If a bomb went off in Boston last weekend, the world would be down 11,000 creative writers.
What would we do then?
If you were my students, I’d assign you 500 words: one scene from after the poets’ apocalypse. Must have a gallon of milk in it, and a game of catch, and a lighter. Fifteen minutes, go.
Fortunately, in real life, all we got in Boston was snow. It was the weekend of AWP, the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Apparently, there were 11,000 of us inside the Hynes convention center/mall/indoor underground city within a city and few–those of us who parked across the street–noticed the six inches of wet snow that fell on Friday. No, we were too distracted.
Three full days. Six 90-minute sessions per day. 32 panels to choose from during each session, each title more enticing than the last: This is your brain on fiction. Hating your writing: a love story. Music in–& on–the air. I honestly didn’t know where to start, but somehow I did. My mind absorbed much, my hand and pen in my notebook even more. Even conversations in the hallways and in the book fair (did I mention the book fair? Six hundred sixty tables of books, journals, indie presses, magazine editors telling me, “we’re looking for stories,” while handing me bookmarks that said SUBMIT in bold letters) pulled my writer mind in all different directions, fired me up, froze images, made my fingers itch for my pen again and again. Until I felt I’d dribbled molecules of concentration all the way from my hotel room to the Hynes Ballroom to the food court.
Which leads me back to my students. Last year about this time, I had a problem. My class of about 10 elementary-aged writers could not write. Instead they would, as soon as I prompted them, start to tell their stories or poems out loud, all at once. Zero words made it to the page. It took me a few months to teach them this mantra: the more you talk, the less you write. And it took me another few months to get them, through constant repetition, to actually apply it to their own work, and to get the pencils to actually trace lines on the paper.
The more you talk, the less you write. The more you talk, the less you write.
Has a nice cadence to it, eh? I felt like chanting this to myself as I trolled through the hallways and ballrooms of AWP last weekend, pulled in one hundred directions at once. I learned much during the weekend. I brainstormed, I took notes, I asked one well-received question. I had several conversations about literary journals and one very random conversation about Depeche Mode and its relationship to mystical medieval Christian poets, but I didn’t create anything.
The less I talk, the more I write, and last weekend was dedicated to talking.
Now, after the poets’ apocalypse, I am dedicated to writing, but with renewed confidence that comes from realizing that the world really would be a diminished place, had, God forbid, a bomb or a stampede or a tidal wave taken out the Back Bay area March 6-9, 2013, with me counted among the casualties. I am also still trying to find that balance most artists struggle to find (am I right?) between talking about your art and actually creating. Both are necessary, I think. I, for one, cannot create in a void. I need other voices to pull me along and push me in new directions. Yet, too many outside voices drown out my own. It is true for me: the more I talk, the less I write.
Author Jennifer Haigh said it best in a panel on setting; when asked what she was working on now, she declined to comment. “Talking about a novel in progress is like popping the cork. You only do it once.”
That’s the last note I took at AWP. I then backed in my pencil, walked a mile to my car, and drove away.