Reflections from AWP

My Job as an Essayist

Describing his book Holy American Burnout! from Split/Lip Press, Sean Enfield said, “I could see Texas better from Alaska.” It was on a panel on the limits and benefits of travel writing, and of travel in the role of writing. “It’s tough on the planet,” another panelist admitted. I traveled to Kansas City to interact with writers, to share ideas, to be in community across time and distance. This was an unfamiliar city. What was I able to see better from the vantage of a conference?

What always strikes me is the book fair, the hundreds of physical books that members of our community have labored over, thought through, revised and revised and revised. What struck me was the joy of having conversations that aren’t filtered or mediated or recommended. By chance, I ran into two friends I haven’t heard from in years. By chance, I talked with contributors to Atticus Review with news and ambitions to share. By chance, I rediscovered my love of slim volumes of essayistic hybrid prose.

Among the passages I scribbled down at panels last week, the one that has stuck with me the most came from Melissa Febos: “My job as an essayist is to demonstrate that I can change my mind.”

In creative nonfiction, our subject is, in one way or another, a series of variations on how we live our lives. In material terms, this is simply self-reproduction: how we scrape by, how we feed and shelter ourselves. But outside potatoes and linen, the essay examines life in constant states of reiteration, of reexamination, of deeper and more nuanced invitations to curiosity. And I don’t want to do that in a cave, or alone. If nothing else, five thousands years later, we’re still putting words down and sharing them with each other for the spark of connection, or laughter, or grief, or everything.

This is the opposite of the algorithmic experiences that create what Kyle Chayka describes in his book Filterworld, a narrowing of our online encounters into recommendations to do the same thing again, and again, and again.

This is not to say that the literary community is in any way utopian, or that it isn’t subject (in its present form, to which none of us are permanently bound) to the ruinous nature of capitalism or the rampant enshittification that makes online spaces so unpleasant. Cory Doctorow explains one part of the problem of online deterioration as a labor issue:

“And now, the dream is over. All that’s left is: work for a tech giant until they fire you, like those 12,000 Googlers who got fired last year, eight months after a stock buyback that would have paid their salaries for the next 27 years. Workers are no longer a check on their bosses’ worst impulses. Today, the response to ‘I refuse to make this product worse’ is ‘turn in your badge and don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.’”

I don’t mean to be a pessimist. This morning, I read a book review by a friend from my MFA program on my phone, which she shared on social media. I enjoyed the immediacy of the read, and at the same time, it made me wish I could walk down the street to a coffee shop and have a conversation about the book with her. I don’t think these experiences need to be ranked against one another. At the same time, I think that tech enshittification (and, possibly, reaching the age at which a glass of water gives me heartburn) has made me reevaluate my understanding of what I mean by the literary community. This is a process of changing minds, changing vantage points and variation, and it involves all of us.

In the meantime, I hope you keep writing. The world needs it.


Keene Short



by Lisa Seidenberg

"One can feel the palpable presence of that dusty shed and the dreary dampness of the Irish weather permeating her lungs as she breathes it in."


by Kris Faatz


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