Last year, for the first time since I started attending the AWP conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) in 2014, I didn’t have to staff a booth. Revisions were due on my forthcoming novel, I was training for a half-marathon, and AWP 2022 was in Philadelphia, where I have family–and four members of the Giant XLB, a group of seven Taiwanese women writers who have regularly been supporting each other via a Facebook message thread that is now three years old, were in attendance.
In other words, it was going to be busy even without booth-staffing duties. And I loved my self-imposed schedule. I wrote and ran in the mornings, and walked the bookfair floor and met up with friends in the afternoons and evenings. It was a remarkable AWP for me. I went to no panels except a lunchtime viewing event for a pre-recorded panel I was on.
This year was a little different. I had one panel scheduled and I hoped to get some writing done. A couple of friends were on a panel the last day of the conference, and I hoped to get to that. I didn’t get as much writing done as I thought I would, but I saw more people than I thought I would and also failed to see more people than I thought I would.
But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about how we view AWP and what it is.
While I was sitting at the airport waiting for my flight home, I spotted an Instagram post from a friend. It said he’d skipped AWP and was glad for it. There followed some really disparaging remarks about how self-important the panels were, how desperate the attendees were. My friend later deleted the post. I wish I’d screenshot it, so that I can better remember what caused the sensation of recoiling in my gut when I read it.
The whole time I was reading his post, I was saying to my friend in my head, “You were doing it wrong.”
I’ve often said, sometimes on the record, that there is a curious reek of desperation and hope at AWP. That it is the conference of people who secretly want to talk to other people but also can’t muster it. I don’t think the literary magazine industry is a sustainable or fair way for people to get published. But I also love this conference, for myriad reasons:
- “Desperation and hope” are not bad things together. Between panels, people wander the bookfair floor, which is where all the literary magazines, small press publishers, self-publishing people, and writing programs and retreats, exhibit their services and wares. There are hundreds of exhibitors! From one side of the booth table, if you are working, it’s easy to stand back and observe the stream of people going by. Watch their eyes slide over you, both shy and defensive, and sometimes a little scared, just like it is at any party. But from the other side of the booth table, if you get out front and stand in the stream and invite people to come in and talk to you, hell, it’s another story. Being in the stream is a gift. From there, the hope is far more obvious. The excitement at being with “your people”–the people who understand your obsession with words and getting them in print or on the web–shines brighter. Community is apparent.
Both last year and this year, I enjoyed walking the floor and engaging with people when I wanted to, as opposed to knowing I should, knowing I had to. But I did short stints behind the table both years, and I enjoyed that experience too. From behind the table, it’s nice to share what you have with people. It’s nice to engage folks in a little conversation, even if they look like they don’t want to talk to you at first. And, it’s a great exercise in reading the room: Where else will you get such practice in quickly gleaning what people need, or want?
- The panels are sometimes hoity-toity, but that’s okay. Those panels are useful to some people. They are not useful to me, so I don’t go to those, and anyway, hoity-toity is in the eye of the beholder. I go to the ones that interest me. This year I went to two: the one I was on and one a friend was hosting. Both were useful. I didn’t even understand the descriptions of some of the panels that were on the schedule, and that’s okay. I can’t know everything or be so deeply interested in everything that I understand the vernacular.
- The friendship scene. I almost always make a new friend at this conference. I always deepen friendships. And, it’s a remarkable thing, to meet someone you’ve only ever known on the internet. It’s like a gift. Sometimes I go to the evening events. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I go to events friends are hosting. Sometimes I don’t. Lots of times I’m in bed by 10 or 10:30.
- Exploring new places. Even when AWP is in a city I know or have been to, the events, both off-site and on-site, allow me to see things I didn’t know about it before–and getting to know a city through a literary lens is always wonderful. Plus, we’ve reached the point in my network where I pretty much have friends I want to meet up with everywhere, so that’s always a bonus. And I usually come into town a day ahead so I can see these friends outside of the event. I’ve been to Seattle something like fifteen times and it was only this time that I managed to get to the Hugo House, a literary cornerstone of the city.
For all these reasons and more, I’ll continue to attend AWP.
I think I was mostly dismayed by my friend’s post. I was sad that he’d chosen to paint an event that brings me such joy with such a broadly negative brush. I was also saddened to think that, each of the years I’d seen him at AWP, he was just having a miserable time.
I’m sure that’s not entirely true. But I’m grateful he voiced the opinions he did, even if for a brief while. I’m grateful I saw them. It made me recall all the reasons I keep going to this conference.
My next book is being published in a genre outside of what’s normally covered at AWP. It drops four days before the conference. I’m worried I might feel less a part of the community. But I’ll still go, because it’s one place I can see the people I don’t usually get to see; hear perspectives I don’t usually hear; meet people who don’t share my opinions and expertise. Maybe my friend’s post is just one of these experiences.
It’s not my experience, and I guess that’s OK, too.