:: Article

Emily Dickinson Weeping Under the Stairwell

By Stewart Sinclair.

I’m writing this essay the week before the Association of Writers & Writing Programs annual conference (likely known to a number of 3:AM readers as AWP) in Portland, Oregon. For anyone who is unfamiliar, the event is billed as a gathering of more than 12,000 attendees joining in communion “for four days of insightful dialogue, networking, and unrivaled access to the organizations and opinion-makers that matter most in contemporary literature.” And this year was going to be the first year that I attended, until my fear got the better of me.

Every fall, a number of the professors in my MFA will take a moment out of class at some point to remind their students that AWP is coming. They promote the chance to hear from and possibly even rub shoulders with our literary idols, or simply to make our names and faces known to the journals and magazines, small and large, in which we hope to one day see our work published. These professors have always offered the same caveats: that it’s an expense many can’t afford, that it can be nerve-wrecking meeting 12,000 people all simultaneously pursuing the very same dream you have, that it might even be a frightening icon of what some would consider the pyramid scheme of the American literary scene — a predatory capitalization on hopes and dreams through increasingly expensive programs, writer’s retreats and seminars; but in the midst of all that you might find something special and of value if you can see through the B.S. and hype. One of our most ardent proponents of AWP, a professor I look up to, always digresses from his conference pitch to say that “somewhere in that conference hall, Emily Dickinson has snuck out of the emergency exit and is weeping under a stairwell.”

This piece isn’t about AWP in particular. It just happens to be the most recent facet of the complex of institutions, communities, businesses and scenes that has triggered my anxiety of what could be called, if no one has coined it yet, Book World*. That anxiety manifests itself in strange ways. The more I find myself following the most relevant and engaging writers and readers on twitter, the more outside of that conversation I feel. The arrival of the PW Daily email in my inbox fills me with dread, reminding me that deals are being made irrespective of how I might be pursuing my own. The seasonal flourishing of Pushcart prizes and Whiting Awards and for God’s sake the Pulitzers is a constant reaffirmation of one’s own lack of trophies. And all of these feelings are complicated because I feel happy for the winners, giddy when a writer I admire replies to my tweet, and encouraged that the kinds and varieties of books being sold and published today represent a more diverse array of voices than they may ever have, even if there is a long, long way to go. But none of those joys alleviates the anxiety. If on some days it feels like the inherently lonely craft of writing has become astonishingly social, it usually just feels like there is just this ongoing cocktail party with all the smartest people, and you’re not invited, but you’re strongly encouraged to watch through the windows — and to believe that your arrival on the guest list is imminent.

I remember the first time I went to a fancy literary party. A prominent journal celebrating an anniversary at a lounge in the Woolworth building in Manhattan’s Financial District. Open bar and good DJ and lots of young people with business cards that said “writer” on them. I had only recently moved to New York and found out about the party from a friend, and it took me a while to realize that this was the in-crowd. One woman was a rising star at the New York Times Magazine, another a freelancer whose reporting and essays had afforded her a spot on all of the thirty-under-thirty lists you could imagine. And to their credit, they were kind and conversational and made me feel like I might actually have a place in Book World. But then I happened to enter a conversation with another person, and he was the first at that party who expected me to know who he was — a young founder of a hot online magazine, both of which he seemed to have implied should’ve been readily apparent to me. Once he saw that I didn’t know who he was, he walked away. I know that he didn’t represent everyone at the party, but that moment revealed to me that I was among people who were people, and people who knew people — I felt like the new kid at school. And people knew that I wasn’t somebody, and that I didn’t know anybody, and that suddenly seemed incredibly important. I went home drunk and despondent, which I suspect is not unlike many young writers before me and to come — perhaps even some of those people I was suddenly star-struck by, when they first dipped their toes in the literary waters.

At that time I wasn’t in an MFA, and I wouldn’t apply to one for several years to come. I worked (and still work) in public health and lived in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where my girlfriend grew up, far from the literary centers of New York — at least 1.5 hours to the nearest epicenter of Book World by train. And that first major interaction with Book World in real-life left me eager to avoid it for some time. I didn’t think that the aspirational highs and existential lows of being in such close proximity to my dream, to say nothing of the subsequently elevated blood-alcohol content, was particularly healthy or productive. I hoped that just by writing and quietly sending my work out into the world, I might gain traction, and as a result, someday become somebody without ever having to play the exhausting game of knowing everybody.

