Things to Do in Denver When You’re Braindead: An AWP Retrospective


1. Award George Saunders the Nobel Prize in Decency

Have you ever met a single reader or writer who does not worship George Saunders? You have not. You have not because George Saunders represents everything writers should be. I’m not talking about his prose here. That speaks for itself. I’m talking about the way the guy conducts himself. I’m talking about his humility and his genuine concern for the feelings of those around him. See, a lot of what happens at AWP (though it doesn’t get talked about much) is that younger writers are watching more established writers for clues as to how they should behave. Should they hold court loudly in the bar area? Should they look down upon the rabble from the feeble ramparts of literary fame? Should they drink to excess and grope the nubile acolytes? Or should they take seriously the influence they now wield. It’s certainly true that writers owe us nothing more than their stories. Faulkner neglected his children, Mailer stabbed his wife, and so on and so forth. But it is a delight to encounter a writer who lives up to ideals set forth in his work. And an example.

2. Flirt with Other Married People

Why not? It’s not against the law. You are happily married. You love your husband, your wife, your dear Significant O. And yet here you are, in the swirl of this annual mania, this sad, lovely space where Mid-List Authors Come to Feel Like Rock Stars, and who should sashay toward you in the half-lit corporate bar but the one and only Michelle Richmond, smiling, tipsy, above all sexy and prepared to ratify your notions about her dress, which reveals her fine white shoulders. As a reminder: you are happily married. So is Michelle. So is your comrade Dr. D. But none of this stops any of you from engaging in shameless Married People Banter. At one point, Dr. D shows Michelle a photo of his darling child and Michelle, in her balmy Alabama accent (dainty hand set daintily upon chest) announces that her milk has just let down. She will now be lactating for our benefit. So it goes for another, say, fifteen delicious – and harmless! – minutes. (The harmlessness being emphasized here because Michelle Richmond is married to an FBI agent, a man who owns guns and possibly cuffs.) Soon Michelle will be dragged off to a burlesque event and Dr. D, still aglow from her radiance, will confess to me that, despite being incredibly happily married, he has a major crush on Michelle’s dimples. “I want to lick the inside of those dimples,” he observes quietly. “I want to perform dimplelingus on her.” Amen, brother.

3. Tell Stories About Nightmare Readings/Panels

You wish this didn’t happen. You wish we didn’t make such judgments. But AWP is, at the end of the day, and the beginning, a trade show, the wares on offer being the eloquence of our selves in those tense sacred moments under the lights. And if you put yourself up for such inspection, well then you must live with the consequences. It’s impossible to do something this difficult, on a cultural margin this thin and crowded, without exciting grievance. So fine: do what you need to do. Get it out of your system, buddy. But for God’s sakes keep your voice down.

4. Submit to the Brownian Movement of Social Anxiety

Because we’re all so terrifically nervous and unaccustomed to this kind of  stimulation and because there seem to be so many people around, literary acquaintances illuminated by the familiarity of a chance meeting some years ago, wherever it was, and we take this to be our job for the weekend, to be social creatures, to scan the room for nodes of power and intrigue, to make the chatter expected of us, to figure out where we go next and with whom, to keep the party rolling, to keep at bay the realization that this is all just a sweet, foolish charade, a fleeting return to the pleasures and disappointments of high school.

5. Lament

So many booths in the Grand Hall, where they hold the book fair. So many little snacks set out just so – Lifesavers, lollipops, chocolate kisses – the heartbreaking enticements of the failing enterprise. So many authors sitting behind tables waiting to sign books that nobody wants (I am one of them), all of us Willie Lomans, all of us telling the story of what could be, what should be, the American story. So many reminders of the smallness of our pursuit. And so many younger folk, marooned in these empty booths, hunched over their tiny glowing screens, their crabbed thumbs issuing frantic pleas on a keyboard the size of an hor d’oeurves. What are they typing? Help! Get me out of here! I didn’t sign up for this!

6. Rejoice

Because for God’s sake, you’ve run across Tod Goldberg, perhaps the funniest person your wife has ever met. He’s on the outskirts of the Grand Hall, looking (like all great promoters) utterly unconcerned with the business of promotion. He’s here to pimp the MFA program he now runs, by some small and perilous miracle of bureaucratic non-oversight. Goldberg with his tight golf shirts with his wide grin and boundless LA confidence. He could sell a tanning bed to an albino. He could sell integrity to a Republican. He once made you eat various forms of pork, in Las Vegas, at one of the Casino buffets. It felt like the first seating at the Apocalypse. Then he took pictures. Only Goldberg didn’t convince you. He let you convince yourself. He should be in the movies. He should be telling Mel Gibson what to eat for lunch. Instead, he sits back and talks about eating pussy, while one of his students sits on the carpet behind him, rolling her eyes with bottomless patience.

7. Trip Out on the Strangeness of Denver Itself

This city with its fancy, barren downtown and its endless highways. This is the loveable West, the way they drew it up all those years ago. But it all feels too new, too sprawling and imposed, and you can’t help feeling slightly corrupt (or perhaps party to a larger corruption) as you gaze out at the snow-capped girdle of mountains rising in all directions like a beer ad.

8. Consider Intervention

The young woman – let’s call her Stacy – winds up on a bad trip. She’s loud and miserable, a poet in cowboy boots. She doesn’t want your attention. She wants her father’s attention. But he hasn’t called and today is her 24th birthday. She says this over and over, to whoever will listen. Dr. D buys her a cupcake, but it doesn’t help. She hates traveling. She hates meeting people. Her complaints are boring. Dr. D (that gentle soul, that inveterate reader) wants to set a hand on her arm, wants to say something to her, about the need to move past complaint, into the true grief of her circumstance. But she’s committed to this exhibition of sorrow. There’s nothing he can do but hope she finds her way out of blindness. This is what it is to be a reader.

9. Sleep

It’s nearly impossible. Your system isn’t built for this. Your needs have gone soft. You miss your children. Your son’s tiny mouth, the smell of his breath. You miss your wife. It’s three am. Then four. He’s probably getting up now. Standing at the railing of his crib, looking for you.

10. Remember that You’re Still Lonely

So this is how it ends each year: the tribe disperses, taxi by shuttle by rental car, dispatched giddy and hollow-eyed to its precincts of origin, to Fresno and Palm Beach and Denton, Texas. Farewell, everyone says. Farewell. See you next year! Your luggage is filled with business cards and magazines, little monuments of hope. The airport feels giant and barren. The light beats down upon the merciless retail placards. And you know what’s waiting for you at the end of the line, that panic room where you’re supposed to create more things, just you and whatever you’ve been hiding from, the terror you convert to drudgery. It makes you miss how it was just a few hours before, all the pointless chatter and sloppy plans, the buzzing lobbies, the desperate pretending that we’re ever anything other than animals in search of love.

Steve Almond's most recent book, Against Football, was a New York Times bestseller for at least three seconds. More from this author →