AWP and Successophobia

I’m writing this blog post on my flight from Boston to Seattle for this year’s AWP. This will be the third AWP I’ve attended, and for the third year in a row, I find myself both excited about all the people I will be able to see and meet anew, and pre-emptively mortified about how forward, how intrusive, my interactions might seem.

I should make it clear that I’m attending AWP not only to hear panels or to speak on them (though I am on a panel on Saturday afternoon), but largely to sit at an exhibitor’s table for The Drum. And it’s in this role--accosting strangers to tell them about the magazine--that I expect to experience that unique mixture of exhilaration and embarrassment, sociability and shyness. I have a feeling I won’t be alone.

I would be right, wouldn’t I, to assume that most if not all of the other attendees at AWP will feel the same way? The entire conference hotel will be full of writers feeling like hyperactive turtles: stick your neck out, pull it back, over and over again at frequent intervals. At the end of each conference day, the hotel bars will be full of writers regaling each other with tales of fear and shame.

Beneath those self-deprecating tales will be the real message: that we all survived. That we overcame the fear and spoke to an author we admire, or asked a question at a panel, or invited some new writer friends to meet up for a drink at that very bar that very evening. The fact that we’re telling the tales will be proof of our (utterly writerly) survival.

So why do we bother? Why do we make such a production out of the fact that we’re uncomfortable? Certainly, it’s a way to bond and it’s a way to be kind. None of us wants to make the others look bad by trumpeting our socio-professional successes. (Well, some do, but most of us move away from them at the bar.) We don’t want to express our triumphs too openly lest they fall on wounded ears.

But the trumpeting of our inadequacy is also, more importantly, part of what seems to me to be a pervasive but unmentioned writers’ ethos: that we don’t like success. Or that we don’t crave it--”crave” being the loaded word we might choose to imply that the desire for success stems from a weakness of the soul. True, it’s rare that we hear of the writer who explicitly hopes not to be on a best-seller list, or the one who scorns book clubs because they are too popular. It’s quite common, though, to come across the sentiment among writers that while success is nice, it is not to be wished for--and if achieved, is to be apologized for.

If the Olympic fortnight taught us anything--if we managed to pierce the veil of Sochi strangeness to focus on the competition--it’s sportsmanship. We know it when we see it: the winner is triumphant but not gloating; there is no shame in losing, and none in trying. The athletes don’t think less of the ones who openly strive for the win.

It’s complicated in our writing world, though. For an athlete, the event provides its own news right there on the spot. For writers, success comes in two stages: unless we take steps to publicize it, we won’t feel its effects. A good review, an award, wide popularity: these don’t become news until we make them public, and they don’t contribute to our success until they become news. In other words, all the athlete needs to do is succeed. Writers must succeed and talk about it. Facebook and Twitter make us feel as if we’re boasting--in fact, their very form tends to thwart the nuance that could convey humility--when all we want (and need) to do is tell people something good happened.

But the antidote to boasting isn’t silence. Those of you who know me know that I look often to sports for analogies to the writing life and to life in general. So at the risk of sounding like a broken record, here I am again, pointing to healthy athletic competition as a model we writers might adopt instead of the ethos of successophobia. I’m speaking to myself as much as to anyone still reading this far down in this post. It’s ok to assert yourself at AWP (or anywhere along the trajectory of the writing process); it’s ok to be happy that something went well; there’s no need to apologize for trying.

You can come tell me in person if you agree or disagree. Just visit table J1, where I’ll be touting The Drum on Friday and Saturday (we’re listed under Harvard Review in the directory of exhibitors). You won’t be able to miss me because I’ll be standing next to the thing I made for AWP: an umbrella draped with a large piece of orange felt, embellished with hand-cut letters that read “Recording Booth”. It’s based on what radio correspondents use to send in stories from noisy and far-flung locations. It looks a little more like a Portuguese Man ‘o’ War than it was supposed do. Am I embarrassed? Yup. But I’m going to try really hard to get over it.

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About the Author

Henriette Lazaridis' debut novel The Clover House was published by Ballantine Books in April 2013 and was a Boston Globe best-seller and a Target Emerging Authors pick. Her work has appeared in publications including ELLE, Narrative Magazine, Forge, Salamander, the New England Review, The Millions, The New York Times online, and the Huffington Post and has earned her a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Grant. She has degrees in English from Middlebury College, Oxford University where she was a Rhodes Scholar, and the University of Pennsylvania where she earned a Ph.D. She taught at Harvard for ten years before leaving academia to turn to writing. In the summers, she runs the Krouna Writing Workshop in northern Greece (www.krounawritingworkshop.com).

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