Bob Shacochis, 2015 George Garrett Award Recipient

Bob Shacochis

The AWP Board of Trustees presented this year’s George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature to Bob Shacochis. AWP Board Chair Bonnie Culver announced the award at this year’s conference in Minneapolis and remarked that Shacochis is “a writer who teaches partly by his own example of high artistic accomplishment, by his own dedication to literature, and by his own curiosity about world affairs. He has helped to make his students’ horizons wider, in seeing bigger possibilities in literature, in publishing and reaching their readers, and in developing their own curiosity about the world and America’s place within it.”

Novelist Marlon James, emcee for the awards reception, introduced Shacochis to the audience and quoted one of his many nominators, a former student of Shacochis, Ed Tarkington: “Bob pushed my writing further than anyone else before, but he also gave me the praise and confidence to find my voice. He is not an easy master, but he earns praise and respect by giving respect to his students, taking their goals and dreams seriously.”

Receiving the award, Shacochis said, “Within the solitude and isolation of a writer’s life, you might not always see it clearly, but writing is a gift to a community. And let’s face it: Somebody was kind and helpful to you at some point early in your writing life. It meant the world, didn’t it? It’s really a good idea to pass it on.”

Shacochis’s honors include a National Book Award for his story collection Easy in the Islands, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for his latest novel, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul. The George Garrett Award comes with a $2,000 honorarium, a lifetime membership to AWP, and travel, accommodation, and registration for the AWP annual conference. The judges for this year’s award were Matt Bell, Sue William Silverman, and Tree Swenson.

The following remarks have been adapted from Shacochis's acceptance speech on April 8, 2015.

Bob Shacochis: Good evening. I can tell you from experience, any time you get the opportunity to hang out with Marlon James, it means something good is happening in your life. And if you haven’t read Marlon’s extraordinary new novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, God only knows what you’re waiting for.

When David Fenza telephoned me a few weeks ago to tell me I would be receiving the George Garrett award at this year’s AWP conference in Minneapolis, I thought he was joking; I thought the very idea of me being granted this honor was crazy and bizarre, and when he convinced me that what he was trying to tell me was true, I was shocked, as I’m sure some of the people who know me were shocked, because I’m certain you don’t have to walk far or long on the streets of the literary village before you encounter someone who thinks I’m a dick.

But David assured me that dozens of people had written in to support my nomination for the Garrett award, that nothing in the letters vaguely resembled boilerplate mush, and that the judges, in their infinite wisdom, were happy to pluck me from the pool of ostensible do-gooders.

So thanks and thanks and ever thanks, to all those who made the effort to support me. I find it hard to believe, honestly, because, as I told one of the judges, Sue Silverman, earlier in the evening, year after year, decade after decade, as a teacher, so many people come and go through your life, and you’re not really aware that the time you spend with them drops like a penny into your piggy bank—your karmic piggy bank, I should say—and one day you might find, when you have cause to lift the thing up, that it’s surprisingly heavy, and your life has more weight and heft than you thought it had, without you ever paying attention to it in quite that way. You were just going about your business, doing what you were doing, but it added up somehow.

By the way, I knew George Garrett. In 1993, my novel Swimming in the Volcano was a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News beat me out by one vote. George Garrett cast that vote.

But as I said earlier, it’s a great honor to be included in George’s pantheon tonight. I first met Garrett back in the mid-80s, when I attended my first AWP conference in St. Louis. I knew Garrett and William Peden from Missouri and R.V. Cassill and Oakley Hall, all the old lions who started the first writing programs in America and of course were the founders of AWP. I guess they were on to something. There were 300 people registered for that conference in St. Louis. I don’t think anyone back then would ever have imagined that by 2015 we’d have such a horde—12,000–and still growing. That’s a lot of AWP babies due in 2016.

I want to end tonight by telling you something Barry Hannah once said to me. I was visiting him in Oxford and, in a particularly grumpy mood, he told me he couldn’t stand to be around anybody any more, except writers and musicians and other creative people. “Why’s that?” I asked him. And he said most people are takers—they just take and take—but writers are givers, and so are the people who play music, and unless somebody’s a giver, Barry didn’t want to have anything to do with them.

And it’s true, isn’t it, that writers are givers, not takers? And not everybody who does it–writes or teaches–does it for a paycheck, or only for a paycheck.

There are so many disappointments in a writing life, but it seems to me that teaching and mentoring can be an antidote to that. The usefulness of it, earning the right to declare, “I’m useful.” Never squander an opportunity to serve.

Within the solitude and isolation of a writer’s life, you might not always see it clearly, but writing is a gift to a community. And let’s face it: Somebody was kind and helpful to you at some point early in your writing life. It meant the world, didn’t it?

It’s really a good idea to pass it on.

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Each year, AWP welcomes nominations for the George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature. Consult our award guidelines for more information. Award recipients are selected by AWP's Board of Trustees.