After the point at which I was fully vaxxed and boosted against COVID-19, the Editorial Freelancers Association asked if we, the members, thought they should be a presence at MLA 2022.* I said yes – wholeheartedly yes! The Modern Language Association annual event brings visitors and exhibitors from around the globe. I really appreciate my EFA membership, and I was excited to explain why to anyone who would listen. Freelance editors for everyone!

And then things got worse.

It seems the Omicron variant isn’t as deadly as previous waves of Coronavirus, but it’s more prolific. As I type, my daughter’s household is getting over it, and two of my very close friends are working through it in their families. Children aged 4-11 included, everyone is feeling sick and feverish without going to the hospital. I didn’t have these anecdotes to prep myself as the day came closer to arrive at Walter E. Washington Convention Center and convene.

I’d signed up for the teardown team. This gained me an all-access pass to the convention and the title of Booth Captain. Since I do not have a proper captain’s hat, I wore my thrift-store Stetson and proclaimed myself Booth Wrangler. Had more people come to MLA22, I would have been a smash hit.

Some of EFA’s volunteers dropped out last-minute. I appreciate their efforts and the difficult decision to choose safety for their families. I, too, weighed the odds every day. I was betting on the number of participants being low, and thus my risk of exposure. I was right, more right than I’d like to have been.

The convention population was sparse. We had 12 exhibitors, and maybe that many visitors on Saturday. Some of them had flown in from overseas; I was glad for their sakes that we showed up. My partner-in-crime, Liz Prouty, started out with the usual DC experience:

I was just really happy to be working with someone who uses words like that. Liz was great. We shared the details of our writing experience, of editing and our families. Liz said that at one point she’d considered bringing her husband and making it a night in DC, but decided to keep pandemic exposure to a minimum. I’d made similar calculations but chose to stay in a Chinatown hotel with good TripAdvisor ratings.

Per our instructions, Liz and I took a tally of those who stopped to visit the EFA booth. We noticed right away that the coffee service was an appealing draw to our end of the floor.

You knew I was a writer, right? I can bollox up any instructions. Liz was easily recruited to my machinations. Here’s an example.

Most of our conversations were with fellow exhibitors who needed a walk or to vent, or both. I, too made my way around the floor, trying to capture some of the excitement that’s expected at such a big event. Liz and I had noticed a scheduled talk with remote panelists; I peeked in, then let her know I’d be sitting in for a minute.

My biggest takeaway was the model of “getting a band together” for publishing your book. I’d just said something similar to one of my editing clients as she was looking for a publisher to query. I told her to recruit the publisher like she recruited me – have a talk; feel if she’s on board with your vision. There were about four people live in the room; hopefully more were sitting in remotely. It was a really good talk. When I got back to the EFA booth, Liz was just texting me – she had to check her parking. In DC, this is the way.

I felt dangerous in a room with so many books. I wanted to bring them all home. I felt badly for them, the books, because they had nobody to read them. I found one (Modern Philology) that was irresistible and I tried to buy it.

“Just take it,” said the exhibitor, resignedly. I asked if I could take his picture. “Why?” he asked. For Facebook? He shrugged. I took it.

My nearest neighbor was kinder about my interest. “I’m giving them all away tomorrow. I’ll hold onto that one for you.” At times when he’d wandered off and a person wandered into his space, I would go and work his booth. Why not?

He was as good as his word: when I walked in on Sunday, he held out the metal stand with both hands, and bade me collect my gift. As Sunday went on, I approached anyone I saw with a stack of books and insisted they take an EFA bag (complete with informational literature, a screen cleaner, and hard candies.) Insisted. Most of them were grateful. I worked someone else’s booth while she went upstairs on a coffee-run. She did not want to be photographed, but she took this picture of a fellow exhibitor and I looking interested in her wares.

I also managed to pick up a MLA stress-doggy. I really thought I had a picture of that.

Ultimately, we exhibitors and attendees felt it was important to make a presence this year – because we showed up, #MLA22 was a Thing Which Happened. Modern Language persisted through this very odd time. I don’t know how we’ll be represented in history, but I do know it’s important to keep using our words to show how we’re living and breathing during this pandemic. Time changes the narrative; the onus is on us, now, to preserve what’s not in statistics: our feelings, our needs, and what we think is critical enough to do despite what’s out there.

*As the U.S. begins a return to in-person events this year, the EFA defers to local public health guidelines regarding the coronavirus (COVID-19) and the discretion of local coordinators in deciding to resume in-person meetings and events.

débora Ewing
EFA Member and Events Volunteer