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The Writing Life: A Matter of Perspective

Updated: Jun 17, 2023

by Irene Cooper | March 6, 2023

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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