I nearly didn’t go this year – work was busy, and 2020 had already induced massive Zoom fatigue. But I was intrigued by the promise of the conference, so I registered, tested the new platform, and dipped in, and the 2021 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference was not just a silver lining of the pandemic for me – it turned out to be a platinum lining.
Let’s take a step back. I’ve been to two other AWP conferences. Seattle (2014) was my first, I was alone, and my adrenalin rushed the entire time. Navigating three hotels and downtown Seattle, I made it to two or three panels and a keynote, and spent two full, full days at the book fair (imagine: a football field full of tiny tables of books. And tchotchkes). At the end, I left my clothes at the hotel and packed books and magazines in my suitcase instead, tossing it into the plane’s overhead compartment and developing frozen shoulder that required months of physical therapy. Talk about memorable.
I brought home better souvenirs, though. That sweet, crazy sensation of being surrounded by more than 14,000 people who loved writing. Two publishers who said they’d like to see my work. I heard Gary Snyder read. And I began to work seriously on a biography that would take seven years to complete.
Then there was Tampa (2018), an excuse to visit Florida in early spring. I talked my husband into coming with me and we explored the river city at night, hearing readings in galleries and cafes. I think I saw four panels that time. We listened to George Saunders, enchanted. I had a mission to pitch my biography, but never found traction. The crowds were overwhelming and not quite as charming as the first time. Still, this time I brought home subscriptions to beautiful literary magazines, along with pins (Read Local! Today I Shall Create!) and pens and a book about how to manage the business of writing.
This year, the organizers pre-recorded the sessions and those panels remained accessible for three weeks. This one move elegantly removed my greatest AWP frustration – wanting to attend simultaneous panels. Like the other years, I selected about 25 events without hope of attending them all. I was wrong. The conference lasted five days, but the recordings are still up as I write this post. I have listened to 24 panels in 12 days, most of them all the way through, and found ten more to attend next week. It’s been like an MFA on steroids.
There’s an art to managing the online panels. I like to examine the chat history first, because both panelists and attendees often list interesting links and tools. I download the files that the panelists provide, sometimes pages of tips or booklists. Then, as I listen, I check out the panelist biographies and what reviewers have said about their books-- unless I’m taking notes on what they are saying. Or I stretch and do pushups while listening.
I’ve thanked panelists and they’ve written back! I’ve completely filled a new notebook, and certain things I’ve learned have informed how I’m going to write this new book that has me firmly in its jaws. And because there were no plane or hotel fees, I allowed myself to buy books – like, thirty of them (something I’ve never done before): poetry, essays, craft books, novels, biographies. Books that AWP panelists and attendees collectively raved about – from independent presses when I could, and from Amazon, because budget.
I also listened to conversations about helpful ways to publicize one's small or self-published book, and ways to make money in the meantime, and how to teach different groups to write. I heard from writers over fifty, and Appalachian writers, and Muslim poets, and poets who write nonfiction, nature writers, and screenwriters. . . . And I got to watch national Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s magical jazz poetry session three times, and she’s that great, that amazing.
Now books are arriving on my porch a handful at a time, a couple of new subscriptions will kick in, and I’m feeling fortified with Vitamin AWP for another few years. I didn't stay up late once, or have to find a seat in a smoky bar. When I go again in person, it will be fun, and new in a hundred different ways. But I doubt that it will top this intensive, private education -- one panel at a time, in my sweatpants, eating my own sandwiches. This was a colossal gift.
I’ve been writing one book in particular since about 2014. First, it served as my MFA Nonfiction thesis. When it was accepted by the committee, I chose to embargo its academic publication. I wanted to give this little book a chance to be published before it became fodder for future academics and scholars. But the question of who would publish it grew tough. Who would read a story about a woman in the early twentieth century who becomes a medium for interesting voices, through automatic writing? A woman who, unlike Sarah Winchester, did not become famous. And unlike Jane Roberts or Sylvia Browne, did not publish her writings for a commercial audience. My book seemed to be too much of a family story to be literature, but too lyrical to be a straight-up biography.
While I hunted for publishers and agents, the entire book had to be overhauled anyway – the academic tones rinsed out, and new transitions inserted. Pieces I loved all the way to the last draft had to be ruthlessly axed, while other items from an early draft marched back in.
