AWP Junior High School: A Survivor’s Tale

Tomorrow I’m flying to Los Angeles for my third foray into the overpopulated slushpile that is the Conference of American Writers and Writing Programs, or AWP.

This time, I might actually get it right.

The first time I went to one of these things was in 2012, in Chicago. I’d gotten my MFA the year before, and I was muddling through my novel. It was right about the time when, in my mind, I’d crossed over from “person who stares at her computer a lot” to “writer”. This was a writers’ conference — it said so right in the title. So I should go, right? I emailed my former MFA classmates to see if any of them were going. They weren’t. This gave me pause for a minute or two, but then I thought: it’s a writers’ conference! I’m a writer! It sounds like heaven! I imagined three days of happy confabs with fellow writers, noodling about craft and the writing life in one of my favorite cities. I even had a friend who lived in Chicago, so I had a place to stay.

I bought the ticket.

I was Not Prepared. I’d never been to a writers’ conference before, and AWP, I now know, is the granddaddy of writers’ conferences. That year over 14,000 people were packed into three giant hotels in downtown Chicago. Every available conference room, lounge, and ballroom in those hotels had been commandeered for panels and readings that ran from 8 in the morning until 5 at night. The conference schedule was thicker than the Gap Christmas catalog. People waited ten deep for the elevators. The entire basement floor of the Chicago Marriott was crammed with thousands (not exaggerating) of tables for every literary magazine you’ve ever — and never — heard of. Everywhere I looked, there were hundreds of people carrying AWP book bags and wearing AWP badges. Talking, eating, drinking, riding the escalators, milling about, hubbubbing.

book fair
This is the insanity that is the AWP Book Fair.

Here’s what I thought, in no particular order:

(1) Shit. There are over 14,000 people here, and I don’t know ANY OF THEM!

(2) Shit. There are over 14,000 people here, and they are ALL WRITERS! So many writers! How am I ever going to get my voice heard in a world where, in just one weekend, in just one place, there are 14,000 other people who are already doing what I’m trying to do?

(3) Shit. Why are there so many writers anyway? Is everybody in the world a writer? Do they keep it a secret most of the time, until they come to AWP and fly their freak flag? Is that what this is? Is it like ComiCon, where you show up and realize every single person in the entire nation is a closet Marvel Comics fan??? Holy crap.

Look at these people. They’re ALL WRITERS.

Basically, I was overwhelmed. I didn’t talk to anybody the entire three days. I ate lunch alone in cafeterias full of laughing, chatting writers, all of whom looked happy, confident, and published. I went to panels, sat in the back, and kept an empty chair between me and my closest neighbor. I fled with relief when the last panel ended, arriving at my friend’s apartment with my hand outstretched for the glass of wine she poured when she heard my cab pull up. “It’s like junior high all over again,” I told her as I gulped down the Cabernet, “except there are 14,000 cool kids instead of just twenty.” I swore I’d never, ever, ever go to one of these clusterf*cks again.

The next year, AWP was in Boston. I ignored it. I didn’t know anybody in Boston anyway.

Then it was in Seattle. This time, I had an email from a former MFA classmate saying he was going, and so were two other classmates of ours. Our tiny little MFA program was going to host a cocktail party in honor of its 20th anniversary. All of my old teachers were going, he said.

Hmm, I thought. It had been two years since my initial AWP trauma, and the harrowing memories had dimmed just a little. It had been three years since I’d graduated from my MFA program, and it would be nice to catch up with classmates and teachers. I’d have to tell them I was still working on the novel I’d started in the program, and I’d have to tell them it wasn’t close to done, and I’d have to admit I hadn’t published a damned thing since I’d graduated, but…it would be nice to see them again. And I had lots of friends in Seattle. If it got to be too much for me, I could just bail.

I bought the ticket.

This time, there were over 15,000 people. But I knew three of them, and that made a huge difference. Aaron, Ruth, and Titi are nonfiction writers, so they didn’t want to go to the same panels I did, but we made plans to meet for lunch each day, and one night we went out and got dim sum. We went to our school’s cocktail party, where I said hello to all of my old teachers, and met people who’d attended the school before and after I did. Even though the Book Fair was still something out of one of my worst nightmares, I had a really nice time. I wasn’t one of the cool people in the AWP Junior High School, but at least I had people to sit with in the cafeteria. I left thinking maybe — someday — I might actually go to this thing again.

Hey! These people are making an actual human connection! At AWP!

I didn’t go the next year, because: Minneapolis. In March. Enough said.

But tomorrow, I’m going to LA. I imagine there will be 17,000 people there this time; AWP gets bigger every year. Aaron, Ruth, and Titi, my posse from Seattle, aren’t going. But two of my fellow Debs are. So are a bunch of women writers I’ve interacted with in online forums but never met. A couple of the women from the retreat I went to last week will be there, too. My MFA program is once again hosting a cocktail party, and a literary salon I enjoy from Northern California is hosting an offsite reading and meet-up.  My dance card, while not overly full, is pleasantly populated, and I know better than to go anywhere near the Book Fair.

So I think this third time will be the charm. Don’t get me wrong; I’m still not one of the cool kids. I never will be. But I’ve got my people, and I won’t be eating alone. In writing conferences, as in life and seventh grade, that’s really all you need.

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After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

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