Talking cure, 3/16/20

Now that the entire world is on lockdown, I've begun to realize that my normal state is a state of quarantine. That's mostly how I spent February, anyway: sitting in my apartment either in bed or in front of my computer (and sometimes, decadently, both), and grudgingly schlepping to the bodega a block away when I ran out of chicken apple sausages (they come in packs of four). I only have class twice a week this semester, which means I've gone days without putting on shoes that aren't gray and fuzzy and from Brookstone.

But I have to admit that lately, I've been uncharacteristically reckless. I've boarded three planes in the past two weeks, and eight days ago, I was in Texas, a state I had never been before, for the express purpose of mingling. I was there to participate in a panel at AWP, the "largest literary conference in North America," and possibly one of the last conferences/events/gatherings greater than 10 people in the US before everything was canceled. 

Back in January, I discover that my panel, "Glory, Gripes, and Guile: The Ethics of Reviewing," would not be a moderator-asks-panelists-questions-and-they-respond-casually type of panel, but instead an each-presenter-talks-for-15-minutes-straight one. I am alarmed, and then outraged. Public speaking is like vegetables, or aerobic activity: something that was forced down my throat as a child and thus something to be avoided like the plague/COVID-19 now that I'm grown. Around the same time, I happen to receive a copy of a new collection of prose by Kay Ryan, 2008-2010 U.S. Poet Laureate. I flip through the book and come across an essay entitled "I Go to AWP." A representative quote: "Now here I am, going to AWP. How am I going to remember: these people are THE SPAWN OF THE DEVIL? They will seem like individuals, not deadly white threads of the great creative writing fungus."

One Tuesday in late February, I finally get around to attempting to write my "talk," which I can only think about in scare quotes. I immediately run into a snag: I have no opinions whatever on ethics in reviewing. Also, none of my fellow panelists have responded to the desperate email flare I sent up asking what they were going to talk about, and so I'm left with the uneasy task of writing something that may be completely out of left field. I've got homework to do, so I decide to pick some low-hanging fruit. My "talk" is mostly me complaining about the impossibility of making money writing book reviews. Later that night, I read an essay by John Updike for class and feel extremely called out: "[Stuttering] makes me think twice about going on stage and appearing in classrooms and at conferences--all that socially approved yet spiritually corrupting public talking that writers of even modest note are asked to do." 

March 3: The day before the conference, the organizers send out an email: AWP is still on. However, "this will be a handshake-free, hug-free conference." Two of my fellow panel members decide not to attend the conference—along with, unbeknownst to me, more than half of the conference's attendees. 

March 4: I chug a glass of Airborne and board my flight to San Antonio. We experience heavy turbulence, and I can't help it: I grip every germy surface available to me. Groggy after the flight, I check into the La Quinta near the convention center and fling my curtains wide to discover that my hotel room has a prime view of a massive Denny's sign.

March 5: Game day. I wake early, eat a hearty corporate hotel breakfast alongside what appears to be a high school girls' basketball team, and head to the convention center to get my badge and free tote bag. (Sponsors this year include the Texas State University MFA program, the Michener Center for Writers, and Tito's Handmade Vodka.) It seems like half of the panels are canceled, but I attend "Unmasking the Masked Self: The Complex Role of Persona in Memoir," which isn’t. All the panelists—whom, I note, seem extremely accomplished, have published books, and teach at various universities—agree: everyone has multiple identities, and thus it's totally not misleading to portray just one aspect of yourself in a memoir. "When you're writing, pretend you're slipping on a mask—or try putting on a real one," one of them says. Do face masks count?, I wonder.

I wander around the exhibitor hall—so many booths are empty—and become entranced by a smart typewriter ($550). Then I scarf down a very weird-tasting container of sushi from the cafeteria and find the room where my panel is slated to be. It's very cold, and large, and empty, except for the one other person on my panel who is physically present (the other two are Zooming in on a laptop). We make polite small talk and become increasingly nervous as 1:45 pm looms closer and the room's approximately 182 chairs remain empty. 

Then the door opens and nine people file in. We wait something like 20 more minutes to start for reasons I cannot discern. Then our moderator reads aloud her opening statement from the laptop, and I get a strong sinking feeling that our panel is deathly boring, and none of what each of us are planning to talk about has anything to do with each other, and oh god, why didn't we coordinate better? The two panelists before me talk about poetry reviewing, and then I launch into my 10-minute spiel about money and reviewing. Something weird happens when I read aloud my "talk," though: I start to think that it's good. My words are so clear and reasonable! These jokes I came up with a week before when I was flailing around in my apartment—hilarious! When my segment ends and the last panelist says his piece (diversity in reviewing), I can’t stop shaking. But it’s not nerves—it’s pure thrill, and also partly the chill of the AC, which the collective body heat of our meager audience (at its peak, I counted 21 people) has done nothing to mitigate. During the Q&A, I boldly pipe up with questions of my own, and at the end, when a few people come up to chat, I smile at them radiantly. For a shining ten minutes of my life, I’m not at a loss for words.