From 2017 through early 2020, I alternately cast it down and took it back up. I hated myself when I wasn’t writing, a common writer trait. I began to bargain with my Higher Power. ‘Show me what to do,” I demanded. “Make it really obvious!” The first break in the mist was an email from my uncle, saying he’d help me publish the book for the family. I began to realize that this was an offer of real freedom – I would not have to change the book to fit the agenda or category for an agent or a publisher.
Then the pandemic arrived, changing my daily routines -- no more commute, no movies, no restaurants, no gatherings. Many people talk about how they are cleaning their closets and gardening during this COVID era. I don’t have a garden and in 2020, most of my worldly goods were in storage. So I came back to the book. I kept coming back until one day, it felt done.
Then a good friend decided to self-publish using an online behemoth you all know – and she told me how easy and straightforward the process was. She was right! Within two weeks I had a cover design, a formatted interior and an ISBN number. Thanks to my uncle, I was able to order about 50 copies of that little book and gift them to family members. Sending all these good people a book that I wrote about channeling spirits through automatic writing was a bit like going to a big reunion and taking my clothes off. I wanted to go into hiding for a few months until I felt safe again.
But I finished the book, and I made it the very best I could. The response has been warm and positive. Writing the book grew me as a writer and as a historian, and as a member of my communities. And I am pleased to realize that, whatever good readers can find in it, by bringing their own spacious minds to interact with the page, that is a little bit of good that would not otherwise have existed in the world. That scrap of good is my legacy.
Helen and the Masters: A Portrait of a California Mystic is available as a paperback on Amazon.
My father, Hank Basayne, and his writing partner, Linda Janowitz wrote these words below more than 30 years ago. Their instructions even work for Zoom weddings in these COVID-19 times.
You have a choice. You can either be apprehensive, worried about all the last minute details, rushed, confused, tense, anxious - or you can be relaxed, savoring every precious moment of this rich experience, leaving yourself open to delight, joy, and happiness.
How you prepare for The Day and how you choose to experience it is entirely up to you. Here are some hints that may make your wedding day easier and more like the day you want it to be.
Decide not to let anything hassle you
Sure there's too much to do. You may never have done this before, but there are many people who want to help you. Delegate! Make this a day when you start sentences with "Would you please do me a favor...?" Don't take on the anxiety of others-parents, your soon-to-be-spouse, jittery friends, anyone. Decide that you will be an island of serenity in the sea of chaos.
If you like to sleep late, have everything out of the way the night before so that you start the day in the best possible mood. Give yourself enough time for a long bath or shower, time to dress carefully, a chance to go for a quiet walk or eat a leisurely meal. Pamper yourself in the ways that you know best - get your hair just so or get an extra special shave, take time with the kids, have a telephone visit with your best friend, or just take time to be by yourself. Don't wait until the last minute to leave for the wedding: you have enough on your mind today and you don't need a speeding ticket. Be good to yourself.
You've selected someone you trust to oversee the details. Now give yourself the seclusion you deserve, before the ceremony. Choose whether you will spend this quiet time together or alone, and then find a quiet, private place where you can contemplate what you are about to do.
Expect the unexpected
Every effective planner plans for the unanticipated: the humorous remark of a small child during a serious moment in the ceremony; a misplaced ring; a lost best man; a late wedding cake. These can try your patience and ingenuity. Face each unexpected occurrence with ease and good humor. Your guests are not critics. They bring tons of goodwill. They're with you to share your joy. Your mood will set the mood for those around you.
Let the wedding unfold!
You've done the hard part. You've checked the checklists and delegated tasks to others; you've covered all the bases. From now on the wedding takes on a life of its own. There's a beginning, middle, and end. Let it happen. It's going to be great!
(Shared with permission from Weddings: The Magic of Creating Your Own Ceremony, 1999)
At one wedding in Saratoga during my first summer of officiating, I started out with significantly less confidence than usual. For one thing, I had put on a new white robe at the bride's request. This thick, polyester garment had puffy sleeves, each large enough to hold a toddler, rendering me less of an attractive judge-figure and more like the Pillsbury dough boy.
