Magic and the Intellect: A Remarkable Occurrence at AWP 2014

AWP 2014So for the first time, I’m attending AWP, the annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. I wasn’t planning to blog about the experience at all. But something extraordinary went down this morning at a panel called “Magic and the Intellect.” What follows isn’t an objective “report” of what happened. A lot of other people were there, and each would have a different telling. This one’s mine.

The four writers on the panel were Lucy Corin, Kate Bernheimer, Anna Joy Springer, and Rikki Ducornet. I went because, while I’m fairly confident about the intellect part of my life and work, I’m not always sure about the magic. I’ve always loved Hamlet’s rejoinder to Horatio about there being more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy, but ever since largely abandoning the religious faith of my upbringing, I’ve rarely felt I had access to those things, those “more” things.

This will be good for me, I thought.

Plus, I wanted to see Lucy Corin, who’s a friend and mentor.

The room was really crowded. A lot of people were standing. A lot of people were sitting on the floor, even behind the panelists. It was really hot. I grow faint very easily, even when I’m seated in a chair (which I was, thank God). I joked with the friend I was sitting next to that if I thought I was going to pass out, I’d just topple over onto her shoulder.

Lucy began by reading some opening remarks about magic. She talked about how magic can “shore up against pain via rhythm.” I wrote this down although I didn’t understand it. She talked about how, when one casts a spell, one uses special words and special objects, and then something happens in the world. She talked about the wisdom of words and the wisdom of objects. She suggested that words might themselves be objects. She talked about the relationship between “coming alive” and “coming out alive.” She told us she’d be reading an excerpt from her work-in-progress, The Swank Hotel. She warned us several times that the words would be terrible—very, very terrible.

I took her at her word. Some people didn’t.

The excerpt features a man sitting next to his daughter in the hospital. The daughter has tried to commit suicide. She hasn’t quite succeeded, but she hasn’t quite failed, either. She dips in and out of consciousness, and it’s not at all clear she’s going to make it.

The father sits with her and tells her a stream—a long, long stream—of dead baby jokes.

The first dead baby joke was simply surprising, but it wasn’t like you’ve never heard one, right? The second one was kind of funny. By the third one, people were openly laughing. But the jokes kept going, one after the other, many of them shocking and violent and disgusting, and people stopped laughing. Lucy’s own voice grew a little shaky as she continued to read.

I’m really, really, really squeamish. Even if the gross thing I’m reacting to is utterly outlandish and obviously not real. I wondered if I’d be feeling so squeamish if I hadn’t given birth to babies of my own. I wondered if the other women in the room who had children were more sensitive to this assaultive stream of dead-baby images than the ones who hadn’t. I wondered about the women in the room who’d had abortions or miscarriages. Would this be even harder for them?

And yeah, I actually started to feel faint. I spared my friend and didn’t topple over onto her shoulder. But I did lean back in my seat so I didn’t have to bear the weight of my own head so much—which is such an utterly apt metaphor for everything that is wrong with me that—well, I digress.

As the litany of dead babies continued, I wondered, What the hell kind of father does this—sits next to his possibly dying daughter telling such jokes? But one could, of course, ask this question of any number of fathers—real fathers who inflict real pain in real life to real daughters. And I suddenly remembered, years ago, going to a reading where a man with cystic fibrosis read about his experiences with sadomasochism—how a life spent enduring physical suffering had led to an embrace of sexuality with pain. And then I recalled that line I didn’t understand during Lucy’s opening remarks, the one I wrote down about shoring oneself up against pain via rhythm, and the whole thing started making sense.

After a while I stopped minding so much. I was able to sit up. The air-conditioning had kicked in in the overcrowded room, which helped. But really, I think the relentlessness of the jokes had numbed me to the horrors being spoken aloud. The way one gets used to an unpleasant odor. The way, perhaps, torturers become inured to the suffering of their captives. The way we grow numb to news of real dead children—in Syria, in the Central African Republic, in the epidemic of gun violence in our own country.

And then the remarkable thing happened.

