Friday, May 20, 2016

One Writer's Experience at AWP

In March I attended the 2016 AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference in Los Angeles. It was interesting. I'm going to write about it as if you, the reader, are a writer who is considering going to AWP in a future year and you need help deciding whether or not to go.

Well, I'd go, unless you don't like crowds, in which case definitely don't go. It wasn't packed like a concert (no sardine syndrome), but it was packed like an amusement park (astonishing in the sheer number of people around you). I read that 12,000 people were at this particular AWP, and I fully believe it.

But yeah, I'd go. For these reasons:

  • You get to see publishers and editors. You get to look them in the face and realize that they're human people with great enthusiasm for books and reading, rather than seeing them as just a series of closed doors and no thankses. 
  • You get to see that publishers and editors need to sell their books and magazines just as badly as you need to get books and stories published. This requirement is part of a job they love, but it's nevertheless a requirement. Money drives publishing. That is a fact that's hard to keep in mind when you're staring at yet another rejection, and the artness of it matters so much.
  • You get opportunities that are like nothing and nowhere else. I got my awkward all over Kelly Link, because she was just sitting there at her press's table. I got my Margaret Malone book signed by the author, who ran my credit card for me. I saw Jonathan Franzen walking toward me, talking to a pretty blonde, in the atrium. I could have smelled his shampoo if I'd cared to. 
  • Beyond these kinds of random meeting-famous-authors-and/or-authors-you-love opportunities, there's bookworm merch beyond your wildest dreams available there. 

  • Even beyond that, if you've got a book you're trying to sell, you can go up to small press tables (dozens of them) and say, hey, I've got a book to sell, are you interested? If you have the chance to show an editor/publisher in person that you're a reasonably articulate non-weirdo, it might get you further than a query letter would. 
  • Even beyond all that! Opportunities abound to learn and to witness. There are panels, panels, panels, almost certainly a panel for every possible interest, several of them every hour. There are readings and signings galore by authors from the wildly famous to the totally cult-followed. 

You also have the chance to spend a day or two or three wandering around with several thousand other people who share your particular insanity. You could call it your tribe, if you want to.

A professor I trust told our class to avoid the panels and just spend time at the bookfair. Although I didn't mean to do that altogether, it's what I ended up doing. I went to a panel dedicated to a mentor of mine that was terrific, and then I sat through half of a panel about chapbooks that sucked, and then I didn't go to any more panels. I heard from other people that their batting average was about like that on panels: half good, half crappy. So I don't regret missing the panels. I wish I'd gone to see Maggie Nelson read, but I had such a grand old time doing all the other things I did that I'm not that sorry. If I'd had fewer friends at the conference, fewer people with whom I desperately wanted to spend quality time, I might've been more into the panels.

The CSUN booth ended up being a sort of bus station for me, which was not how I imagined doing AWP, but which worked well. I went back there every time I had no place else to go. I bonded with some fellow students with whom I hadn't had the chance to spend much time before, and I talked up the program a little and helped out with money-handling. If you go to AWP, I recommend finding a way-station like this, a safe space where you can return to gather your thoughts, whether it's a particular spot in the hall (next to the ATM, maybe) or a particular booth with friends running it.

I spent most of my time just wandering, up and down the aisles, looking at what was there. I saw so many interesting things that I couldn't replicate them all for you, but of particular note were several (!) presses that created handmade books in small batches (whether blank or authored), a fascinating project involving audio summaries of readers explaining why they love certain books, the Rumpus booth starting with two giant pyramids of coffee mugs and ending with almost none, and a booth I never did locate which was giving away buttons saying OXFORD COMMA 2016 like a political slogan.

I got to try out a Freewrite, which was terrific. I wouldn't have wanted to order one without trying the keyboard, and getting the chance to was worth a lot to me. I checked in with two of the magazines that have published me, which encounters weren't nearly as nice as I hoped they would be, but I picked up some useful information about one of the magazines' future trajectory. I also bought a ton of books, because most of them were already discounted (no tax, no shipping) and only became more so as the conference wore on. On the last day there were fire sales. However, the mood was crazed enough by early afternoon of the third day that I stopped enjoying myself and had to leave. So that's one of my recommendations, or at least something I plan to do differently next time: go to the first two days, skip the third.

Don't skip off-site stuff, though. I saw an unbelievable reading with Lidia Yuknavitch, Roxane Gay, Amy Poehler, Carrie Brownstein, Amber Tamblyn, and Randa Jarrar, and some of those people weren't even at AWP. I went to a loud but interesting party/reading put together by VIDA where I drank way too much and ran into a CSUN friend (a friend who wasn't attending AWP!) completely at random. There was a mariachi band there. I went to a party hosted by PEN and saw nearly no one I knew, and I think that's because they were all too famous for me. These parties are great for making connections, just as the bookfair is, but they're also great for hearing good art and having good fun.

Such a concentration of literary nerdery is only around once a year, so if AWP comes to a city near you, go forthwith. Unless something drastic changes in my writing career, I'm not going to the next two (Tampa and Washington, DC). But 2019's is in Portland (Oregon), so I'll see you there.

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