23 November, 2011

Invitation to the Ball — er, Conference

Not even imprisonment keeps invitations to shindigs from being sent my way. To wit: the full-color glossy brochure that shouted at me, from today's mail, to register for yet another writers conference. This time, it's the 2011 AWP Conference & Bookfair in Chicago. So many literary luminaries will be present! Philip Levine! Margaret Attwood! Edward Hirsch! Hundreds of panels and readings! Dozens of receptions, dances, and unofficial off-site events.

Yes, dancing. My envisioning of a writers' dance is a grown-up analog to the fifth grade end-of-year school formal I once endured, only with crowds of other rigid, pallid killjoys jockeying with me for elbow room at the sidelines. I wouldn't expect rug-cutting prowess to be common among my writerly peers, but, then again, I lack a posteriori knowledge in the matter. What I do know is that Chicago would make for a nice shake-up.

I adore Chicago. Oh, look. The brochure says accomodations are to be had at the Hilton Chicago, on Michigan Avenue, where I stayed on that last deleriously fun trip to the Windy City. It was an unremarkable room, a great view of downtown. Can you hear me sighing wistfully?

I'd love to phone up and register, to again visit my favorite US metropolis, to network with others whose passion is the written word, to eat pizza with a fork, to be wooed by agents wanting to broker my book deal, to stay out in the Loop impractiaclly late, to court editors from literary journals left and right, to ride the El around until my backside ached. Alas, someone at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs must have missed the memorandum — I have a previous engagement. Maybe next year I'll be able to think about it... even if it's not Chicago. Keep me on that list.

09 November, 2011

Impromptu Motivational Speaker

The new guy is older than me by about a decade. Burly, with big biceps bearing tattoos of a skull and the cheery message, "FUCK EM ALL," I've seen no reason to associate with him during the months he's lived in the wing, a few doors down from mine. He's even more of a hermit than I am, which I consider a kind of warning. In short, when he and I exited the visiting building tonight — just the two of us, alone on a dark and largely vacant yard — the last thing I expected was to get involved in a conversation.

It started like small talk, which I always handle awkwardly: "How you doin' tonight, Byron?" he asked, and I answered with my customary tone. Then came more questions, like he was trying to pull something out of me or override some nagging voice in his own head. Maybe both. By the time we reached our housing unit, I'd summarized for him my experiences in the court system, my good fortune at having extensive outside support, and my current efforts to extricate myself from this place. We — okay, I — covered a lot of ground without walking far at all. The whole time, he kept up his polite interrogation in that way of everyone for whom incarceration is a fresh torture, hoping to glean some nugget of wisdom from any source, as though they didn't already know how to cope: only by doing, only by living. I blathered on, ignorant of the question he'd probably been intending since that jarring introduction.

Then, as we were coming up the stairs to our walk, he asked it. "So, how do you keep from, you know, getting depressed?"

It was funny, so I smiled. As if I don't still have low days! As if all my nights of sleep are sound ones, during which I do not feel my heart sink! I smiled, then told him. I told him about the importance, above all, of finding purpose. I told him about the brilliance of the to-do list and the magic that is to be found in holding tightly to dreams for the future, no matter how trivial. I told him about the quiet virtue of the crossword puzzle, when all else fails. We had stopped, at his door, to lean on the railing as I monologued without pause, an impediment to foot traffic, for more than a quarter of an hour. By the end, I'd all but presented him a seminar on productive coping strategies. He excused himself to call his family and to ask them to order him books on origami and word puzzles, and said he was going to start working on a list of personal goals later this evening.

I don't know how long his sentence is, nor the circumstances of his crime. If he's a person with any follow-through whatsoever is not something to which I can attest. But I think I did a good thing, however unintentionally, in giving the new guy some ideas on how to use his time for something other than catching up on sleep. Maybe I will follow up with him, see how his goals list is coming along. Right now, I'm just amazed. Was I ever that hopelessly eager for an easing of the weight, or have I always been such an isolated stoic? And should I be worried that I can no longer conjure an answer to this question?