Contemplating Home from Tampa, Florida: One Writer's Reflections on AWP 2018


by Simon Calder

Pondering how he might embark on the hubristic task of describing the general experience of this year’s Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Tampa, Florida, the Berfrois correspondent listened intently to memoirist Rebecca McClanaham as she reflected on a maxim first presented to her by her high-school English teacher: “Large minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss others. Small minds discuss themselves.”

“From that day,” McClanaham spoke of her teenage self on a panel titled “Beyond the I: How Research Enlarges Personal Narrative,” “she would discuss ideas, and on average days others, but never herself.” Upon arriving at college, however, McClanaham discovered Montaigne – “a fellow discussing his bowel movements” – and countless other writers whose minds seemed large enough to “discuss their smallness largely.” As one in a sea of some twelve-thousand writers, able to attend perhaps fifteen of five-hundred-plus panels, presentations, readings and receptions, the Berfrois correspondent was highly aware of the need to acknowledge his smallness. One method that McClanaham promoted for that purpose was a process she calls “I-search”: “expanding the first-person present-tense self” through “the act of looking back” on oneself as-other.

Departing that “Beyond the I” panel, he found himself concluding that his task necessitated both the “temporal, spatial, and authorial distance” afforded by McClanaham’s “I-search,” as well as something akin to that “kitchen table research” which fellow panelist Joe Mackall had described as having the capacity to save us writers from ourselves. Currently at work on a memoir tentatively titled “Grandparents in Paradise: Life in the Face of the Fall,” Mackall faces a task considerably more demanding than my own: to write authoritatively not only of his “despair over a vanquished America” – increasingly “polarized, out-sourced, down-sized, Trumped, and drunk” – but that of other grandparents. “After a couple of hours of writing about all of this, once I’m deep into my own story,” Mackall shares, “I know it’s time to re-enter the world.” There are things that his neighbors in rural Ohio have to teach him, Mackall reflects, if only he can work his way past the Trump signs on their front lawns and – ideally, if all goes well – engage in conversation at their kitchen tables. “I never go seeking confrontation or confirmation,” he reports, referencing the need to see what these strangers are agonizing about, to see whether these other grandparents are agonizing for the same reasons as himself.

Somewhat analogous to Mackall’s concerns were those of the feminist writers speaking of and “From the Deep South of Florida” on a panel titled “Creatures from the Black Lagoon.” Casting the state as a “deeply weird and varied space, not exactly the south” but existing “parallel to it,” novelist Anton DiSclafani characterized Florida as the perfect place of origin for her protagonist, Thea Atwell, to have emerged from in The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls: this because – like Thea – Florida is “a place that isn’t easy to categorize, defined by contradiction.” On a similar note, curator and moderator Laura Minor reflected that the panel would at once “explore what it’s like to write from one of the most reactionary parts of the country” while also hopefully inspiring non-Floridian women to likewise write about the “unique and rich places from which we hail.”

The interrelated concepts of home and self and the psychological effect of place on character certainly seem to be ideas to which a fair-sized number of large minds were drawn at this year’s AWP. This was nowhere more true than in a panel comprised of contributors to the brilliant new Seal Press anthology This is the Place: Women Writing About Home. Inviting those in attendance to close their eyes and imagine “home,” co-editor of the anthology and moderator of the panel Kelly McMasters invited conference-goers to ponder whether or not they found themselves imagining their current houses, or whether thinking of “home” involved conceiving the idea of any house. The process of compiling this anthology of essays on the concept had brought home to McMasters the paradox of its being at once “completely ineffable” and “deeply universal.” Also pertinent were McMasters’ remarks on how one’s sense of being away from home (perhaps amongst thousands of writers in Florida) can create the impression of a new freedom “to be a different person oneself.” Indeed, McMasters’ insightful reflections on “the elements of high imagination and low stakes that allow us to fool ourselves that we are really the make-believe characters that we’ve been playing for the weekend” are perhaps yet more applicable to the scenario of attending AWP than to that of visiting a vacation house.

It was fitting, then, that this author’s AWP experience ended with a panel regarding breaking through borders but then also ultimately returning home: “Writing at the Crossroads: Exploring the Interface Between Music & Literature.” Informed by the process of composing his own memoir, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Tinhouse editor Rob Spillman ultimately reflected on the evolution of his teenage desire to “obliterate” the self through music into something of a quite different nature. Spillman came to realize that his endeavor to lose himself “inside the music” of My Bloody Valentine also – or more fundamentally – involved a discovery of self “beyond the artifice of urban living.” In his memoir, Spillman relates this notion to the German term sehnsucht, “one of those wonderfully untranslatable words that combines longing and nostalgia for a home that one doesn’t even know is one’s home.”

Acknowledging his own smallness largely, Spillman closed his reading with a quotation concerning ideas from the large-minded David Lynch:

Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch big fish you have to go deeper.

Were Lynch to engage in some kitchen table research with this year’s keynote speaker Charles Saunders, the two would no doubt concur that that this process of fishing for big ideas may yield not only a larger mind and less illusory sense of self, but also a truer connection with the other, what Lynch calls “pure compassion.” As Saunders asserted in his keynote speech, art (and the process of redrafting it) is “a kind of compassion training wheels.” Perhaps delving deep within our small selves is ultimately a better idea than escaping to Tampa if our goal is to return to the place that we have ceased to recognize as home.

The panel title that this author found most intriguing at this year’s conference was “A Phoenix First Must Burn.” After hearing four superb readings by women of speculative fiction, this author asked those panelists to speculate on what that title meant to them. Nancy Hightower’s reflections on the legend of the phoenix provide a fitting close to this account of the rich ideas and people one writer encountered at this year’s AWP: “before being reborn you have to burn. Isn’t that a great metaphor for what we all go through when we create something. The deeper we are willing to dig inside the self, the more successful our fiction and creative work can be.”