Monday, April 12, 2010

Writers Hit the Port of Denver

Nine thousand writers.

That’s a lot of people for just about any non-sporting event, but even more astounding is that they showed up at a writing conference.

I’m one of nine thousand. Hear my story...

The Association of Writers and Writing Programs, known as the AWP, held its annual conference and bookfair April 7 - 10 in Denver. Today is April 11, and I’m sitting at my 17th floor writing desk in the downtown Sheraton, thinking about the significance of it all while gazing out toward the mountains west of town, across the vast roof of the convention center, past the whalebone structure of the Broncos’ Invesco Field, to the snow-capped peaks beyond the front range. Denver has been a terrific host city, and the conference location is one of the primary reasons I’m here this year – the AWP is a little later into the spring than usual and Denver is do-able from my Austin, Texas home base. Downtown Denver is clean. There are wide streets and space between the buildings because Coloradans seem to understand the value of sunshine and elbow room and expanse. That wide-open feeling is one of the reasons all these writers were a happy lot by and large. We emerged into the light and it felt good.

Writers are a friendly bunch too. We spend so much time alone at our desks, working on solitary projects that can take years, often not sharing with anyone until that first manuscript is finished, perhaps because we don’t know where this illusive narrative may take itself. Where we think it is going and where it actually goes are usually continents apart. So when an opportunity allows us to get out of our solitary profession and come together with others who understand what it is to write, it’s a love fest. The feeling is like seeing your favorite cousins once a year, who although eccentric in their own right, are far more enjoyable to hang with than your own dysfunctional nuclear family.

We have our idols among us, those superstars of book sales, or wit, or intelligence whom we want to rub up against, to have sign their books, or to enlighten us somehow. Michael Chabon’s keynote address was as pleasurable as a massage, his gruff voice taking us on a humorous dialogue between himself and ‘typical’ fans, with Chabon assuming both voices. There were more speakers and readers than you could hear. Gary Snyder. Rita Dove. Silko. Bass. Keret. Sigh. You had to make hard choices.

Of the more than three hundred sessions, there were often conflicts between several that you wanted to hear in the same time slot, leaving you to pick one over the other on nothing other than gut feeling. Those choices were like playing roulette. Of course, every one you didn’t attend you found out later was the best ever. Isn’t that always the case?

There were the odd venues. I went to The Sun's reading at the Mercury Cafe and felt as if I was on an acid flashback to a 1967 hippie tea room. Fantastic.

The bookfair was so huge, your mind could go numb with overload after an hour, and you’d discover you had only covered one aisle among the myriad. Although I made two or three forays into the bookfair every day, it’s doubtful I covered half of it. Next time I will have a better plan of action: map out in advance which tables to visit and try to take care of those first. This year I kept forgetting where I left off, so often ended up repeating aisles. I also believe chiropractic is in order from lugging around a full tote bag of journals, handouts, trade show trinkets and gimme items. I confess to ruthlessly triaging my stash in order to get it packed for my flight.

I learned many useful things, but it will take me several weeks to sort and process it all. The best snippets usually came from the least likely places – odd panels and the readers you took a chance on, or a random conversation in the atrium bar after the daily sessions.

The drinks were overpriced, as were the hotel buffets, yet that didn’t stop us from socializing like there was no tomorrow. The deejay at the nightly dance was a little dated, but the dancing was exuberantly unpolished, almost tribal. We had the raffish air of nine-thousand sailors making port after six months at sea. In fact, the whole affair was exuberant. These are smart people, these writers, even if you'll never see them on Dancing with the Stars.

Just the kind of folks I like to hang around with.

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