As a first-timer, I had only heard the legends... Now, I've experienced firsthand the writers' lollapalooza/dorm-party known as AWP (Associated Writing Programs). This year's conference took place in Washington, DC, and attracted 8,000 attendees. There was something uplifting about being in a place with so many people who care about writing--a reminder that someone DOES still care, even if, technically, they're writers, so...
There was a mime wandering in the exhibit hall. I struggle to understand this. At a conference about writing, a performer who doesn't use words. The important thing was not to make eye contact with him. Do not engage the mime!
I also saw a pirate. Or at least, I thought he was a pirate, and then I realized those were his everyday clothes.
Some highlights from the panels:
This is not meant to be exhaustive. I saw a number of good speakers, and I'm only going to mention a few.
At a panel called "Interviewing in My Underwear: Adventures as a Female Memoirist," a speaker stripped down to her slip and gave her entire presentation that way. I think the color was apricot, but I didn't write it down, and I don't trust my memory. Someone will surely know.
At that same panel, Cheryl Strayed, who in my opinion was the source of some of the best quotes of the conference, said, "If you're not going to be fearless [in your writing], don't even bother." And, further, if you write about having done something "bad," what you're communicating is, "This is what it means to be human." After listening to her, I felt like standing up and cheering.
At the panel called "What Women DON'T Write About When We Write About Sex," it was clear that there was essentially nothing "we" don't write about. However, my favorite part was not the most explicit (no, really!). It was a thoughtful poem by Victoria Redel called "Intact Woman," about the interesting response a woman has on looking through her lover's porn magazines. Redel also talked about the goal of writing from an "integrated" self, with the erotic as part of daily life, rather than a "separated" experience, which she called "damaged."
At the very popular panel on "How to Be a Writer Without a Full-Time Academic Gig," Strayed announced bluntly, "If you're a woman with a baby, you're totally fucked." Several of the panelists made the point that a writer must choose "what you want vs. what you need." In other words, how much risk are you willing to take, how much security will you give up, in service of your art? I think it was Steve Almond who pointed out that the stereotypical miserable, suffering artist is probably not going to be able to focus on doing good work, that there is a happy medium, which will be different for different people.
In case you're still feeling badly about writing about sex, or choosing to spend the afternoon with your novel instead of your daughter, etc., the "Jewish Guilt" panel offered some useful perspective. One speaker asked, "Is it bad to see yourself as bad when you suffer, or worse to see yourself as bad when you DON'T suffer?"
At the Pen/Faulkner Foundation's Writers in Schools panel, moderated by Richard Ford, speakers talked about the impact of a program (in which I participate) that brings writers into under-served and high-poverty high school classrooms. In an emotional endorsement, a teacher on the panel was moved to tears as he described the impact on his students when writers visit his class and open up worlds that had seemed mysterious or closed to them.
I attended a number of readings at the conference. Some of my favorites were:
Sandra Beasley reading selections from her recent book, I Was the Jukebox at the Potomac Review panel, including her Best American-selected poem, "Unit of Measure."
Carolyn Leavitt at the Algonquin panel, reading an intense scene from her new novel, Pictures of You.
Colson Whitehead, at the NBCC reading, who said, "Nothing happens in this book," and then read a scene about an ill-fated haircut from Sag Harbor that had me laughing to the point of tears.
What I was sorry to miss: When the conference started, I was still recovering from some random ailment, so on Thursday night, dinner went too late, and I was suddenly exhausted. I didn't make it to the VIDA event at The Black Cat, so if I told you I'd see you there, I sincerely apologize. And then on Friday afternoon, I hit a wall. I was in the exhibit hall, around when I saw the mime--which led me to believe I might be hallucinating, and which would also explain how so many drink coasters made their way into my tote bag. Anyway, I got dizzy and had to lie down on one of the padded benches outside a meeting room. As a result, I missed the Langston Hughes panel, which I was bummed about. On top of that, I missed a few good panels simply because of conflicting schedules.
What I couldn't figure out: Loved the Omni Shoreham, but $4.00 for a bottle of water? $4.00 for tea or coffee? Are you kidding me? If you left the hotel you could do better, of course, but with tight schedules, this wasn't always possible. Standing at the bar in the Marriott, trying to get a quick bite to eat before a session, I heard a woman say, "Where are the options for people who don't have all this money to spend?" Indeed.
For more takes on the conference, see Sandra Beasley, and Leslie Pietrzyk, who gave a wonderful reading at an off-site event for The Sun magazine.