Friday, March 25, 2016

VIPs at AWP

           I’ve attended the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs quite a few times over the years, usually to staff a table for the journal I edited, Mid-American Review. It’s an excellent conference, and I’m a big fan.
            The first time I went to the conference was 2000, in Kansas City. I was thirty-one years old and I had a newly minted MFA, following a decade-long stint as a journalist.
            Previously, I had attended (sporadically) journalism conventions, and I knew them to be somewhat serious affairs, with discussions of weighty issues about a rapidly changing field and of the role reporters would need to take on in order to stay relevant. New ways of investigating and new ways of responding to the public were fascinating, but they were unfamiliar and a little scary. Difficult times led to difficult and contentious conferences, and although I relished each learning opportunity, if I offered ten descriptors of the typical journalism conference, “fun” wouldn’t make the list.
            The AWP Conference was a whole different scene. That Kansas City conference was sort of a small one compared to those that would follow, but it seemed huge to me, and the bookfair was an orgy of free stuff. Famous people were walking around among the mortals as if they, too, flossed and pooped and did all the normal things. Some of them even returned a bug-eyed stare with a smile.
            I tried, then, not to miss a single session. I took copious notes (that I never referred to again—it’s my practice to take notes to sort of root ideas in my memory). I went to the front of the room to thank presenters afterwards. I asked questions. I talked incessantly to my friends about the ideas I had encountered and the things I had learned.
            In those days the nametags had ribbons for special people—presenters, board members, sponsors—and I wanted some. I wanted a role. I somehow scored an invitation to a VIP penthouse reception that year, and it earned me distinction downstairs, where friends were nursing ten-dollar beers while I enjoyed free mixed drinks and cocktail weenies. Of course, upstairs, no one knew who the hell I was, but my MIFs, marginally important friends, didn’t need to know that.
            That first year took me by surprise in many ways, and in subsequent years, I tried to prepare myself a little better. From the very start, I saw the stratification in the conference—the famous versus the unknowns, the people with important roles versus the regular conference-goers, the faculty versus the students, right on down the line.
            When the conference was in New Orleans, I remember putting a lot of advance planning into making a splash, and I bought five hundred business cards with my name and title on them: Karen Craigo, Editor-in-Chief, Mid-American Review. Those should open some doors, I figured.
            The door they opened turned out to be that of the cabinet where I stored the 495 cards that remained after the NOLA conference. Handing out cards wasn’t something I did naturally. Some people can pull this off; they have them at the ready and they very naturally offer one when they meet a new person—just a friendly way of keeping in touch. I had a clumsier card hand, though, and the act never felt anything but self-aggrandizing to me. I gave up the card thing as a bad deal.
            Yesterday, my good friend, the author Matt Bell, posted some excellent advice on Facebook about “networking” at AWP or elsewhere. Since it was a public post, I hope he won’t mind my quoting him here, as it’s information that bears repeating:

Since it’s that time of year again, here's the only AWP advice I have to offer for anyone nervous about meeting new folks or “networking,” which will also work for literally any other social situation: When in doubt, just be more interested in other people than in yourself.

In other words, when you meet someone you admire, tell them so. Talk about the books you’re reading more than the books you’re writing. If you go up to the table of a favorite magazine, talk about what you loved in a recent issue or ask them what’s best in the new one, instead of checking on your submission. Ask editors of interesting presses which of their books you should read next, instead of telling them about the book you’re writing. In every one of these situations, you’ll have a better conversation than you would have, and you’ll definitely still get to talk about yourself, too, because other humans respond to curiosity and interest with curiosity and interest of their own. Easy!

Matt is one of those people who just simply is interested in others. It’s part of what makes him special as a fiction writer. And his advice is solid, and truly does apply to every situation that involves meeting new people.
            There is a reason both Matt and I put the word “networking” in quotes. A term that makes perfect sense at another professional conference comes off as a little smarmy in a giant get-together of writers.
            I imagine that, say, high school counselors or hospital lab technicians or history museum directors take pride in their profession. Some may even think of it as a calling. But being a writer—that feels different. The hospital lab tech leaves the lab, goes home and has dinner, bowls on Thursdays, enjoys quilting. The writer may leave her desk (or couch or coffee shop or kitchen table), but she doesn’t leave her writing work behind. It happens all the time—as she makes dinner or straps on a jet pack or teaches a yoga class. We are always writing, even when we aren’t in front of our computers and we don’t have a pen in our hand. Thinking is a part of writing, and everything we take in lends itself to our work—sometimes very directly.
            The phlebotomist doesn’t network as he takes blood from your vein. And writers don’t typically network, either. What we do is so much deeper than that. We are all on similar journeys, and we forge bonds with one another along the way, we might say. And a business card is a paltry tool for forging bonds.
            Something I learned as I continued in my growth as a writer was that there is no outward indicator, no publication history, and no vita item that will reveal a certain class deserving of the title of VIP in writing, fancy parties notwithstanding. When we apply ourselves to our art, we are all doing urgent work. Transcribing the spirit, laboring after truth—this work is crucial, and the people who do it are Very Important. (And while we’re on the topic, every single person we encounter is Very Important, too—even if they never jot down a word.) When we are committed to the task and dedicating ourselves to the work, we deserve a ribbon on our nametag—whether anyone passing by knows our name or not.

            My networking advice? Write your ass off, even when it’s hard. If you’re in the struggle, you belong. Someone should throw a party for you. Someone should hand you a weenie.

6 comments:

  1. My fondest memory of that conference is arriving and there were all these young women in rock star clothes, waiting by the door, and I was thinking, "Wow, writer groupies! Maybe they'll want my autograph!" But no, Creed had just played across the street and were staying at the same hotel as the conference.

    My first impression of AWP, though, was that enthusiastic women in short skirts, lots of make-up, and slashed fishnets were really into writers and gathered at their conference so we could autograph their breasts, do cocaine off their hips, and saddle them with abandoned children and contested paternity suits. Alas, it's more like you describe.

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    1. A little from Column A, a little from Column B ... :)

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  2. Karen, besides your published work, this generous blog has earned you the VIP status.

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    1. Thank you for these very kind words! :)

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  3. Will you be there this year, Karen? I'm flying out on Thurs.

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    1. I wish, Anne-Marie! Hope to see you next year in DC! :)

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