Thanks to my brother and his family who drove from Columbus, Ohio to stay with Ambrose for a few days, and my third-grade best friend who opened her Boston home to me, I was able to make it to another AWP conference.
I am an only parent who prizes sleep, and I still haven’t published a book (though I continue to accrue my yearly trickle of journal publications and writing friends that keep me hopeful), and so, I am well aware that my AWP experience is not the stuff of sensational legend. When I think of AWP abstractly, I imagine two groups of people: the MFA students who are ten or more years younger than me, mostly unfamiliar with serious life circumstances, who sit at the bookfair tables with hangovers and more party invitations. And, the people about ten years older than me who have tenure track jobs and several, award-winning books and know all the publishing editors, in fact are going to drink with them all (yes, all of them) later that night—a get together that will alter the next ten years of the literary world and will be alluded to in multiple future poems.
Because I belong to neither of these groups and because I have very little available time or money and wasn’t presenting this year, attending AWP doesn’t seem very practical. What purpose does my going to AWP serve? What is my connection to the writing world?
Sometimes it is difficult to take such questions seriously. Sometimes it is easier to misidentify them as brief rhetorical occasions for self-loathing. But they are serious questions, and deserve serious consideration.
I am writing this blog entry on the plane ride back because when I return home, all my responsibilities will meet me at the door and whatever writing inspirations the AWP experience has generated for me will have to wait, for the most part, until the end of the semester (7 more weeks!).
I went to several panels and met up with many lovely friends. The panel that affected me the most, though, was “The Poet Magician: Writing Out of Single Motherhood.” I went to the panel because while I was at AWP I was realizing that I was there as a gift to myself. That I spend so much time working in isolation that I wanted to be surrounded by other writers, and not just all writers in general, but writers who have creatively approached challenges I share and are making multi-faceted and genuine things from them. In short, I realized my AWP attendance was not a search for blanket professional or craft inspiration, but rather a search to see how others were integrating shared personal challenges into their craft, challenges that are rarely spoken of and, though all the personal stories have slightly different variations, are all informed by culture, economics, race, and education. I also went because the title was fun. Fun is a necessary companion to survive struggle.
The panel was a lively mix of struggles and accomplishments, vulnerability and power. Much of the talk centered around both acknowledging the intense solitude surrounding single motherhood (or, “independent parenting,” which we all agreed was a much better, active phrase) and the ways that challenge is also an important writing opportunity, that our unique position to solitude intensifies/heightens what drives most writing in general. Panelist Mairead Byrne, (yet another reason I attended the session–we studied at Purdue together some time ago and I greatly admire her as both a writer and a person) wrote, “When I speak as a single mother, the audience steps away.”
The panel was, perhaps, the most forthright one I’ve ever attended, and also opened up some amazing models for hybrid approaches to writing and new possibilities for the ways our selves and our writing can connect. I was talking to Mairead after the session and she noted that it would be pretty easy for us to just all go have a drink and swap stories, but that it was another thing to provide a suitable critical framework that helps us understand and build. This panel was an important starting point for that.
After my husband died, I continued to wear my wedding ring for over a year. This was partly to continue and honor my connection to him, partly to thwart any dating discussions, but mostly, really, so that I would not be mistaken for a single mother. I didn’t want people to think I was a single mother because I didn’t feel strong enough to carry both my grief and outsider judgment.
Shortly after I stopped wearing my wedding ring, I took Ambrose to a doctor’s appointment. I sat down in the waiting room, and Ambrose started playing with another boy his age. They ran trains around the room and then picked up a play tea set and started pouring cups for me and the other mother. Both of us began drinking from our imaginary cups and as we did this, we also began to talk. The other mother was younger than me and black. I also noticed she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. The ring thing was something I never used to notice before, but now find myself checking all the time.
A nurse called Ambrose’s name and we stood up to go. “Say goodbye to your friend,” I said, and Ambrose and the boy waved to one another. I nodded goodbye to the other mother who smiled and touched my hand. “So you’re a single mother too,” she said. I tensed for a second and almost corrected her, but instead I nodded yes. As I did that I was flooded with a rush of relief. We weren’t ignoring what we both knew. “Yes,” I said out loud. “It’s hard isn’t it?” she said, and again I nodded yes. “He’s a beautiful boy,” she finished.