Also, the bride's parents had flown in from the Philippines, and she was the only one of their nine children who had chosen to get married in a restaurant instead of the Catholic church. Her groom was a Methodist computer programmer from the Midwest, and he had an eight-year old son. The bride's parents were polite when I was introduced as the officiant, but frosty, and clearly distressed.
I went to find my quiet spot which, since the guests were already streaming into the restaurant, was the ladies' room. I rinsed my hands and gazed at my scared face in the mirror. Elaborate rituals lay ahead that I had only performed in my mind; there were more than twenty "aunties and uncles" to be named.
It was showtime. After a brother-in-law's several attempts, it appeared that the processional music would not issue from the CD player, so we proceeded anyway.
The bride appeared on her unsmiling father's arm, trembling and looking at the carpet. Once I saw her I ceased to care about the parents or my puffy robe or anything else but her comfort. She took her groom's hand, still trembling, and he gazed at her with palpable adoration. She must have sensed it, or perhaps heard the warmth in my voice as I spoke, because she stilled, raised her eyes, grew perceptibly taller and blossomed into a queen. The rituals proceeded smoothly: candles were lit, aunties and uncles ceremoniously bound and unbound the couple with lariats of white flowers, and we all listened quietly together as golden coins were poured from hand to hand.
"Promise never to take each other for granted," I told them using phrases my father had freely shared with me. "Remind yourselves often of what it was that drew you together. Take the time to make your partner feel special. . . a good marriage takes time and effort, courage and commitment." As they kissed, a sunbeam fell through the window. They were married. I gathered my witnesses' signatures and made my way to the door.
"Wait!" It was the bride's father, a statue of dignity and suppressed emotion. "I'll speak to you."
"Yes," I said, and we walked to the lobby. I faced him, wondering what would come next. Would this polite, stern gentleman frown and assure me that ours was not a valid wedding, performed outside of a church? He stood silent for a few moment, searching for something inside.
"When I come, I'm not sure about all this," he began, waving his hand to the crowded dining room behind us. I nodded; it must have been difficult to accept. "And the things you said, I did not ever hear those words before. Ever." I nodded again. "But," he paused, "I heard your words," and he put his hand on his chest, "and my heart. . . broke open." Then he smiled, and his eyes were wet. "My heart wept tears of joy."
He held out a warm hand and as I shook it, we beamed at each other. As he rejoined his family, I opened the door and slipped out into the sunny, quiet street.
Years ago my father invited me to shadow him as he officiated at weddings, and the first event I remember was a rehearsal at a yellow farmhouse inn. I stood against the back wall of the room, grateful to be a mere bystander, because the bride was very, very anxious.
Actually, her intensity terrified me.
She and Dad were reviewing the musical cues for the processional. She had divided some recorded classical music into tenths of seconds. "How long exactly will it take the flower girls to walk 24 feet?" she asked. "What happens if they don't make it in 10.4 seconds? Will the musicians know what to do?"
Dad was calm and compassionate, an old hand at dealing with nerves. "I've worked with these musicians; they are highly professional and they'll be able to extend a note if that's what is needed." This detail was normally a wedding planner's job, not for the minister, but this bride had taken on every bit of the planning, just in case wedding planners were all incompetent.
She was comforted by Dad's demeanor, and they discussed a few other issues. When it was time for the actual rehearsal, we had to hunt across the property to find the groom. I got a sense that he didn't really want to do this. His face was red and he staggered and swayed through rehearsal, then wandered away when it was over.
The next morning, Dad phoned me. "They had an enormous fight last night," he said. Apparently in a moment of high drama, the groom flourished his wedding ring, and then swallowed it! About an hour later, they made up.
"It's a good thing the wedding is not until four o'clock today," Dad remarked. "They're sitting around waiting for the ring to make its appearance."
My mother was packing in preparation for a move. "Would you like to take this home with you?" she asked. "I'm not sure but it may have belonged to my mother." I liked the image, and took it home.
Two years later, I was packing in preparation for a move. This print of the lady had been on my wall but frankly, it had not added a lot to my decor. It's a very quiet image, and the colors are a little muted, though warm. I called Mom and asked about it, but she couldn't remember any other details. Without a compelling family story, I wasn't sure this print would make the cut. But like anyone who's read Marie Kondo's The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, I sat down one more time to really look at the image, and perhaps thank it before releasing it.
