Friday, February 13, 2009

Guest Blogger Susan Ito on Exhaustion, AWP, and Why it Might Help to be a 20-something MFA Student

At the 2008 AWP Conference in New York last year, one of my favorite presentations was by a group of women nonfiction writers who discussed writing about family matters. One of the panel members was Susan Ito, who I had already come to admire for her work on Literary Mama, where she chronicles Life in the Sandwich, caring for both children and elderly parents. She is also the co-editor of A Ghost at Heart's Edge: Stories and Poems of Adoption, and her work appears in anthologies and literary journals. Recently, Susan and I crossed online paths, found we have a few friends and interests in common, both writing-wise and beyond. I asked her to provide some on-the-scene morsels from the AWP Conference in Chicago this week.

Please welcome Susan Ito.

AWP Chicago: Day One

Yesterday and this morning involved so many travel snafus that I will not bore you with the details, but I have never had SO many things go wrong, travel-wise, in such a short brief period. They included, but were not limited to: delayed flight, cancelled flight, emotional meltdown in a certain airport, hunger, having one's luggage lost and missing pajamas at bedtime, having one's hotel reservation cancelled under one's nose and having to find a new hotel.

All that happened. And more. But now I am comfortably ensconced in the (in my opinion) nicer hotel across the street, and I have a comfy king bed on which to collapse, and all is more or less resolved on that end.

But I missed the first session because of having to tend to the pesky details above. I went down to Registration around 8:30 this morning, and about six thousand other people decided to do the same thing at the same time, so the line literally snaked around and around the floor about six times. It was worse than Disneyland during Spring Break week. Needless to say, I missed the 9 am session.

But it did give me time to peruse the entire AWP catalog and to meticulously fill out my Personal Planner for the conference. The AWP catalog, if you have never held one, weighs as much as a gold brick and contains 340 pages of literary goodness. It can inspire awe, excitement, overwhelm and exhaustion. My heart did go pitter-pat as I opened the pages and read excitedly through the offerings. Then my eyeballs began to melt and my vision blurred and by the time I reached Saturday I was officially numb.

The personal planner is a lovely tool for nerds. It's a grid with seven blank spots for each day, and as you go through the calendar you fill in your choices. There are sessions scheduled basically from 9am to 10pm Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with only a short break from 6-8pm. There's no lunch break, or pee breaks. You have to write those in for yourselves.

I think I remember from past AWP conferences that it's a good idea to go to no more than three sessions a day, but do I learn? Not very quickly. I wrote seven sessions into my planner, but hunger and fatigue only allowed me to attend three. Which was just fine.

All of the sessions I went to today were excellent in their own ways. They all inspired me and stoked me up and made me think about my writing in ways I haven't in a while.

My first session was "Writing as Parents: Our Children as Subjects." This featured Literary Mama writers Shari McDonald Strong and Sonya Huber, as well as the wonderful Kate Hopper, Jennifer Niesslein of Brain, Child, and Jill Christman. They pondered the ethical, moral and literary issues to consider when writing about one's own children. They all spoke with great candor and humor, but I wished they had at least one panelist whose child was older than ten. I do think (and in my own experience) these things change a lot when you have teenagers and young adults.

After that I went to a session of "Memory of Wounds: Memoirists Tell Truth, Lies, and Memory." The room was packed, overflowing. I couldn't even get in. It was a little painful to think that there were so many wounded memoirists around (including me, I guess?). I sat on the floor in the hallway outside and every once in a while caught a word that floated out. Usually words like, "truth," "story," "healing." I really wanted to get into this because my dear friend Joy Castro was speaking. Thankfully, I was able to squeeze myself into a little patch of carpet in the floor right as she began. She is so calm, poetic, brilliant and kind. The last part of her talk really put a lump in my throat, when she said, it's not enough to write about the pain and the loss, the damage, the horror, but that every life includes moments of joy, seeing the blue sky, and it is important to reflect life in its wholeness. I didn't do justice to her actual words but her delivery of it was so evocative and beautiful.

I was going to go to a Loft Literary Center reading with Charles Baxter, whom I have always admired, and Sun-Yung Shin, whom I really wanted to meet (she's one of the editors of the awesome anthology Outsiders Within), but I was starving and tired so I went to lunch with Joy and Rebecca Kaminsky, whom I've know for years through Literary Mama but with whom I've never had more than a five minute conversation. We're always seeing each other at busy literary events and never one on one.

Then I went to ANOTHER memoir session, "Aftershock: What Happens When You Throw Off the Veil of Fiction in Rendering Long-Hidden Truths? Strategies, Advice, and Practical Tips from Four Writers of Memoir" (whew, how's THAT for a subtitle?). Only it turns out there were only three writers. They had pretty good things to say about the real consequences (familial, legal, emotional) of writing about people, and how you really can never predict who you will piss off and why. But it only strengthened my resolve to write my story.

After that, I was fried. I really wanted to go to another session, but I couldn't do it. I had to gather up my luggage and drag it across the street. I was overjoyed to find free Wi-Fi in the new hotel, which in my opinion is far superior to the Hilton.

Tonight there is a big event with Art Spiegelman. It is allegedly about six blocks away. I have not had dinner yet, am waiting for my roommate to arrive from the airport, and I just don't know. I think I might settle for the tapas restaurant downstairs.

The thing about AWP is that there are always wayyyy more things to go to than one has reasonable energy for. Unless one is a twenty-something MFA student, which I am not.

More tomorrow.

Note from Lisa: Thanks to Susan, I remember the exhaustion of AWP, as well as the high spots.

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