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I went searching for a recent tweet by a writer I admire, and couldn’t find it. Fittingly, the tweet mused on the suggestion that everyone has been writing the same human dramedies—the same histories of trauma and triumph—for eons, each from a slightly different perspective. As with many tweets, it can be read (at the very least) in two ways: that there is nothing new under the sun, and we (especially we who fancy ourselves creative) only replicate rather than innovate; conversely, that we are indeed snowflakes, made up of the same stuff but in awesome, infinite arrangement. Additional possibilities abound, of course. Some are cheerier than others.

I say fitting, too—that I couldn’t locate the thought in the 24/7 textual Indie 500 that is Twitter—because Michael and I will this week head to the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) to rub patched elbows with twelve thousand of our fellow writers. Twelve thousand people will sit on and in front of panels that will discuss writing concerns including voice, genre, education, and the ever-shifting landscape of the publishing industry. As both writers and instructors of The Forge, a creative writing program, we have a good deal of skin in the game. This year our Superbowl is in Seattle, a virtual home field.

Once upon a time I had a conversation with a judge in Reno, Nevada, a place where you might as well tell the truth. It was a friendly chat, nothing law-bound, in which I’d said there was a time I thought I’d be a public defense attorney in NYC. He said public defense was a hard row to hoe. He himself had run a notoriously successful firm with scandalously wealthy clients. He suggested I go back to school. “There is always room at the top,” he said.

I recognized the quote—purportedly a response from Daniel Webster when he was cautioned against becoming a lawyer—he was advised (by people who meant well, we shall presume), that the field, in the early nineteenth century, was saturated. The idea of a “top,” even to the synapses in my young-twenties brain, even in 1986—the year before Wall Street glamorized rather than vilified abject greed—felt wonky. Wonky, but prevailing, like a March wind whipping the Nebraska plains.

It would be another three decades or so before dancer, choreographer, educator, and visionary Liz Lerman would give me language for my ambivalence regarding “top” (and the implied “bottom”). Lerman founded and developed Critical Response Process, a dialogic alternative to creative workshop models that traditionally silence the artist. She also wrote a collection of essays called, Hiking the Horizontal, which her website says, “offers readers a gentle manifesto to bring a horizontal focus to bear on a hierarchical world.” Neither a top, nor a bottom, then, but a horizon of indiscernible end. Of boundless access and possibility.

AWP is a curious event: Twelve thousand introverts crushed together under one roof, twelve thousand hearts pounding with ambition, twelve thousand and more perspectives on a single moment. No recollection or interpretation will be the same as another.

This AWP, I think I’ll leave the sky to the stars, is what I’m getting at. I want to listen to some stories, marvel at the poets, and stare across Elliott Bay, through the inevitable mist, to the infinite horizon, where I know there is room for me and my work.

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Mike Cooper | February 7, 2023

When we tell a story, even a “true” one, we have a beginning and an end. “One day…” eventually rolls into “…and so, that’s what happened’ (or, as Forrest Gump says, “That’s all I have to say about that”). We look at a story as a “slice of life,”—a moment in the cosmic timeline, an experience where someone (possibly ourselves) saw the world one way, and then something happened, and now it’s seen a different way. The impact and meaning of a story depend on where we end it. It’s where and how we leave our readers/listeners. The story can end with a “happily ever after,” or with our character staring out at the snow that is falling, falling, and falling “upon all the living and the dead.” It can end in chains, or the release of chains. It can end in true love, triumph, or the deepest loss.

But it is still only a moment. How do we capture the truth of life? Isn’t that what we’re after? Where is our beginning? An amoeba crawling from the primordial ooze? The Big Bang? The birth of God? And where is our ending? How could we even speculate?

This is, I think, why we write: in order to capture the whole picture, the meaning behind our happiness and suffering, the reason we push on, the understanding of our impermanent permanence. This involves acute speculation and introspection on our experiences, and most people aren’t interested in going there. The writer is a philosopher, a logician, a truth-seeker, a theorist, a dreamer. We look to other writers for their insights, we lean over the page or the keyboard and make an attempt to explain w-h-y.

As far as I know, no one has come up with the definitive universal truth. So we approximate it, hint at it, catch a glimpse of it as it walks past our window, stand next to it on a crowded bus. The end of the story, of the good story, leaves us (and our reader) on a trajectory toward discovery—the open-mouthed, chin-scratching, finger-in-the-air, “I had it on the tip of my tongue” moment that keeps us going, and thinking, and wondering, and trying to figure this whole thing out.

Jackson Browne says it quite well in the song “The Road and the Sky”:

When we come to the place where the road and the sky collide,

Throw me over the edge and let my spirit glide.

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Ellen Santasiero | January 10, 2023

Over New Year’s I saw a pot of flowers—paperwhites—on my friend Chris’s dining room table. Even though they’re vile-smelling, every year when I see their fresh white petals, their tiny trumpets blaring orange-dusted anthers, I think, oh, I want to grow some of those this year, but I never do.

For me, it’s not a case of fatigue, as I imagine it is for comedian Tom Papa, who responds to the new year’s messages of you can do more! and you can be better! with Ummm. Isn’t this enough? It’s more that I don’t really want to grow paperwhites. What I do really want when the new year whips around is, generally, always the same: write more, write better. Every year. Without fail.

After a recent reflection on what’s been most helpful to me as a writer in my almost thirty years of writing, rewriting, and sometimes publishing, I realized there is something else I really want to do in the new year:

Keep making new writer friends.

The support of others has been the single most important thing that has helped me. If you are stuck, or stalled, or dreading the desk, try this: make a writer friend. Someone else who has what-feel-like-impossible writing goals like you do. Find your people. (It may take some time and effort—it did for me.) They don’t need to write in the same genre as you. You don’t even need to exchange work with them. Maybe you just sit and write together.

When we founded The Forge, we knew the program would not only provide an instant writing community for our students, but it would also give them opportunities to make lifelong literary connections.

I’ve just moved to the east coast temporarily, but I’ll be here long enough that I need the company of other writers while I’m here. Since I arrived I’ve checked out two different critique groups, am planning to visit a third, and I’ve attended eight readings. So far I’ve found a poet and fiction writer to join me in a weekly “submission party” where we meet at a coffee shop and each work on submitting our poems and stories to literary journals. And I still participate in a virtual critique group in Oregon.

As for the paperwhites, if someone delivered them and took care of them for me, that would be lovely, but I must face it, my new year’s buzz notwithstanding, I will not grow them myself. I will, however, look to grow new writer relationships, and nurture the existing ones, wherever I go.

Here’s to the new year, your new starts and mine, and getting that project underway, if not done, this year. May your paper not be white, may it trumpet all things, the beautiful as well as the vile-smelling, which is, as we know, the only thing that makes beauty possible.

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