CAPSULE: Literary Capital
TWW's first book of note is Christopher Sten’s Literary Capital (2011), an impressive anthology of the fiction and nonfiction of writers, from Abigail Adams to George Pelecanos, who’ve written in or about Washington. Sten, a professor of English at George Washington University, gives us seven chapters of ten selections each. With some overlap, four chapters cover time periods, while the other three are organized by theme (black writers, poets, “Private Lives and Public Views”). Though the book makes much of natives like Jean Toomer and Edward P. Jones (also at GWU), most of the selections, inevitably, are from tourists (Dickens, Mailer) or transients (Whitman, Bret Harte) or transplants (Ward Just). The oldest selection, Abigail Adams complaining about the half-finished White House, is from 1800. The most recent is Andrew Holleran's Grief (2006), a spare, well-observed novel set in gentrifying Dupont Circle that (to my mind at least) also just happens to be about gay life and peopled with gay men.
What’s not in the book: Histories. Guidebooks, like Christopher Buckley's Washington Schlepped Here (2003). Journalism. Plays, screenplays, and teleplays—and drama shapes the received image of the city at least as much as the news does. Significantly, too, thrillers like The Cobra (2010) and King of Torts (2003) and The Lost Symbol (2009)—not even those whose authors (David Balducci, or Tom Clancy once) live around here.
In Sten’s quieter choices you can read Washington’s history from annex of colonial Georgetown (and Mount Vernon) to the suburban “Imperial Washington” of the freeway era. What comes through in them is not just the city’s original rawness but its newness. Though the Civil War greatly expanded it—to about the size of present-day Akron, Ohio—the capital (as Gore Vidal points out in one selection) didn’t explode until after the arrival of air conditioning just before World War II. Demographically, America’s sixth metro has at least as much in common with Sunbelt sprawl-towns like Atlanta and Dallas and Phoenix than it has with the older and more static Northeastern cities it is often lumped together with.
As the nineteenth-century selections in particular illustrate, though, what makes Washington what it is not simply the federal payroll. Hampton Roads and Honolulu have long federal payrolls. It’s location, location, location. Back before telecoms and airplanes began to make every latitude and longitude the same as every other, the national capital, with its parade of Virginian executives, was a Southern town. It lay well within the tobacco zone of a border state—and sat directly on the hot border of 1861-’65. It was also the patch where the emancipating Union happened to be headquartered. And yet after Reconstruction—the establishment of Howard University was one of its triumphs—Jim Crow would hang on as tenaciously here as anywhere. The story the book's selections tell was already set in stone well before all the masons showed up.
Poets in the Woods
16 Jun 2019. Upstairs at Rock Creek Park’s Nature Center, the kids were gawking at the taxidermy animals—“That was fun!” Downstairs, in the little auditorium, fifteen or so people had gathered for the third week of the eight-week Joaquin Miller Poetry Series. Up front, on the roll-up screen, a slide show played: period and modern photos of Miller’s cabin. (Until 2011, the readings were held in the cabin.)
Sistah Joy Alford, the P G County Poet Laureate, hosted the show. After her opening remarks the two featured poets, Mi’Jan Credle and Brandon Johnson, read from their work—or, to put it more accurately, performed it. (Credle is the 2019 P G County Youth Poet Laureate.) An open mic session—five more poets, some of them polished performers, others not—followed.
“Not every place has a community [of poets] like [the Washington area] has,” Johnson said, after his readings.
The reading was cozy. Most of the audience, on this sunny Father’s Day afternoon, were organizers and participants. A number of the poems were about fathers.
What does the series, which has run since 1978, have to do with Joaquin Miller, the 19th-Century celebrity line-shooter and poet whose “Columbus” (a reading of which opens the series) was once familiar to American schoolchildren?
At one point in his wayfaring life, Miller, who had a nose for publicity, settled in Washington and in 1883 built a rustic cabin for himself in what would become Meridian Hill Park. It was later moved to where it now stands, next to Rock Creek just north of Military Road. You can read the rest of the story here.
Every few years someone announces the death of poetry, but we are surrounded by metered rhymed English. Nearly 100% of it is popular music. This is arguably the most popular art form in the world, and no one can escape knowing or knowing something about it.
Poetry-- traditionally read from the page or sometimes, in an even older tradition, heard (and then, poet and publisher hope, read from the page)-- is far less widely consumed. The Miller series showcases poetry of this smaller, second, and more strictly defined sort. Though more obscure than popular music, it's far from dead: according to the NEA-Census 2017 Survey of Public Participation the Arts (SPPA) nearly 12% of Americans read at least one poem a year. Though it's a little less than the rate of 2002, it's up from just over 6% in 2012.
The reading series runs Sundays through July 21 at 3 pm at the Rock Creek Nature Center.
In this post we cast a backward glance at Bookend, a monthly interview show which ran from 2012-2015 on WAMU, D.C.’s public-radio station. The show was created “to talk with writers who have deep connections to the nation’s capital, whether they grew up here or were simply inspired by the city,” and promised and delivered “[a] regular look at the writing life here in the D.C. area.”