That's when I saw this:
Who was S. Arlent Edwards, where was Williamsbridge,New York, and why had he handwritten the copyright, I wondered. Then I saw this rather extraordinary statement, which, it turns out, accompanied much of his work:
"Engraved and printed in color at one printing without retouching"! Turning aside from all the office work that I should have been doing, I began my research.
The plate was likely destroyed very soon after this print of the lady in the pink dress was made. Online I saw plenty of prints by Edwards, but nothing that looked like this one, so it could be rare.
It appears to be a copy of "Lady Sheffield" by Gainsborough, but whereas the original is in blues, Edwards warmed up the image considerably by giving her a pink dress and bow in her hat, with a black brim as an accent. I began to like S. Arlent Edwards very much. He copied classics, which is a noble venture in itself, but then he made them his own.
I learned that he was a one-man shop. Here is a wonderful description of Edwards and his mezzotint process. It's from an exhibit in the Georgetown University Library, and there are also mezzotints by Edwards in the Smithsonian. According to the curator of his exhibit, "Edwards himself inked and printed each plate for every copy, and therefore no two prints were exactly alike. He made only a limited number of copies of each work, insisting that each be sold framed, and then he destroyed each plate."
"The process is unforgiving of error or impatience, but allows unsurpassed delicacy of line, color shading, and texture. It was perfectly suited to Edwards' interest in such fine aspects of old masters' work, and his attention to the details of their paintings resulted in creative reinterpretations that are far more than mere reproductions. Not only are they acts of homage, they are also original works of art in their own right."
I wrote to my mother, telling her all this, in case she wanted to keep it. But now I felt affection for this print, affection for the printer, and curiosity about Lady Sheffield. What was her story? Would it be something I could research and write about? And which of our relatives chose her from a New York gallery and framing shop around the year 1900? And why did they choose this one instead of Edwards' more popular "George Washingtons" and Bellini copies? Could they have also been intrigued by the substitution of the pink dress?
Mom replied, "this is great research - more power to you! (About the family members) Frankly, I don't remember - somehow I think Amistad [her father's parents' home], but it may have been Grammy, too [her mother's mother] - it doesn't much matter at this point. I just like to think of her being well cared for. . . "
And maybe after all, the family story that was once attached doesn't much matter at this point. I appear to have formed my own, and the print will stay with me and my family. With some of the research in an envelope, taped to the back.
How is a wedding like a crucible, and how is it like an hourglass?
A crucible, for anyone not actively practicing chemistry or alchemy, is a container or a situation in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new.
A wedding is like a crucible because you pour two people into it and they emerge transformed – not as one person, of course, but as a newly married entity.
For the wedding officiant, it can be a little confusing as to where to place all those alchemical elements in order to get the desired transformation. For example, why do the vows tend to come with the ring exchange? Why do some couples choose readings? Why does the kiss come last? That’s when it is helpful to think about the wedding as an hourglass.
In this digital age, I feel compelled to define what an hourglass is. It’s how we used to keep track of time. An hourglass is a glass vessel divided into two compartments by a very narrow waist. Sand pours down from one end of the vial to the other in the space of an hour. (If you happen to still own one, it can be an effective and quiet timekeeper for meditation sessions.)
As you will see in the diagram I’ve created below, the wedding starts with a bunch of scattered elements (aka relatives and friends) arriving together at an agreed-upon place and time. That’s why we officiants start by acknowledging out loud why we are here, “gathered together,” so everyone can start on the same beat.
The rituals and readings slowly funnel everyone’s attention to the key spot, the narrow waist of the hourglass, which is when the crucible effect – the transformation – takes place. After that, we open things back up again, and generally end with a community gathering such as the wedding reception. I’m tinkering with this concept, so for any new officiants, I welcome your comments!
Right around Thanksgiving, people start looking for wedding coordinators, wedding books, and wedding officiants. In the flurry, I'm reminded of the months I worked with my Dad, learning how he officiated at weddings.
