For the last four days, I've been surrounded by writers. A few of them, true, fit the mold of Self-Important Famous Writer who struts about with his book to his chest like a Boy Scout badge, and I've seen a few of the Famous Writer Wannabes, who slither through the conference crowd, eyes darting this way and that, looking for Important Editors they need to suck up to. But mostly, I've met people who care passionately about writing: people who love to rearrange words on the page, who value the way a writer can live in two worlds, who feel they have something to say, or who use writing as part of their journey of self-discovery and healing. One writer talked about poetry as self-medication: another said that writing was for her, survival.
Most of the writers I've met have been funny and self-deprecating and eager to talk about their work. And they have stories to tell, in sessions and in the hallways and over leisurely dinners. One writer told me about the time he and his friends retooled a tampon machine to dispense rolls of their writing. Their original idea was to use a cigarette machine but a tampon machine was cheaper. This same group of friends once had a "cult reading" at which they served red Kool-Aid. The weirdest part is that their audience drank the Kool-Aid.
The recurring theme during conversations and sessions, the biggest battle for every writer, was how to find time to write. There's that little matter of the full-time job you need to pay the bills. Self-deprecating Fiction Writer talked about the year he held a 9 to 5 desk job that was just incredibly boring. During lulls at work he would steal time to do revisions. "I had to be sneaky, though, " he said, "The supervisor didn't like it. Someone playing solitaire on the computer for five hours straight – that was fine. But working on a novel was considered something kind of perverse."
"My son took two naps every day," said another man. "If he hadn't, I never would have finished the book." One writer I met worked as a go-go dancer. "It's good money," she said. "Pays the bills." Another did technical writing during the day and worked on his novel at night. Another writer teaches yoga and runs her own business. One writer said she keeps a Jane Austen action figure on her desk for inspiration.
Of course, many of the writers at this conference have academic jobs. Writer with Purple Hair said, "My father was a physics professor, and I noticed that he was home a lot. So I went with that. I got a PhD in history." She paused. "Try teaching the French Revolution to undergraduates for 12 years. After a while, I got bored and started making stuff up."
I think every MFA program in the country put their grad students on a train and sent them to this conference in City Where Trees Flower in Early March. The sessions were crowded with young people, who kept asking older writers and editors all kinds of questions. During one conversation, a grad student asked, "How do you balance teaching and writing?"
Experienced Writer said, "Okay, if you ask that in a job interview, I say: teaching informs my writing." But then he went on: "The reality is that teaching takes a lot of emotional energy. And grading saps your will to live."
At least he was honest.
On Friday night, I went with my friends to a late night event put on by poets who live in the Heart of Evil. We crowded into the dimlit room, sitting on the floor, crammed together with shoulders and knees touching, and listened as slam poets took the mike. That evening was the launching of a poetry festival, a gathering of writers protesting the war on Irag, an encouragement for all writers to speak up with voices of provocation and witness, a roomful of people who think that words can be a way to change the world.