“Hey! Hey!” a woman shouted from the back. “What are you doing? Why are you traumatizing your audience like this? What does this have to do with magic or the intellect?”

Lucy stopped, and a bunch of people started talking: Someone shouted to let Lucy finish. A man jumped in to agree with the heckler. They were loudly invited to leave. The first heckler said, “I am leaving. But I just had to say something first. I came here to hear Rikki Ducornet. I’ve been waiting twenty years to hear her.”

Lucy’s fellow panelists came eloquently to her defense. They acknowledged the discomfort everyone was feeling. Anna Joy Springer described it as a “durational” piece. They said Lucy was brave for writing and reading it, and we for listening.

Lucy stood at the podium, in tears. So of course I started crying too.

After the hecklers left, it got real quiet, and Lucy asked if she should finish. “There’s not much left,” she said quietly.

“Yes!” people shouted.

“Start over!” someone said.

She didn’t, but she did read the rest, still crying, and we all clapped loud and long when she was done.

The rest of the panel proceeded, and honestly, each of their talks deserves a short essay too, but not from me.

Lucy was surrounded by well wishers at the end.

My friend turned to me and said, “That’s the only thing I need to see at AWP today.”

And here’s what I’m still thinking about, several hours later:

1. Lucy said casting a spell required special words and special objects and then something would happen in the world, and something did. It was unexpected and terrible to behold. But it was also magic. Dark magic, perhaps, but magic all the same. The woman’s awful, self-centered outburst (“I’ve waited 20 years to hear Rikki Ducornet!”), the way the whole room rallied around Lucy, the palpable sense of goodwill afterward. It was a bit like watching an exorcism—the malign spirits called forth, then cast out.

2. Even more shocking and dismaying than that litany of dead babies in a work of fiction was witnessing in real life a writer—and a woman at that—try to silence another writer. But with a few hours’ distance, I’m actually feeling some compassion for the heckler. What she did was awful. But she can’t be having a very good time at the conference, right? I hope the hugeness of the conference confers her some anonymity so she can—I don’t know—pull herself together? put this behind her? But seriously, lady—next time, just leave.

3. I’ve thought this before, but today I saw it up close and personal: Courage is not about doing something risky when you’re prepared to face down the fallout. It’s about doing something risky even when you’re undone by the fallout. One of my greatest fears is of losing my composure in public. A terrible fear to have when you cry very, very easily. I cannot tell you how many things I’ve not done or not said because I was afraid it would make me cry in front of someone I don’t know very well. Today I watched a talented, generous, important writer cry in front of hundreds of people after being heckled, and it was—well, it wasn’t okay, it was heartbreaking, and during the Q&A Lucy said she wasn’t sure now if the piece had a future—so really, really not okay. But we all came alive. And we came out alive.

Lucy Corin, please keep casting your spells. They make the world a richer place and all of us better for it.

8/7/14 update: Writer Suzanne Warren has published an intelligent, thoughtful reflection on this event in her piece, “On Dead Baby Jokes and Art,” at The Prague Review. Well worth reading.

27 thoughts on “Magic and the Intellect: A Remarkable Occurrence at AWP 2014

  1. Wow. Just wow. I kind of wish I’d been there, but in a much more real sense I’m so very very glad I wasn’t. But I’m glad you were.

  2. I was there today! Most of the “jokes” Lucy used were from so I was certainly desensitized to the shock of hearing dead baby jokes. However, when Lucy took some artistic liberties and incorporated and expanded on some of the very graphic jokes, making them even more graphic, I had, by that point, gotten into “the rhythm”. I was appalled that anyone had the audacity to interrupt at panelist. At the same time, a modicum of respect should be had for those who have children, who have lost children, who are sensitive to rape and pedophilia and gore and guro and a long list of possible triggers. A warning should have been issued, an appropriate warning, so that those who walked out of that panel disgusted, sickened, panicky, anxious, etc. wouldn’t actually have had to endure that.

    1. Hi, Mia. Thanks for reading & responding. I *do* have children, and, as I described in my post, felt that might be part of why I had such a visceral reaction myself to her reading. I felt she *did* warn us, several times, that what she was about to read would be, as she said, “really terrible.” I braced myself. Obviously it was still really difficult for some people.

