CHICAGO — In several of the panels I attended at this year's AWP conference, I couldn’t help but feel like we should stop to pray. Of course this was not a Christian conference, or Jewish, or Hindu for that matter. It’s a national conference for writers, writers in academia who for the most part are a population hardly known for piety.
But prayer is not about piety; prayer is about silence.
Being an unpublished writer at AWP is a lot like being a first time Yogi at Jivamukti Yoga on lower Broadway in Manhattan. Basically, unless you’re a badass, it’s suicide.
Before the start of “Prettying Up Baby: Writing Creative Non Fiction for a Changing Market,” I looked around the ornate ballroom at about 200 mostly women, mostly harried writers. It was only the first official day of the conference, the second time slot in a packed 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. day, and we were already worn out, or at least I was.
Worn out from the throngs of people, coming and going and dreaming and laughing and talking. Worn out from the emotional and physical toll of putting your heart on your sleeve and admitting, simply by your presence among the thousands, “I am a writer.”
What harm could it do, I thought, for the moderator to simply pause, after introducing the illustrious and successful panelists, to offer a moment for prayer? Or silence, or meditation? Or just breath?
I am certain if we paused to breath we would end up praying, inhaling and exhaling our pleas and petitions, whether we mean to or not. So often our breath, like our tears (I heard Dr. Jerry Webber say this recently), are our prayers. Sometimes breath is all we have to offer.
Being an unpublished writer at AWP is a lot like being a first time Yogi at Jivamukti Yoga on lower Broadway in Manhattan. Basically, unless you’re a badass, it’s suicide. At the start of the class, you are keenly aware of class divisions.
Frosh Yogis cluster toward the back of the cavernous room, wedged up against the violent steam heaters, desperate for their yogic sins and failures to go unnoticed. Veterans (and there are always celebrities in this class like Woody Harrelson or the chick from A Beautiful Mind) unravel their mats, scattershot, near the front of the class, toe to toe with the impossibly toned, impossibly calm instructor. They are unafraid, or so it seems, to be seen by anyone.
Of course there is a silent competition going on in everyone’s mind (I know this because I can read minds! No, I can't, I'm just projecting), as we silently recite our own list of relevant accomplishments like a mantra.
It’s the same at a big writers conference. The most accomplished writers cluster near the front of the room, as if to remind themselves that they are, in fact, closer to the panelists than the plebes- the newbies and students who sit shyly in the back.
Writers, for the most part, are not performers, but they are competitive. And AWP draws 10,000 of them (yes, you read that right) to listen to other writers who have “made it,” share secrets and stories and advice.
So AWP, could we give a little nod to our internal lives, our spirits, and our hearts, in the midst of the hustle? Could we make space and time for silence, breath, and prayer?
Naturally all this creates a very tense environment, one that might only be shattered by humiliating oneself and ones colleagues at the over priced hotel bar, after 14 vodka martinis.
I threw out my idea of a “meditation room” to Judith Podell , a fiction writer I met by chance, in the lobby outside the overpriced hotel bar.
She liked my idea and offered, “Writers are introverted, and this is a schmooze fest. Its writer’s leading with their weakest side.”
Searching for silence
I am tempted to crusade for a silent space at AWP. Just to try to keep us all from ordering too many martinis or worse.
Artists are fragile, they are insecure, and they tend to drink or eat or drug or sleep too much when faced with a six lane human highway at every corner. Not to mention the reality of paying $3 for 12 ounces of water and waiting 45 minutes in line for coffee. (10,000 writers and limited access to coffee, water, and silence, seriously?)
I sat beside a grad student on the plane home and we commiserated. He told me that his friends’ girlfriend disappeared from the bar and stopped answering her phone. In the middle of the night his friend got a phone call, a message in which she could hear only screaming, the missing girl — screaming. She called the police, who managed to stand in the lobby with her until the missing girl resurfaced. “Don’t tell anyone,” she said, without offering any more explanation.
Here’s the thing: I want you to live, I want me to live. I don’t want to drink 14 overpriced vodka martinis and I don’t want you to either. I want to live to make more art, write more words, and so do you.
So AWP, could we give a little nod to our internal lives, our spirits, and our hearts, in the midst of the hustle? Could we make space and time for silence, breath, and prayer? Maybe it won’t make a difference to the girl getting ready to leave the bar with a stranger. Maybe it will. But could we acknowledge, at least, that it’s in that space, that silent, fragile, internal space, where our best work is conceived?
Next year, if I am brave, I will make my own hotel room a meditation room, a prayer room, and invite others to join me. I’ll brew good coffee and offer it for free. Maybe that will be my small offering next year, my small contribution to sanity at the temple of words.