First Impressions and Take Home Lessons: AWP Conference

As a testament to how overwhelming AWP can be, I forgot to take pictures all 3 days. This is my book fair haul.

As a testament to how overwhelming AWP can be, I forgot to take pictures all 3 days. This is my book fair haul.

I wasn’t going to attend the Association of Writers and Writing Programs 2014 conference. AWP is rooted, as the name implies, in academic programs and has a literary focus that is only tangential to the technical and journalistic writing I usually do. But I want more “creative” in my nonfiction. Some thirteen thousand people from all over the U.S. traveled to Seattle for the event; I didn’t even have to change my morning commute (same bus, three stops early). It seemed like the universe was handing me an opportunity. So with little more preparation than a warning about people in pointy shoes, I signed up for three days of literary frenzy.

Pointy shoes seemed to have been replaced by a preponderance of people I previously would have described as “drama majors;” people whose meticulously on-trend wardrobes were painstakingly arranged to appear unique and edgy. There was also a contingent of frazzled middle-aged women whom one immediately assumed to be fond of tea and live in homes with English gardens and large piles of dirty laundry. And there were thousands of people of every other sort, although people of color were uncommon enough to stand out in the crowd. Everyone seemed to be fond of texture. Vaguely steampunk boots and vests were common. I saw wool, tweed, heavy knits, corduroy, and embroidery as I stood in line to pick up my registration badge. The “it” bag was anything handmade involving flannel.

The young man behind me in line asked his companion, “The singular masculine is ‘alumnus,’ right?” Someone else referenced “exquisite corpse.” At the front of the line I thrilled at the sight of Sherman Alexie’s badge as the AWP representative flipped through the box looking for mine.

I chose a panel on blogging for my first session. It seemed the least likely to make me feel like a poser (I can’t use the French spelling; typing poseur makes me feel like one). I must not have been alone in that feeling because the room was so overcrowded the woman next to me wondered out loud if the fire marshal was going to interfere.

That first session set the tone for most of the conference. Except for a few standout sessions on Saturday, each panel I attended was slightly disappointing  – either the speakers wandered off topic, or the Q&A turned into one person’s private workshop, or the topic wasn’t quite what I expected. I rarely got what I came for, but I never left empty-handed. I always came away with the name of a new author to read or magazine to pitch, or some useful tip.

I attended sessions on creative nonfiction, reviewing, pitching, and grant writing. Despite the variety, over the course of the weekend, a few themes emerged.

1.       You know more than you think you know.

Starting with the blogging session, I was surprised how often I heard things I already knew. I think people in general and writers in particular tend to build a mystique around things they desire, when in reality there is rarely any mystery. We like to imagine our personal stories as epic journeys and magical passages, but in real life, epic means hard work and if the magic keys can’t be found on google, they’re available in the research library.

2.       Get over yourself.

Many writers are uncomfortable with the idea of getting paid. I guess they feel that if anyone wants to buy it, it must be commercial and therefore not real art. I don’t relate. At the conference, there was a lot of pep talk about surviving criticism and allowing others to edit your work. As a staff writer for a government agency, I have long since detached ego from product, and it was pretty exciting to realize what an advantage that gives me. In fact, it may prove more valuable than an MFA.

3.       Get out of your way and write something.

This may be a separate observation, or it may be the sum of the first two, but almost every session I attended conveyed this message in some form. In one of my favorite sessions, a panel on research moderated by Amy Liu, every panelist agreed research accompanies writing rather than precedes it. In another panel, a website editor admonished that even social media posts are writing samples and, if read by the right people, can result in new and better gigs. The biographies of panelists confirm that you don’t need to have an MFA or be published by the New Yorker to become a successful writer. All you need to do is write, and keep writing until you write better. If nothing else, a walk through the book fair with its hundreds of literary journals and indie publishers should be enough to convince you that every story has an outlet. You have to write before you can publish. There are no prerequisites to writing.

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