  3. Wow, that sounds really intense. Thank you for writing about it! I’ve never really thought about it before, but your piece made me think how thin that curtain is between writer and reader (or listener), and how we readers bring our own experiences to the story that the author may not want to (and usually doesn’t have to) deal with. When you are at a reading, there is always a little bit of that tension. The curtain has gotten even more thin.

  4. Thank you for honoring this experience with your post.

    The first time I was on a panel about what happened at Readercon 23, and how we tried to deal with it, I cried while speaking on the panel. Your essay reminds me of that experience. It was raw, and difficult, and I knew it would be painful. Crying in public, and all of us letting the silence fall on the room, was really hard. But it was damn important, in a way that’s hard for me to describe.

    Thank you for honoring this.

  5. “What she did was awful. But she can’t be having a very good time at the conference, right?” Really? This remark is short-sighted at best. It’s not about whether or not you’re a mother or a father. Being a parent does not allow you to speak on behalf of those who have had the misfortune of losing a child. Your post is audacious to say the least. Maybe you need to have a real conversation with someone who has lost a child to understand the difference between loving your children and worrying everyday about losing them, and actually losing them. But to simply assume that woman was just having a bad time at the conference in general to have walked out of a barrage of dead baby jokes, really? Lucy may not have been wrong, but you are not right.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Jill. I make it very clear at the outset of this post that I’m only speaking for myself. I’d never presume to speak on “behalf” of anyone else, much less someone who’s lost a child, and I don’t think I do that here. I’m sorry you thought I was. I have no idea why the woman was so upset by the reading that she felt compelled to interrupt it, and I don’t presume here to know, whereas your comment suggests that you either do know or are making a guess at the reason. The reading obviously triggered something in her, something very strong, and although everyone there was really angry with her at the time, later I found my own anger give way to some compassion, as clearly the experience had been awful for her. I should add a detail that I forgot when I was writing this but was reminded of later, that when she was shouting at Lucy she said this was the third AWP panel that had offended her. It was only the morning of Day 2. So yes–I think she was having a difficult AWP. She said as much. I do want to thank you for your comment, which I think ties in with my overall point that not just ideas, but human beings, were involved in this. And sure, I may very well be “wrong” about a great many things, including this, but I never set out to “explain” the event or other people’s behavior or reactions. I only shared my own, necessarily limited, observations.

  6. Reading the dead baby jokes was the magic spell.

    Lucy was just making noises with her mouth, and there were no actual babies dying in the room, yet the noises were words in a language that convey images, so the audience was “seeing” images of dead babies, and their bodies were emotionally reacting to the terrible sadness of the images in their minds.

    Magic spells.

  7. I think an explicit warning would have helped prepare the audience; I would have left (I wasn’t there) because I know I don’t deal well with that sort of thing.

    I’m not sure the lady who spoke out was fully in control of herself: we forget sometimes that art (good and bad) touches us deeply in ways we don’t expect and when that happens, the results can be overwhelming and unpredictable.

    A work isn’t complete until an audience responds to it. It’s important not to lose sight of that it was perhaps more than the dead baby jokes; the story itself was a daughter caught midway between life and death – to me, that’s infinitely more terrifying than any number of dead baby jokes. The response to such strong, visceral material I think can’t help but be strong in kind.

    1. Cindy, thanks for the really thoughtful reply. Your comment reminds me of a reading Dorothy Allison gave at Squaw Valley almost 10 years ago. The scene she read was really graphic & violent (and realistic, unlike the passage Lucy read), and she warned us, very, very clearly at the outset that it was absolutely inappropriate for children. Right before she started, she repeated, “If you’ve got kids, get them out of here.”

      Would a more explicit warning have been helpful here? I don’t know — maybe. I felt like I’d been forewarned. I braced myself. But it would also have been hard for many people sitting in the middles of rows to leave. We were packed in there.

