We writers lead the solitary life, slaving over character motivation and semi-colons in our dark monastic cells. But once a year we emerge, stretch the kinks out of our writing hands, straighten the writer’s hunch-back, and convene at AWP (the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference). Ten to twelve thousand of us introverted cerebral types spend a weekend getting our yah-yahs out and then—exhausted by so much camaraderie—it’s back to our cells for another year of isolation.
This year’s AWP was held March 7-9 in Boston. I traveled with Wendy, Pam, and Kate. This was my first AWP.
Wednesday and Sunday were travel days, and I do mean days. I flew through Chicago. Wednesday flights were delayed all over the place due to weather. I hear this is the third year in a row that winter storms coincided with AWP. In fact, Wendy* and I caught an early flight to Chicago, called Pam, who only made the plane because she sprinted from security to the gate, and then we sat on the ground for an hour while they deiced the wings. Airport irony, that. It would have been nice to get into Boston a few hours earlier and do something, even just to relax. Next time, I think I’ll fly direct and save myself half a day in airports.
The three of us met up with Kate at the Park Plaza Hotel. It was built in the 1920s and there is a point at which charm isn’t enough to make up for certain deficiencies. Like the lack of light in the room, the super drafty window, the bathroom door so squeaky it woke people. We had two double beds and one tiny bathroom for the four of us. Fortunately, we were all good roommates and good company. I enjoyed bedtime every night because, like girls at a slumber party, we talked. We covered what each of us had done that day. It was like getting the highlight reel from the panels I had missed.
The selection of panels is amazing. I found my selections fell into three categories: What, Why, & How We Write (Fairy Tales, Historical Writing, Literary/Genre, Place as Character, Point of View); Women & Writing (Women in the Literary Landscape); and Getting Published (Editors & Agents, Small Presses, Before the Debut). I also spent over four hours roaming through the Bookfair, trying to make connections, discover journals and presses, and gather my swag. I heard Jeanette Winterson read (awesome!), attended the Water~Stone reception, and took a turn working the Hamline/Water~Stone booth.
That made for a very full weekend. The conference ran from 9:00 − 5:45 each day, with receptions, readings, and off-site events in the evenings. On the flight home, I sat next someone coming from AWP. He said the off-site events are some of his favorite parts of the weekend each year. Next time I will definitely hit the parties. I was just too tired and concerned about making myself sick if I over-did it this time around. That said, I don’t regret spending my evenings in quieter pursuits, like a good meal with good friends.
A Few Takeaways from Panels
It’s hard to pick a favorite, but the Fairy Tale, Historical, and Popular Writing panels were all excellent. They fall under the category of genre fiction: how and why.
• Fairy Tales (Anjali Sachdeva, John Crowley, Jane Yolen, Kelly Link, Kate Bernheimer):
Everyone should read fairy tales. Why? Because they are the protean stories, establishing literary patterns. They provide a common vocabulary for all literature. J.R.R. Tolkein talked about the eucatastrophic ending in which everything resolves happily, but only a tremendous loss. And because in a world as heart-breaking as ours, it’s all right to get a happy ending.
Note: Kelly Link is wearing earrings made of doll arms with crystals dangling off the hands.
• Popular Fiction (Ed Falco, Julianna Baggott, Lise Haines, Benjamin Percy):
Based on the anecdotal evidence at this panel, I’d suggest that literary work will get you into the academy, but won’t make you any friends or money. Popular work can hurt your academic career, but you’ll be more popular. Write what you most want to write, then pitch to agents and editors how you want to see it marketed. In the end, genre classifications are useful for sellers to group books into browsable sections.
• Historical Writing (Anna Keesey, Peter Ho Davies, Zachary Lazar, Emily Barton):
This panel spent time discussing their motives for writing historical work, from the personal to the cultural. They also discussed the ethics of being truthful. What matters is the truthfulness of the ideas a writer wants to convey and that the reader gets a sense of time and place (See Doctorow’s Ragtime). Certain events, however, like the Holocaust, demand a greater degree of accuracy. A woman writing historical fiction can be assumed to be irrelevant to today’s world and “hoop skittish” (good news for me!).
• Point of View (Daniel Menaker, Amy Hempel, Bret Anthony Johnston):
Know what your point of view character is obsessed with, and that obsession will shape everything else. E.g. Johnston wrote a main character obsessed with dolphins and his book opens with a beached dolphin.