For the first interview, in June 2012, host Jonathan Wilson talked with Kim Roberts, a poet and founding editor of the online—and strictly regional—literary journal, Beltway Poetry Quarterly. (Ms. Roberts is also, among many other things, co-curator of DC Writers’ Homes, a fascinating website that documents precisely that.)
Part of the first part of the interview went like this:
Wilson: As a poet in D.C., a person who works creatively for a living, a lot of people wouldn’t…identify D.C. as a place to stay. We identify writers [with] New York, San Francisco, the South. Do you think it’s fair to say that D.C. doesn’t have that reputation…?
Roberts: It’s very fair to say that people don’t think of us as an arts city. They think of other cities that have less going on…in a way that’s been good for the [Washington] literary community because I know of no other city where people are quite so generous to one another…this is a great literary community. We support one another. We go to each other’s readings. We buy each other’s books. We publish one another…I’ve got friends who live in New York and L.A. and they hear about the community here and they’re jealous of what we’ve got going.
Though she didn’t discuss in what ways the quality of literary community is correlated with the quality of literary output, Ms. Roberts was, I think, getting at something that TWW will turn to again in the coming weeks and months.
Not to put too fine a point on it, the capital has a cultural inferiority complex. It goes back to its remote and (for the East) late founding and its raw early decades as a mudhole with more streets in it than people. When you declare yourself a public monument, one based on Versailles no less, expect people to piss on you. Right from the start, the national capital has been a national and international joke town. And what’s wrong with that?
I think it's this. Cleveland can be Cleveland and sleep at night. But Washington is a world capital…isn’t it?
Isn’t a world capital supposed to be the main city of its own country?
Isn’t it supposed to have—along with antiquity, ruins, styles, catacombs, ghosts, bankers, markets, ports, manufacturers, international trade, hot dogs, daring architecture, European ethnic ghettoes, breadth of interests and a metropolitan sense of humor—along with all that, isn’t it supposed to have hordes of its own artists, architects, designers, writers, choreographers, composers, filmmakers, and the like, plus swarms of aspirants? Do, or so the joke continues, do a lot of potboilers, speeches, memos, bills, briefs, reports, transcripts, subway maps, and parking tickets, plus USA Today and The Washington Post—and blogs, of course—really count as literary coin?
Surely there must be more to the place than that. Is there?
To be continued…
NB. Read Mark Athitakis' interesting take on this from 2013, and also this one from 2008.
View of a Writers' Conference
27 April 2019. Christian was in the classroom seat next to mine. We were talking about writing—he writes fiction and poetry, he’d said. Fiction (said I), now fiction is harder to write, because you can put in anything, and that makes it hard to decide what to leave out.
Christian looked surprised. No, he said, nonfiction’s harder: "You have to be careful not to lie!"
This was the sort of banter taking place at Conversations and Connections, which has been put on in suburban Washington, D.C. for the past twelve years by Barrelhouse, a local litmag-slash-literary organization. It's one of the thousands of writer’s conferences put on around the world each year by universities, periodicals, writer’s groups and centers, trade associations, and more. Some conferences, like the AWP’s (Association of Writers and Writing Programs), which claims to be North America's largest, are gigantic, multi-day affairs. Others, like Barrelhouse's, are small and go by in a day. Some emphasize craft, others business. Some meet in big cities, others in the middle of nowhere. Some will set you back thousands of dollars; others are free.
I’d been a freelance writer, dabbling in creative, for four years. I’d never been to one of these conferences before, and I wanted to see what one was like. For me this one was local. It was also relatively cheap: $75 for the day, including a subscription to a litmag and a copy of one of the featured authors’ books. Participants included two indie publishers, three literary organizations (counting the host), and a dozen litmags—the best-known of them, to me at least, the print-only Gettysburg Review.
In the lobby, two hundred writers, including a handful I knew from writer’s groups, were milling around, gabbing, talking shop, drinking coffee, looking at phones or tablets or laptops or even books. They were young and elderly and in between. Almost no one had dressed up. If you’d wandered in off the street and missed the little WELCOME WRITERS signs, you’d be hard pressed to guess what was going on here by looking.
The day included three sessions of panels or workshops, plus a reading and an after party. During lunch there was also literary speed dating: one ten-minute date with an editor (you could buy more tickets at $5 each and get back in line).
At the door to the dating room: poets to the right, prose writers to the left, I think it was.
“Fiction or nonfiction?” the handler asked me.
“Uh…” She looked like she didn’t know what to do with me. She steered me to Sam, one of Barrelhouse’s Assistant Editors. The work I’d brought wasn’t a fit for the magazine, so I spent the first seven minutes of our date asking Sam to explain how litmags work. He seemed nervous too, and his gaze kept drifting away to something behind me, something way over there, the clock or the queue maybe. But he had eagle eyes: even before I flipped it around and handed it to him he spotted the “12,000 words” at the top of the first page I’d brought.