      I’ve been thinking all afternoon about your comment that a work isn’t complete till an audience responds to it. I’m not sure I agree. But it’s been an interesting question to ponder. So thanks for putting that out there, and for your generally very humane & intelligent response to my two cents about what happened at AWP.

  8. Lois McMaster Bujold wrote once about the time when, as an avid young fanfic writer, she gave one of her stories to a patient at the hospice where she was volunteering. If I recall correctly she said she was very upset, when the man put the story down, about half a page into it, and walked out without saying a word. She picked up the story, re-reading it, wondering what was so terrible about it. It began from the point of view of Dr. Watson, dispirited and shaken having just come from the deathbed of a patient who suffered an agonizing death of cancer…

    Then she realized the man she’d given it to had cancer.

    “For every pitch, there is a catch,” she wrote of this experience. And it seems to me if you fling your hardball directly at the reader’s/listener’s nose, chances are some of the listeners will not learn to “be in rhythm with the pain.”

    For every pitch there is a catch–and some of your listeners don’t have face masks and catcher’s mitts. It’s a pity Ms Corin miscalculated how hard she pitched, but I don’t see that it’s the fault of the poor bloody-nosed lady who had been waiting twenty years to hear someone else and was being driven out of the room.

    As for magic, the magic born of pain inflicted without consent is not normally held in high esteem.

  9. Thanks Naomi, for your considerate and amazingly detailed account of this panel. I was there, too and I think you captured the experience that many of us had. There is one thing I would like to add however. I am in no way defending the hackler, but ultimately, I think the interruption might have actually made the panel even more valuable. It showed beyond a doubt, the power (dare I say magic) a simple set of words can have, especially when repeated and repeated. Many of us felt something that day on a physical level. I felt a little sick honestly, a bit unnerved. What the interruption did was give everyone the chance to check those feelings, as Rikki suggested in her defense of Lucy, and to acknowledge the feelings they were having. The interruption allowed us all a conscious look at what is so often a subconscious experience. It was like the momentary peeling back of a curtain, and I for one am glad I was there.

  10. I’m not a writer, but I do work in a field where I’m creating something intended for others. Whether or not games is art is a question for someone else to argue, but they can most definitely affect the player.

    From my point of view, writing is about conveying meaning. Sometimes that’s raw facts, sometimes it’s experiences. Writers aim to find the words that will create the desired meaning, or sometimes any meaning at all, in the person who reads them. You can’t get much more magical than that.

    The panelist did exactly that. Her words transferred meaning to each and every member of the audience, and when the heckler spoke that meaning became action. That’s the brass ring. It might not have worked the way she intended, but I’d say she’s a role model worth following.

  11. I would not characterize the heckler as being awful or self-centered, but misguided. I, too, attended the panel, and found the experience so surreal, I actually thought the hecklers might have been planted by the writer. If the woman had not spoken up, I’m not sure I would have understood the meaning Lucy tried to convey.

    Assuming the heckling was authentic, I think the woman believed she spoke for a majority of the crowd. It just so happened, the applause after Lucy finished proved otherwise.

    Though she received a standing ovation, I’m not sure it gave Lucy an idea of how many readers might give her the benefit of the doubt and how many might pick up another read. I think it only identified the ones who would write her an angry letter.

    1. Thanks for commenting. You weren’t the only one to wonder if the heckler had been “planted.” I wondered it too for a moment — but only a moment. Once I saw the expression on Lucy’s face, I knew the interruption had been quite unexpected. And was there a standing ovation? I don’t remember that at all. Just enthusiastic, supportive applause. But one of the interesting things about this ongoing discussion has been examining the different, and differing, details & reactions people come away with. Thanks again for reading & responding.

  12. Reblogged this on Scribbler and commented:
    So, lately I’ve been reading Lucy Corin’s brilliant story collection “A Hundred Apocalypses.” This insightful report from Naomi J. Williams’s blog concerns some very strange happenings involving Corin at the recent AWP conference in Seattle. Fascinating glimpse of a fascinating mind at work – although I should say, not at all your typical AWP panel! For those scribbling at the outer limits …

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