The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference has been called "the great national conversation about literature."
And so it is.
More than 8,000 writers attended the 2011 conference held in Washington D.C. There would have been more attendees, no doubt, but so many could not make it out of their hometowns because of bad weather.
Walking into the lobby of one of the two main conference hotels, I see groups of writers--2 or 3--sometimes a few more--sitting in circles, talking over wine or cups of coffee. Conference bags hanging over their shoulders. Old and young faces looking relaxed, or, more often, looking intense. There is a certain sound--a kind of electric buzz that is peculiar to this conference. As if the crowd has saved up all their thoughts, observations, musings and irritations since the last conference and--only now--will let it go.
Everyone is talking, talking, talking.
About books. About writing. About ideas. About private lives and secret griefs. About politics and publishing and odd but interesting things that happened during the year, on the plane trip to here, at last night's reading or simply inside the writer's imagination.
One overhears in the hallways, conference rooms, elevators and coffee shops language used with precision and used with the mind fullness that comes with the certainty that how something gets said is as important as what gets said. Sometimes it feels like everyone is talking in paragraphs--not sentences, not phrases. One word responses in any conversation is not something I have ever witnessed.
But I have noticed that when the writers gather --when we gather-- we know we are among our own kind. I do not mean to suggest that the "gathering of the tribes"--as one keynote speaker put it--is not without discordant notes. However, there seems to be this shared belief: that the use of language and its ultimate place in our culture is kind of sacred.
That what we do as writers actually matters.