AWP and The Faith of a Writer

Way back in 2008, I attended AWP in NYC, returning home as always with a head full of new ideas about publishing and writing. But one thing, above all else, lingers with me about that trip.

Earlier in the week, I’d met two of my best writer pals, Karen and Susan, at the airport in Charlotte. The wind had been gusting hard on the hour-long drive down from home, and even though I was running late, the 4:30 am darkness had me watching the road carefully for deer and road construction.

I arrived at the airport edgy but early enough to find that Susan had just gotten there too and would be able to help me lug my four suitcases into the terminal. I would be exhibiting for Press 53 and had carried our authors’ books with me. Thankfully, she and Karen checked one bulging bag apiece so I wouldn’t have to pay extra. This was back when we were still allowed one carryon and one checked bag.

An attendant had asked us to step toward one of the self check-in kiosks, and I remember that the one I got was #13. Though I’m not flaky about numbers, 13 is not exactly a number I’m happy to run into either, particularly on such a day with the wind and sky as it was. But the timing of the trip was going so well I only indulged myself the feeblest of morbid fantasies.

We boarded the plane and Karen talked for most of the flight, nothing unusual if you know Karen, but it’s impressive to folks who don’t, and one man approached us after we landed at LaGuardia and told her she’d just won the world record for the longest sentence without stopping for breath. “18 minutes,” he said. “I counted.” Karen joked and asked if it had been that annoying. “Worse than a crying baby,” he said. And there was the first good story of the trip, one which Karen told again and again, possibly to take the sting out of it. Possibly to hold onto it, to claim it as her own.

The next story would come from the plane ride itself. It was mechanical bull riding the whole way, and I began to  wonder whether my then upcoming baptism would have to wait. Like forever.

I sat next to the window over the wing, where I always sit, on the right side of the plane. Somehow that feels like the safest place to me, and oddly enough, that seat is usually available. Maybe it is, in fact, the worst seat and everyone knows it but me. I like controlling the window shade and seeing the wing out there under me when I choose to raise the shade and look out.
I also like to lean against the window or the wall (and not on a person) so I can sleep as much as possible because I get pretty anxious about the whole thing and a bit queasy. Karen offered me half a Xanax, which I politely  declined. I’m freakishly wary of medication. My first choice was Dramamine, if I would require anything at all, and I expected I would so I had packed the little tube of pills from my previous trip somewhere in my carryon. I didn’t feel like climbing up to search for it, though, and anyway I felt like I would be able to settle down inside if I could just close my eyes and concentrate on breathing slowly.

But the plane continued to jostle us, and I later learned that even Susan and Karen were a bit nervous. Jokingly, Karen asked Susan to pray we wouldn’t crash. Susan, a fully baptized Christian, was, after all, closer to God, and though we were laughing, it occurred to me how true it was and I wondered how many more prayers I’d have to send up to carry as much weight as one of Susan’s.

Then as the plane began descending on our approach to LaGuardia, the turbulence got worse. I looked out the window. All looked pretty normal, as I recall: a few clouds but no rain. I could see the landscape sprouting up below us. The plane was jerking around a bit more than I like them to, but it didn’t seem any more unusual than I’d experienced before.

But then, suddenly the nose of the plane pulled up and we began climbing again quickly. The wind was 25 times stronger than what the plane was equipped to handle, we were told. Now I could see the black clouds, and we banked hard left and I assumed we were going into a holding pattern until the wind settled down a bit or we ran out of fuel and fell from the sky into the whirling cyclone below, whichever came first.

I wondered whether the wind might possibly have loosened some important nuts and bolts while we were attempting to land, and it got me thinking hard about faith. The pastor  who presided over the church I’d recently started attending had spoken days earlier on the subject. Faith, he said, is not believing that God will fix all your problems. I admit that this is what I had generally believed was true. I come from a fairly agnostic background, but even so I have always believed that God will get me out of almost any jam if I ask sincerely enough. He always has. I knew it wasn’t altogether sound logic, but much of what we intuit to be true is like that. Or maybe it’s only like that for me.

Faith isn’t like that at all, though, according to Pastor Don. Faith, he said, is not a Get Out of Jail Free card. It isn’t calling on God and demanding favors of him and believing that just because we asked sincerely, we’ll get what we want. Please, God, don’t let this plane crash. Faith is knowing God, period, as he is, which means that we believe him, we trust him, we love him, even when he chooses not to fix our problems. God is immutable and sovereign whether we like it or not. Faith, Pastor Don said, gives us the ability to unlock our problems so that we can face the impossible.

I didn’t really want to face the impossible right then in the air over Long Island, though I have since thought a little about dying alongside two of my best friends. Perverse thinking for a blog about conferencing in NYC, I concede.

But the idea of facing the impossible echoes a bit of the writerly advice I once got from Pinckney Benedict when I queried him on finding the heart of a story. He replied by divining on me a technique he calls the “Impossible Probable.” That is, in writing fiction, the practice of including the thing that can’t exist in the world (the impossible) but that must exist in the story (the probable).

Our very lives as writers can be seen as, and are in fact, stories themselves. Each of us faces the impossible, that thing which can’t exist in the world—fiction, poetry—but that must exist in the stories of our lives. Like a monster conjured of mud, our dreams of writing are mere myths, wisps of smoke, ghosts living inside us. Bringing them fully into the world is not possible, even for the best of us, and yet we persevere.

Why? Because we believe, as Joyce Carol Oates does, “that art is the highest expression of the human spirit” and “we yearn to transcend the merely finite and ephemeral; to participate in something mysterious and communal called ‘culture’.” We know from our own hard experience that writing is not something we summon. Our faith is not merely that we’ll work through a difficult scene. We understand that maybe we won’t, maybe we never will get it right. Our faith is knowing art as it is, not as we wish it to be. In trusting it, loving it, even when it denies us. Our faith as writers comes from the same place from whence comes our faith in God if we have it: not from our intellect but from the supra-intellect, that space whirling above the cyclone of our rational, logical minds, the dwelling place of the impossible.

Nearly 8,000 writers converged on the tiny island of Manhattan that weekend for sage advice from the prophets. We descended from the sky, crossed over the land and possibly the sea, to participate in one of the largest exhibitions of collective consciousness, mass hallucination, communal folly I’ve ever personally witnessed. There we were, 8,000 believers, dreaming one dream. Will we all publish? Of course not. Will we all leave a legacy? Impossible. Will all of us even write? Probably not.

Will that stop us? Who’s to say. But maybe, if we’re faithful, some of us will take Joyce Carol Oates’ good advice offered up a decade ago in New York and “keep on trucking.” We’ll choose to believe that which we cannot see.

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