AWP, The First Time
Earlier this month I went to the annual conference for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), a gathering of ten thousand (give or take) creative writing students and teachers, professional authors, publishers, and others connected to the world of writing. AWP bills itself as an academic conference, probably to distinguish itself from conventions (which are by and for fans), but I think this is really just semantics. The conference brings together thousands of people with a common interest, albeit involved in different ways, to mingle, compare notes, talk shop. There’s a room full of merchandise—hundreds of booksellers and literary magazines filling three cavernous exhibit halls. And panels, some by familiar names, some not, on a host of topics from the broadly popular to obscurely niche. Sounds a lot like a convention to me.
And it is a lot like one, though not completely. I get ahead of myself. Before I got to the conference, I looked over the schedule to mark off the panels I thought were particularly interesting. I found a few on fantastical literature, some on craft issues I’m perennially fascinated by, and some odds-and-ends. Maybe it’s by virtue of being in grad school again, but I wanted to just soak up information. Not that I could resist the lure of the bookfair (read: dealer’s room)—only I already own two hundred-plus books I have yet to read, so, as much as it pains me, I’m actively resisting the urge to buy more books. (In this I was not successful.) Plus, I felt confident that I could get later whatever books were on sale at the conference, whereas panels are kind of ephemeral. If they aren’t recorded, they vanish, so catch them while/if you can.
So, panels. Despite planning to attend several, I only got to two. One and a half, actually; I ducked out of one early to attend a reading by Stonecoast faculty. It was a common dilemma: Either I wanted to go to several events during a given timeslot or none at all. I’d never been in the audience for an academic panel, but I’ve seen quite a few at conventions, and in this they markedly differ. Whereas convention panels are moderated discussions among the panelists, with a fair amount of audience participation, conference panels give each member a turn at the microphone, at which point they read a short essay (some more narrative, some more scholastic). Each panelist’s focus is distinct while still relating to the topic. That gives a survey quality to the proceedings, which is useful in a way, but they can be dramatically afield from one another. And because of that discrepancy, the whole can feel disjointed, the connections unexplored. Also, I think reading a researched essay, even a short one to an interested audience, is a tough sell.
At least, that was the case for the first (half) panel I went to. Maybe it would have gotten better had I stuck around, maybe they’d have identified some common threads toward the end, but as excited as I was for the topic, the execution disappointed me. The other panel I went to followed a similar format with a few differences. For one, the panel description explicitly described the multiple strands that would be explained. That (plus my earlier experience) helped manage my expectations. And the panelists didn’t just read from their notes; they made asides, spoke to (not at) the audience, and discussed the intersections with the other panelists’ ideas. When I met up with friends later, they’d had similar experiences, some stellar, some not. Our consensus was that the success of a panel hinges a lot on its members, a tricky thing as I know only a tiny, tiny number of the thousands at AWP. Lesson learned for next time.
When I wasn’t doing the panel circuit, I was the bookfair. Like I said, hundreds of tables and booths—publishers large and small, university presses, MFA programs, writing foundations and award organizations, and more literary magazines than you ever imagined. Given that I wasn’t shopping around a manuscript and that most of the publications present weren’t typically open to the writing I most do, I wandered through without inspecting much up close. I did have destinations, though. I had a few friends to buy books from and I saw on the exhibitor list some magazines I long knew of but never had the chance to check out in any depth. Oh, and Small Beer Press, so I finally got the chance to meet Kelly Link. My other targets: Fairy Tale Review, Conjunctions, and Unstuck. A friend of mine put FTR on my radar and, after checking out the free issues online, I added them to my submission file, especially when I write stories with folklore on their sleeve. It was nice to pick up a physical copy, talk to the staff, and meet Kate Bernheimer, FTR’s editor and the editor behind the superb anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. As for Conjunctions, I discovered it back when I was researching slipstream and related strands of spec fic, leading me to their New Wave Fabulists issue—one I didn’t pick up until a few months ago (my why-the-hell-not addition to my absurd textbook tally). I grabbed the spiritual successor to that issue for cheap and thumbed through others, to get a better sense of what they take. And then there’s Unstuck. I missed buying the first volume and so I continue kicking myself over it. (I did pick up the latest one, so as not to make the mistake again.) It was such a pleasure chatting with the managing editor, and their aesthetic is one I appreciate. Much like Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, the work they include has a subtle strangeness, or, if you like, a strange subtlety. I’m enjoying what I’ve read so far and look forward to future volumes.
Over the course of the conference there are plenty of off-site events such as readings and book launch parties. I didn’t get to attend any, sadly, but maybe next time. It’s in Seattle next year, one of my very favorite places, and all things considered, I enjoyed AWP quite a lot. I didn’t get to see everyone I wanted to, I didn’t see all the panels I’d planned to, and I didn’t get the chance to wander about Boston.
But for two days I was surrounded by writers and bibliophiles, people who care in whatever idiosyncratic way about the written word. At least, that’s what I found. It’s the same contentment I feel at science fiction conventions, bonding over a shared passion. I don’t think I could go to AWP every year, but every now and again, I think I could use the reminder of solidarity. Writing is a lonely vocation otherwise, just you and the page.