Note: I’m sitting 2 seats off the aisle. What aisle? Precisely! In case of fire, please do not trample your neighbor.
From the other panels I attended, I have some great guerrilla marketing ideas and a much better sense of how a small press operates versus a large house. I’d be writing for hours if I shared everything I learned, so I’ll share what I think is the most valuable gem.
• The Most Valuable Gem:
Form a posse of writers. Get to know each other and support each other tirelessly. You have to give to get and the more you can spread other writers’ good news, the happier they’ll be to spread yours. Networking is not about making and using a contact, but about promoting each others’ successes and working together, whatever stage your career is in.
There’s an episode of this British Comedy, Good Neighbors, in which Jerry is fired for putting his wife before the company for once in his career. He’s on the phone with his address book in hand. He calls everyone, only to find one after another that no one will help him find new work. As he makes his calls, his wife crosses people out of her book, the social one, lamenting how their friends are letting them down. Jerry says, “That’s just it; these aren’t friends. These are contacts.”
Form your literary posse. These are the people who will celebrate your success, refer you to new opportunities, think of you when they need a collaborator for a special project. These aren’t your BFFs, but they are way more than “contacts.” And for everyone in your posse, you do the same, hopefully more!
Saturday night, Wendy*, Pam, Kate and I took the T to the North End. We saw The North Church, where Paul Revere hung his lanterns: “One if by land. Two if by sea.” Granted, it was dark and I was on the street right below the church, so I didn’t see so much as a glimmer in the steeple. The narrow street is cobblestone and flanked by row houses four-stories tall. The upper floors are decorated with wrought-iron balconies and copper-fronted bay windows. To enter a building, one has to step up to the front or down to the cellar. All along the sidewalk are doors set below street level and only about three-quarter of a standard door’s height.
Everywhere the sidewalk was crowded with people waiting to get into a restaurant. I wondered how so many Italian restaurants could co-exist in one small part of the city. And with lines out the doors! After curving around past The North Church, where the crowd was thinner, we found our dinner spot. I realized after seeing the inside that these business spaces are so small they can only fit so many patrons, hence the lines and ability to coexist. Lucia’s covers three floors of its building. We ate in the cellar with dark beams supporting a low ceiling, our table against a brick wall, and the facade of wine cellar doors on the opposite wall next to the bar. It was cozy and charming. Our waitress was from Romania and she rolled her Rs beautifully! Something I am afraid my tongue will never accomplish.
Over pasta—I had the gnocchi al pesto—and a lovely petite syrah, we discussed our day and the conference in general. Since we mostly went to different panels, each night’s debriefing was like getting the highlight reel from the panels I could not attend. We shared with each other the most useful information, the most exciting details, and our impressions good and bad. Wendy and I are fiction writers, Pam is a creative nonfiction writer, and Kate is a poet, so our conversations touched on everything.
If you want to bond with other writers, put four of you in two double beds with a single bathroom, brave planes and trains together, eat and drink together, and share your experiences with a generous spirit!
The bookfair consisted of three giant rooms (think gymnasium sized) and over 650 tables/booths. I roamed the bookfair any time I didn’t feel the need to be at a panel. Unless you thrive in congested, noisy aisles, I recommend taking that approach. Broken up over three days, I spent over four hours in the bookfair. It was still more than I could take in. It was a great opportunity to discover new journals and presses, and to see print issues of journals I only knew online. I had a number of good conversations that will hopefully lead to more of me in print. When I was at the Water~Stone booth, one of our past authors stopped by and it was fun to meet him.
A few seconds of Jeanette Winterson for you.
Packing & Hauling
Then lighter still.
Leave room in your luggage.
More than that.
I took one pair of shoes, two bottoms, three tops, pajamas, and the bare minimum in toiletries. Oh, and lots of snacks. I fit everything in a very small carry-on and a Timbuk 2 tote bag with room to spare. And then I collected journals and swag from the book fair. By Saturday, I was worried I wouldn’t get it all home. But packing is kind of fun if you see it as doing a 3D puzzle. Thank goodness for wheeled suitcases.
All of those free back issues add up. And they need to be lugged from panel to panel, from convention center to hotel, and through airports. Let’s just say, I need a chiropractic adjustment after all that.
It was a wonderful exhausting weekend and I’m glad to be home again.
*For another take on AWP with photos and memorable highlights from the weekend, check out Wendy Skinner’s post here.
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