“It’s a good first sentence; I kept reading,” he said. I felt less ill. “[And now] you want to know what to do with this big beast.” He wrote out the name of a publication that deals in longform.
When I peeked into the dating room two hours later Sam was still in his chair, looking somewhat wearier.
In the morning I’d gone to the publishing-oriented panel about literary patience, where I’d met Christian, and then, to see what was there, to one on “Horror, Crime, Sci-Fi, and Noir.” The mood in that (genre) room had been light, and all four of the panelists, including Gabino Iglesias, one of the four featured authors, were funny; no one was taking himself too seriously.
After lunch I flipped through the featured writers’ books, for sale at a table, making the sort of literary snap judgments you make about fifty or hundred words snatched from the middle of a book. Right after I put his book down I noticed Iglesias, standing ten feet away, by himself, looking serious now, waiting for the reading to begin.
At the reading the other fiction writer went on first. Then the essayist—and a small, personal essay of the sort she read tends to disappear in a big auditorium. Then Iglesias came on, standing not at the lectern but to one side of it. He started swinging his free arm and reading, in a Poetry Slam Voice, from a passage in which one of his characters is ranting. He performed it smoothly, not tripping up on his high-flying sentences, which were in two languages. But at half a dozen points during this intense performance he broke into giggles, and each time he did I saw the funny guy who was cracking jokes back in the horror-crime-Sci-Fi room. Finally, the angst-poet, who’d been sitting there like a stone throughout this hard act to follow, came on—a droll, self-deprecating nice guy. His book was his fifth: he was the publishing veteran of this bunch.
Why go to a conference? You can meet people. You can pitch, or practice at it—but you can do that any time without hand-delivering the manuscript. The panelists passed on useful tips and tricks—but you can get those from articles and books and videos. Perhaps, at least for a novice like me, the best reason to go is not just that you get to see how many other writers are out there. It’s that you get to see how writers better and more experienced than you are do the hustling part. Putting one word after another is just one part of the job of writing, and not always the hardest part. Most of the other parts—analyzing markets, pitching, finding agents, speaking at conferences—look more like hustling. It’s show business, after all, like it or not.
How many writers are there in metro Washington? For this first try at an answer, let's see how far we can get with publicly available information.
The primary official source of data on American employment is the Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) program of The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a unit of the Department of Labor (DOL).
Writers fall into occupational group 27-0000, Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports, and Media Occupations. Here are the May 2018 data for the Washington metro area for this group.
Let's single out six occupations that are in the ballpark:
CODE / TITLE / EMPLOYMENT
27-3022 Reporters and Correspondents 2,120
27-3031 Public Relations Specialists 22,460
27-3041 Editors 6,260
27-3042 Technical Writers 3,590
27-3043 Writers and Authors 2,230
27-3091 Interpreters and Translators 2,200
Let's call writers the first one (Reporters and Correspondents) plus the fourth and fifth (Technical Writers, Writers and Authors).
This gives us 7,940 writers—in a chattery metro of six million. Can this possibly be right?
For our purposes, the OES report has a problem: it doesn’t include the self-employed. The 7,940 include people like the staff writers at local newspapers and magazines, but they don’t include freelancers or moonlighters or writers who work around a day job, let alone writers who are just starting out. (The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which I’ll return to in a later post, does capture the self-employed—but for what we want it to do it also has its problems.)
For this first try, though, let’s turn now to the other end of the telescope and look at one of those little writer’s groups that meet in cafés and apartments and libraries in cities across in the U.S.
This particular nonfiction critique group meets once a month in the Virginia suburbs. Counting myself, it has six regular members, people who come to almost every meeting:
1 full-time freelance writer, unincorporated
2 full-time freelance writer/editors, unincorporated
1 full-time consultant and writer, incorporated
1 published writer with a day job (lawyer)
1 self-published writer with a day job (analyst)
None of the six are captured in the OES data above. The story is roughly the same for the dozen or so writers who attend once in a while, at least half of whom have published for money. Ditto for the two other local writer’s groups I’ve been a durable part of. And there are dozens of these groups in the DC area.
A first guess at the number of DC-area writers: a lot more than 8,000.
It's easy to see that the official figures underestimate the size of the so-called creative economy. But then it is not easy to say what a writer is. Do you have to be published? Published in what, by whom, for how much?
Welcome to the blog about the writing life in Washington, D.C.
Maybe you’re a writer who lives and works in the city, or wants to. Or maybe you’re an editor or a publisher. Maybe you’re just interested in local trivia and history, like where Gore Vidal is buried or where Sinclair Lewis once lived. Or in facts and figures-- like how many working writers there are in the city, and how much they make. If so, The Washington Writer might be for you.
Every month, in addition to half a dozen short articles, TWW will include three regular features:
• Facts & Figures
• Capsule, mention of a notable novel, nonfiction book, play, poem (or collection), or other literary work connected to the city
• Puzzle: trivia, a word game, “What/where is this (picture)?”, or whatever else I’m capable of coming up with
For resources for DC-area writers, see the directory.
I'm a freelance writer and editor who lives in Washington, D.C.