3 Things I Learned at the AWP Conference

This past week, the AWP Conference descended upon Seattle. Like a swarm of locusts, 14,000 writers passed through the city, buzzing and pen-scratching and drinking all the alcohol in their path. And I? I was one of them.

I hadn’t heard of AWP (the Association of Writers and Writing Programs) before they decided to hold their annual conference in my fair city. But all the writers I talked to said that this would be a Big Deal — that the AWP Conference was one of THE biggest writing gatherings out there, which meant there would be a ton of people, great talks, etc etc. I figured, hey, it’s in Seattle, I have nothing to lose. (Except, you know, the registration fee. Which to AWP’s credit was actually pretty reasonable if you signed up early.)

So last Thursday I trekked off to the Convention Center for Day 1 of the conference… and on Friday I trekked off for Day 2…. and Saturday I trekked off for Day 3 before finally having an introvert meltdown and running home to hide in bed with hot cocoa (no joke, that literally happened).

And now that I’m processing the whole experience, the one word that keeps springing to mind to describe it? Weird. Decidedly not what I expected. But there were some insights gleaned…

1. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in school. Ok, not THAT long. I graduated from Linfield College with an undergraduate degree in 2007. But that’s long enough to forget the in’s and out’s of academia. Long enough that I am no longer accustomed to its language. And yes, academia DOES have its own language. Sitting in on the first couple panels, I had to do a mental shift to even understand what people were saying. My brain hurt. Honestly, I felt kind of dumb for not being able to follow along better.

I have no actual statistics to back this up, but I felt like the vast majority of people attending the conference were either university professors, MFA graduates or current MFA students. (One panelist joked, “If you’re not in academic jobs, you might ask yourself, ‘What am I even doing at AWP’?”) I have never attended an MFA program — which did make me feel rather left out at the conference, like I wasn’t one of the “cool kids.” I had to consistently step back and remind myself that I chose the non-MFA path for myself, for a number of reasons. And you know? I’m happy with the path I chose. I think it’s allowed my voice to grow and develop in ways it otherwise wouldn’t have.

I should say at this point — I LOVED my undergrad college experience. I was lucky to have engaging (and engaged) professors, interesting classes, talented peers. But the AWP Conference reaffirmed that, for me, undergrad was enough.

2. Genre not welcome here. Ok, this may be an overstatement, but it was something I acutely felt at the conference. Academics tend to… well, they tend to only want to write about Big Important Topics. Which is great! I love a LOT of those books. But, on the flip-side, they tend to look down on any type of “genre” fiction — science fiction, fantasy, pulp, crime. Stephen King talks about his own experience with this during his MFA program in On Writing:

I brought poems of my own to class, but back in my dorm room was my dirty little secret: the half-completed manuscript of a novel about a teenage gang’s plan to start a race-riot …. This novel, Sword in the Darkness, seemed very tawdry to me when compared to what my fellow students were trying to achieve; which is why, I suppose, I never brought any of it to class for a critique. The fact that it was also the better and somehow truer than all my poems about sexual yearning and post-adolescent angst only made things worse.

I think it comes down to this: we’re told to write the stories we want to read. But sometimes in a formal academic setting, it feels like certain stories aren’t “right” — that they’re not worthy of our precious writing time. This was something I definitely felt at the conference. For example, I attended a panel about “science in fiction” — which sounded right up my alley! I am writing fiction, and it involves science! Well, as soon as the panel started, the moderator gave this disclaimer: “I just want to make sure that everyone here knows that this is about science IN fiction — not science fiction.” As if there’s some concrete line separating the two. It ended up being a fairly interesting panel, but that start left a bad taste in my mouth.

On another occasion, a panelist kept talking about the “integrity of the writer” — someone would ask her a question, and she would say, “Well, yes, but it all depends on the integrity of the writer.” At first I could NOT figure out what she was talking about. And then I realized — by “integrity”, she meant “real writers.” AKA, not “sell-out” writers. Blech, lady. Get off that high horse and then we can talk. Why must we separate “academic” from “non-academic” writing, “real” books from “popular” books? If it’s well-written, let’s just all enjoy it for what it is.

3. I still have a lot to learn. At first, I came away from the AWP Conference rather unhappy — confused, cynical, and not-too-sure of my place in the writing world. But then on Monday I flipped back through my notes from the conference — and damn, but there are a lot of goodies in there. Amidst all the confusion (and honestly, some really bad panels), there were some great moments in there, too. I got to hear Chuck Palahniuk and Monica Drake talk about their writing group, and how they edit one another’s work. I got to see my co-worker — who it turns out is an award-winning poet — present an absolutely amazing Powerpoint poem (yes, you read that right). I got to have drinks at the Sheraton with writers from all over the country, and look around the room and realize that holy shit this bar is literally filled with writers.

But the one note that really stood out? A short little quote from Calvert Morgan, the long-time editor of novelist Jess Walter:

What do you want your greatest book to be? – Calvert Morgan

He said this is a question he always asks writers he works with — and that it’s an aspiration that should constantly evolve with your career. And it got me thinking — what do I want MY greatest book to be? I don’t have an answer to that, but it does encourage me to aspire higher, to work harder, to try and write the best book I can even if it isn’t about Big Important Things.

Would I attend the AWP Conference again? No, probably not. I think there are other conferences out there that would be a better fit for me. But I am glad I went. It was a weird, eye-opening experience. And at the end of the day, I got to hang out with 14,000 writers — so that in itself is alright.

4 thoughts on “3 Things I Learned at the AWP Conference

  1. That’s so cool that you got the chance to go to a huge writing conference like that! I’m glad that it was worth it in the end. I feel like I come across the academia vs non-academia situation a lot, especially now that I’m looking for non-academia careers. I feel like some academia folks can be rather snooty and not understand why anyone would wanna do anything else. It’s weird.

    1. I think it tends to be a very insular world, which then progresses into, “Why would you do anything else?”

      Actually, one of the panelists had a super interesting career path — she had been a tenured creative writing professor, and then left her university to work in the non-profit world (if I’m remembering correctly). She said everyone was SHOCKED by her decision. After a 7-year break, she’s returning to academia this next year. A good example of the fact that it doesn’t HAVE to be one or the other!

    1. Glad you liked the post, Brian! Thanks for the comment.

      I do disagree with the assessment of academics “not being able to write something worth reading.” Like I say, some of my favorite books come from Academic Darlings and tackle those Big Important Questions (in fact, quite a few on my “Top 10” list fall under that category, now that I re-look at that post — http://buffalowrites.com/2013/01/29/top-10-books-part-1/).

      I think the main problem comes when we try to put some sort of divide between genres, deeming certain ones important and worthwhile, and deciding that others are just “guilty pleasures.” If it’s a good book, it’s a good book — as readers (and writers), that should be our only criteria.

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