Dad had an insatiable interest in human beings, great curiosity about what made them tick. He coupled this with a sense of calm authority and warm humor, and his wedding clients found this combination irresistible. They trusted him right away, and formed longstanding relationships. A few sent him cards years later, and came to his memorial service.
Dad loved the theater of a wedding. "It has everything," he explained to me. "lights, costumes, music, scripts." He loved orchestrating, and he also enjoyed sitting back and watching the other professionals, the wedding coordinator, the florist, the photographer, the DJ, do their work.
Dad taught me to bring a sense of calm to the wedding. He taught me that you never know what will go awry at a wedding, but you can count on something, given that weddings are large groups of diverse people, with agendas, agreeing to show up at one place and one time. And that as long as the couple are married, everything else is really small potatoes.
He maintained that calm when a groom swallowed his own wedding ring during a drunken rehearsal (it did show up, cleaned, at the wedding). He even held his equilibrium during a hot air balloon wedding.
Finally, Dad taught me how to keep on being surprised by the ceremony, even as he performed more than a thousand weddings. It's easier to do this when you tailor the script to your couple, but still! "You've read your words lots of times," he would say, "but for everyone in front of you, it's the first time they really hear it. So don't rehearse it too much, and enjoy it." And I did.
A reader wondered about how to be both officiant and Mother of the bride. What a great question!
My father was a Humanist minister and he taught me how to officiate at weddings. When I was ready to commit to Mark, a second marriage for us both, we asked Dad to officiate. We married in October, in a beautiful waterside restaurant, and then sat down with our 70 guests for dinner.
Most people knew that Dad was a wedding officiant, so it wasn’t surprising to the guests. Since he was already up at the ‘altar’ area, I walked down the aisle unaccompanied. That suited us both well.
I still have the ceremony he wrote for us in a red folder. When I reviewed it for this post, I was reminded that Dad had his private opinions about the existence of an Almighty, but because Mark and I requested a way to bring our faith to the forefront, he wove in phrases such as “With God ever present,” and “God, bless these rings,” etc. He wore a black judge’s robe during the ceremony and the removed it and became a dinner guest, and father of the bride, afterward.
What about when it is your first time officiating at a wedding, and you are a parent as well? I think it’s important to make it clear to the guests that your role of parent is different from your role as officiant. Here are some things to consider:
A reader recently asked for a sample sermon that she could not find in the book. I think she was referring to the wedding homily, which I only discussed briefly (page 50) and called "Words of advice to the wedding couple."
Ministers and priests call this a wedding homily. Merriam-Webster defines a homily as a "short sermon."
Short is good. Rev. Michael Curry's wedding sermon to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle was thoughtful and entertaining, but could not be described as short.
When you write your homily, you might talk about how the couple should give each other the benefit of the doubt, be slow to anger and quick to forgive -- all the stuff that makes for a good marriage. Often, priests and ministers also use this as an opportunity to talk about teachings from scriptures and spiritual leaders, or the value of the church.
Here are some other homilies, and another, to get you started.
You can use whatever pieces of homilies you find, whatever speaks to your heart and your couple -- although I would not use an entire wedding homily from one person.
My friend Dan married a couple last year. For his homily, he began:
Everyone has advice for newlyweds.
X and G, I offer these very sage words of advice:
Always separate lights and darks when washing with hot water!
Whenever you're wrong, admit it.
Whenever you're right, shut up!
When the guests stopped laughing, he recited some lines from a well-loved poem by Wilferd Paterson, "The Art of a Good Marriage." (Here is the poem in its entirety.) By the time he finished reading, no doubt, everyone there wanted to be a better person:
Happiness in marriage is not something that just happens.
A good marriage must be created.
In marriage the little things are the big things.
It is never being too old to hold hands.
It is remembering to say “I love you” at least once a day.
It is never going to sleep angry. . .
It is standing together facing the world. . .
It is speaking words of appreciation
and demonstrating gratitude in thoughtful ways.
It is having the capacity to forgive and forget.
It is giving each other an atmosphere in which each can grow. . .
It is a common search for the good and the beautiful. . .
It is not only marrying the right partner;
it is being the right partner.
Here are some thoughts about weddings, writing, and the world. Enjoy.