted by michellemorouse | March 10, 2013, 10:16 PM

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