Monday, February 20, 2017

AWP Conference a smorgasbord

The AWP Conference ended over a week ago, and I actually went this year, after five years of missing out on the fun. In many ways, I think I’m still recovering.

For those not in the know, AWP stands, improbably, for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. It’s a huge annual event, and the highlight for me is always the book fair, with its free pens and books I’d need several lifetimes to read.

I guess I’ve changed in my years away. I used to be on the go from early morning until earlier morning, setting up to open the book fair and then attending panels and readings, going out to eat, and drinking like a fish until the wee hours.

This conference was markedly different for me. One of the glorious differences was that I actually had a full-length collection to sign—No More Milk, which I read from at an off-site event and signed at the Sundress table.

Also, I’m no longer in charge of a literary journal or press, although I have some editorial roles here and there, so I wasn’t tethered to a book fair table. That was a mixed blessing. Have a fixed place to be is rather nice at AWP; without this, there’s a whole lot of wandering around with no place to put your stuff. (I was able to stash my gear at my partner’s table, but I could come and go as I pleased.)

I don’t really believe in astrology, but I’m an Aquarius, and the list of Aquarian character traits fits me to a T. I think it’s the water-bearer in me that struggles in settings like the AWP Conference. An Aquarius is generally seen as pretty vivacious—the life of the party—but despite this, astrologers say, we can also be aloof, and we value our alone time.

And that’s AWP for me. Although something like 13,000 people attended this year’s conference, I seemed to know every third person, at least by name—and not because they were famous, but because I’d mucked around in a lot of submission piles and social media posts.

Additionally, I saw a couple hundred people who, in other circumstances, I would have wanted to sit down with over breakfast/lunch/dinner/drinks. Obviously, I fan-girled over some writers I adore, and I also connected with some loved ones who live in the Washington area, and I’m so glad I did. But at the conference itself, there were former students with new books to celebrate; there were mentors; there were treasured Facebook friends I’d never met in person, and people who subscribe to this blog, and people I’d enjoyed talking to at conferences. There were even, this time, some people I didn’t know but who had read and enjoyed my book, and I would have loved to get to know them better, if only to see what kind of person likes my kind of person.

When confronted with most of my favorite people in one place, my initial reaction is pleasure—it’s like a buffet with all of my favorite foods, even though those foods share only the context of me, the buffet guest—but then, very quickly, the variety becomes a source of stress, exactly like being in an unfamiliar restaurant with a too-big menu. (Am I unusual in my preference for small menus, where the chef has selected a few items I might enjoy choosing from?)

My reaction to this smorgasbord used to be different—I’d dig right in with gusto. But this year I approached it with some trepidation, with the equivalent action of filling a single plate with tiny, discrete spoonfuls, each barely a bite, none of the elements touching or overlapping.

I spent much of the conference in my hotel room, and it was still overwhelming.

In past years, my life was different. Although I was bookless, I was not friendless—I worked in a setting that included lots of fun peers and a shared sense of purpose. This year I went to the conference as an adjunct, albeit an adjunct with a book, and I found that going from very solitary days to a hug every ten minutes was a little jarring.

Mind you, I prefer the hugs. But still. Jarring.

I will say this—being among all of those writers and walking away with so many exciting new titles was a treat, and as someone who exists outside of a real-life writing community, the experience was a lovely reminder of how writers are connected by their experience, and how readers and writers are connected on the page.

So thousands of writers reminded me that I’m not alone. And the message got through. It continues to stick. And here I am, writing right now.

I’d say I owe AWP my gratitude, and my promise to see everyone again next year.

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