But the hard part of that course of action is, as I said, that you are always just outside, or next door, or down the street from the party. I can hear what Roxane Gay is saying to Saeed Jones. I can feel T Kira Madden’s excitement as she surprises her mother with the first hard-cover copy of her forthcoming memoir. It’s all there on twitter, or it gets screen-grabbed and jolts across the internet, or it just happens to be the book in the hand of the commuter across from me on the subway. And every last one of my literary heroes is so fucking encouraging to us young aspiring authors typing away on the outskirts of Book World that it becomes harder to believe that it is true — because one knows that success and talent are not equally or even justly distributed throughout the world, and one knows that the thing we’re hoping to achieve is not so far off from the odds of being drafted to the NBA. But unlike the NBA, in Book World, it’s hard to know if you’re 6’1 or 5’7, and god bless all the people who will often be too kind to tell you how you measure up — and to hell with all the ones willing to believe they are capable of doing precisely that. Besides, in a subjective industry, there is no standard of measurement.

I can honestly say that I feel proud of the things I’ve accomplished since I stumbled out of that Woolworth bar. Between then and now, I’ve managed to land my work at some of my dream publications, I have a business card that says “writer,” and recently signed with an agent that believes that these things I’m working on might amount to something. It is humbling, as a kid from a blue-collar family of five children whose mother never went to college and whose father never graduated high school, to think that there might be a chance that someday in the near future there could be a book with my name across the spine. But I’ve learned that no matter how many steps forward I take, that destination always seems so impossibly far away. And the immensity of AWP, with that sea of hopeful or determined faces struggling to stand out, makes Book World seem like an overwhelming place. Which is sad because what I want is the community, the sense of a broader American movement of letters, something more detached from the cottage industry of writing programs, so that I can feel like, if I do rub shoulders with greatness, there won’t be transactional suspicions.

I should also say that it wasn’t until just before I sat down to write this that I realized I was sad not to be going to AWP. I’d like to have been with my friends behind our little lit mag booth, or sharing a rented house somewhere in a city I’ve wanted to see my entire life. I’d like to spend four days talking shop with “the opinion-makers that matter most in contemporary literature.” But it still strikes me as such a frighteningly mercenary environment that I can’t bring myself to enter it — and I think that has little to do with its attendees, and more with its architects.

I guess I’m writing this for anyone who might relate, whether or not they attend AWP or are enrolled in an MFA or are simply sitting in their room slowly and methodically typing away at their first novel in a silence broken only by the click of the keys. Maybe even Ada Limón or Esme Wang still feel much more like that hypothetical Emily Dickinson, anxious to tuck themselves away beneath a staircase. But maybe I missed out on something special — 12,000 people who still give a shit about books, who still think they are worth travelling across the country to talk about.
At the heart of it, I suppose what I’m most afraid of is that I will show up at AWP and find out that perhaps it is not a world that I belong to. It’s the fear of the potential realization that the dream is just an illusion, that you will always be outside the party, somewhere at the bottom of an endless waiting list. But I think the hope is that this recent movement, albeit terribly imperfect, toward a wider array of voices, a more accepting landscape of letters, will make it less likely that Book World will intimidate and diminish the hopes of writers who grew up on the margins, economically or socially or culturally or otherwise. Or maybe that it turns out not to be a separate ‘World’ at all — but rather, just another part of our teeming, diverse planet. As another professor and mentor of mine put it when I showed him this essay, no one ever arrives in Book World: “Nothing changes! We’re all just crying under the staircase. The question is how do you make it a little easier for the next person wondering how to get in, or where to find the exit.”

* Not to be confused with The Washington Post’s Book World or any similarly named outlets or venues, toward which the author harbors no ill-feelings.

Stewart Sinclair is a writer whose reportage, personal essays and narrative nonfiction has been featured in Guernica, The New Orleans Review, The Morning News and elsewhere. Recently his essay “Search Party” was selected for True Story, a mini-magazine from the editors of Creative Nonfiction. He is currently working on his first book about class, identity and motherhood in a fractured America. @stewsinclair

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 28th, 2019.