Above and below’s a collection of photographs from this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. Apologies for my mug being in so many of them; all credit goes to the writers of fiction, poetry, and memoir whose work is the reason AWP exists.
We’re all mostly smiley-face here, which is great; nothing wrong with enjoying a little company. Just the meals alone were special: lunch at a taco truck with Colby Buzzell; dinner at a chic French place with Veterans Writing Project honcho Ron Capps, his wife Carole, and VWP fellow-travellers Kayla Williams and Jerri Bell; a quickie cafeteria meal with Matt Gallagher, Benjamin Busch, and Adrian Bonenberger in which Gallagher, Busch, and Bonenberger said at least twelve funny things each; an after-panel snack-and-beer with a group of writers where we were joined by Lauren Halloran’s mom and dad–her mom a veteran of the Gulf War with great stories to tell; and a dinner at the Sherman Oaks home of Susan Derwin, a friend from the academic world, where I met Tom Helscher, who went to the same junior high at the same time as me in Virginia and who now runs a veterans writing program at UC-Santa Barbara.
One of the most salient comments about contemporary war-writing I heard at AWP struck a soberer note, however. I asked Roxana Robinson, an AWP featured speaker, the president of The Authors Guild and author of the excellent war novel Sparta, to what she attributed her interest in contemporary war writing and what she thought its merits. Her response was that war writers who are veterans have a more extensive and authentic relationship with violence–violence in which they may have participated, witnessed, been touched by, or dwelt on. Writers who haven’t fought, deployed, or lived within a profession devoted to war, she continued, have at best a second-hand relationship with wartime violence, and this distance means that they struggle in their attempts to portray it, imagine its possibilities, not just for how it might happen, but for how it reverberates afterwards. I don’t think Robinson was trying to stir the pot about whether civilians can write about war; after all she’s the author of an essay titled “The Right to Write,” in which she persuasively argues that non-veterans can do so. It’s the subjects, war and the military, I heard her saying, that infuse war writing with an urgency centered on contemplation of what it means to harm others while facing injury and death oneself.
I shared the paragraph above with Robinson to make sure I paraphrased her correctly and had permission to do so. In her reply, she graciously wrote:
I very much like your last sentence, which is beautifully phrased, and which reminds me all over again of how much this subject interests me. These are some of the great questions, aren’t they – contemplating your living self as an agent of death. Contemplating the imminence of death to your living self. Not just contemplating but understanding these things in your body.
Thanks for raising them again.