Over 15 years ago I attended Ohio University and lived in Athens, Ohio: a tiny oasis in the Appalachian foothills, beside the Hocking River. It is a place of old buildings and older graves, haunted landmarks and giant iridescent beetles, of purple lightning and scorched summers. In my sophomore year the 17-year cicadas hatched and covered every tree and fool wearing green with their writhing, sex-starved, red-eyed bodies. These cicadas were amazing, a dark prophecy made real. Only earplugs and patience allowed folks to sleep through the deafening dawn, when the cicadas would rise and begin the mating songs that would carry on for hours. After a few weeks of shrieks and screams of horror, and growing used to the crunch of walking across brick paths covered in discarded larval shells, the flooding method cured many of whatever entomophobia hadn’t already been banished by june bug and ladybug infestations. Soon people were wearing living and dead cicadas as pins and earrings, and eating them dipped in chocolate or fried in a pan with butter.
This is what I’m thinking about when Amtrak rolls in to Minneapolis/St. Paul — not the cicadas so much as the flooding method, and how I’m far more likely to run screaming from the word “pedagogy” than I am to flee from singing insects. My worst anxieties come from interactions with people who greet me with set expectations regarding conversation structure, as I inevitably search my interior for the right words several seconds too long, and then unroll my tongue and a strand of dialog that informs a funny look on a good day, a hasty retreat to a bathroom on a bad one. Example from something that happened just a few moments ago:
Girl drops something in front of me, laughs, says: “I’m a klutz.”
Response: “That’s okay, I think I project rays that make people embarrass themselves.”
Why, self? Just why?
And just like those who fear insects have little choice about dealing with cicadas if they want to live in a land of rolling green hills, I have little choice in dealing with other writers and publishers if I ever hope to escape my bubble.
This was not my first AWP conference. I attended in 2004 and 2005. Chicago in 2004 felt like a storm of people desperate to sell their books, operating alongside professors who traded in blazer cliches for ones that involve condoms and tinted sunglasses, a fishing line with cheap bait tossed into a pond of cool. My response to this observation was getting completely drunk as quickly and often as possible, preferably on drinks bought by boys. It wasn’t a conference so much as conjuring Hunter Thompson without the guns or blow or substance. There was a lot going on, and I didn’t see it. In 2005 I was excited about the chance to see Ursula K. LeGuin grab the podium and slap a room full of writers around. They deserved it; I couldn’t believe how many people didn’t know her, and were annoyed when they found out she was a genre-writer, kryptonite of self-important authors everywhere. She gave an amazing presentation, and I walked away with a renewed desire to “write stories” as she did during the hours where she wasn’t standing at a podium, wondering what the hell she was doing at a writers’ conference. The panels I attended were the wrong ones to attend, and they grossed me out, especially a memoir one where one author talked about banishment by relatives in the aftermath of publication like it’s a good idea, before Philip Lopate offered the thoughtful reflection: “Sometimes you just have to wait for someone to die.” The publishers I talked to about the memoir writing I’d already done didn’t want me to wait for anyone to die, and were hoping I’d be willing to give my mother a heart attack, while any mention I made of genre blurring or magical realism caused the curtain to drop. Unmarketable. Too risky. Too difficult. Too much. This was still better than what I’d hear much later: “Can you make your writing less literary?” Meanwhile, Vancouver, BC was about as gorgeous as a city can stand being without aborting itself. It was a slide down a mountain into a river, and grabbing a latte and poutine on the way down. I left feeling like there was no need for me to go to AWP again, not until I resolve feeling like a collectible figurine in a China cabinet, and every reason to go to Vancouver over and over.
In the years that followed I published what I could, and battled a desire to categorize everything as “home and garden” on account of being a gnome. I vomited all over Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and never called it a platform, since those are for jumping and all, and who knows what I would land in. Still, there was a part of me that longed for a gold star from people I secretly wanted as peers, even if I have always been occupied in the garden, sun starved and up to my waist in dirt.
And it was the sun that started all this nonsense, patting at my skin and refueling deficient vitamin D levels until I thought applying for a RACC Professional Development grant was a good idea. And it was. RACC pro-dev grants are enormously helpful when at a career crossroads, when you’ve gone far in a particular direction and threaten to loop if you don’t switch roads. So I asked myself: what if I made the approach as someone who writes a lot and is looking for a publisher, instead of as a wayward wanderer on the hunt for new friends and foes?
I wrote the grant and got it (thank you, RACC!) thus removing the financial obstacles, and a few months of obsessing and making lists later I got on the very train I’ve been writing about: 39 hours on the back of a whale.
Someone was smoking on the train, and so my suitcase smelled like childhood, and in the final hours I acquired the sweaty mouth of a jogger. St. Paul was a slow rumble passed towers of garbage pushed around by construction equipment, a good reminder of wading through writing the night before. Only the longest and shortest stories survived inspection; everything else was shoved into a newly created folder labeled lame. These cast-offs were treasure maps without the X marking any place to dig.
As I stepped off the train with garbage on the brain, my first thought: What am I doing here?
Minneapolis was the X. Me, the red-eyed invader. This is when the flooding begins.