It started out in the '60s when there were just a handful or two or three creative writing programs in the country and the directors of them wanted to get together to compare notes. Now it is this huge conference of maybe 7,000 this year (I heard it was 10,000 last year in NYC) because the number of MFA programs has exploded. Not to mention MA and BFA and PhD. I am talking about the Association of Writers & Writing Programs' annual conference, which started Wed. night and will end Saturday night at the Hilton, 720 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago. More info at www.awpwriter.org. If you go there, expect to see hordes of dazed non-biz types with name tags wandering around carrying bags of magazines and books. These are my people. This is my tribe. These are the people who believe words are important and that literature means something and that innovation is necessary. We may be insular but we're dedicated. There are still people who worship the short story even though the days of print culture might be numbered. These are people not writing screenplays or potboilers but poems that they hope will define some fraction of the universe so precisely and beautifully that others will commit their lines to memory. These are people who also know that Keats said his name was written in water, and though that's a little heart-warming because it means that Keats thought he'd be forgotten, and thus those of us who think we'll be forgotten might actually be remembered and revered as much as Keats. But it also means that our names might really be writ in water and soon we and our words will be forgotten, and Keats was 25 when he died and we're twice that and what do we have to show for ourselves?