Right after my panel, I attend “Literary Impostordom: Do I Deserve to Be in This Room?” The room is packed—people are even sitting on the carpet by the door because there aren't enough chairs. The discussion, between four briskly competent women, has sort of an anti-establishment, rah-rah empowerment tenor (the panel weirdly seems to be geared specifically for women and people of color), and I'm sort of with it. Except there's this one part where one of the panelists says, “If you think what’s keeping you from a job is a fucking title, figure it out. Do not underestimate yourself, do not cut yourself out, because someone will lie better than you.” I'm confused: is she telling us to lie about our accomplishments? Afterwards, I try to channel my new bold self and start chatting with the moderator, but I pause awkwardly just a beat too long and she angles away from me and starts talking to someone literally ten feet away from her. I slink away, feeling both chastened and just a little enraged. So much for lifting up emerging writers. 

After, I attend something on the calendar called "Asian American Caucus." The person in charge asks us all to to get into small groups and discuss how we can foster Asian-American writing communities. I tell my group that I don't really have an Asian-American writing community, and they look at me in surprise. "But you live in New York!" one of them says. I realize that I have never felt the need to seek out an Asian-American writing community, and I don't know how to feel about it. 

Later, I walk along San Antonio's Riverwalk. From what I can see, downtown San Antonio feels like a weird real-life Disneyland, with lit-up pleasure barges floating down the river and good-time restaurants like Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville lining the shores, and even honest-to-god pumpkin carriages on the streets entwined with fairy lights and pulled by horses. I have a pleasant time eating chicken mole at a Mexican restaurant alone, and the servers are very nice to me, probably because I'm alone. Then I walk back to the convention center for the conference's keynote speech, which I can barely follow and find extremely boring. People leap up at the end for a standing ovation, and I walk the few blocks back to my hotel mired in self-doubt. Why are my opinions always so out of step with everyone else's? How do you decide when to stick to your guns and when to go along with everyone else? When are you overstepping your bounds, and when are you simply suffering from impostor syndrome? The panel I went to, I noted grumpily, provided no insight.

March 6: In "Raise Your Game: Applying Game Narrative Strategies to Writing Fiction," I spot people with plum and teal and violet and flame red hair, and someone up front wearing a Pikachu hoodie. "Has anyone here played Myst?" one of the panelists asks, and there are cheers. Afterwards, I scurry to the cavernous lobby of the convention center to meet someone I’ve only corresponded with via email. I'm supposed to give her advice, which seems vaguely wrong to me. Aren’t I still at the point when people should be giving me advice? I try to answer her questions but doubt I'm being helpful. Later, I hide in a booth and eat Hot Cheetos, and see on my phone that SXSW is canceled. Licking my fingers feels extremely wrong. I do it anyway. For dinner, I have my very first Whataburger, which I consume at the desk in my hotel room. The burger is literally as large as my face, but the fries, I note, come in this dinky little paper container, and I even ordered a medium. Still, I'm too full to finish them. 

March 7: In "Making a Career as a Lit Mag Editor," I question my life choices. In "Finding and Keeping a Solid Mentorship: A Guide for the Writing Odyssey," I question my life choices. I wander around the exhibitor hall, among booths of small presses and creative writing programs and literary journals piled with candy and brochures. One guy recognizes me from my panel and, to my astonishment, tells me it was one of the best panels he went to this year. I figure that's as good as this conference is going to get, and leave. 

I remember the Alamo. Specifically, I remember that the Alamo is only a few blocks away. The sun is blazing off the famous mission facade and my eyes are incredibly dry, but I stare at it for as long as I can and then walk to the "Living Encampment," where uniformed men hold muskets. "The soldiers were trained to go for the soft tissue—the throat or the abdomen," says a man in a blue and red Mexican Army uniform, stabbing the air with a bayoneted rifle taller than him. Later, I go to a German restaurant called Schilo's and eat chicken and dumplings alone at the bar while "All My Exes Live in Texas" plays in the background. 66.6666666% of my exes, I think bitterly, live in New York. 

March 8: I return to New York.

—Chelsea

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