My First Year Away from AWP

This marks my first year not attending the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference, a gathering of writers, editors, agents, and literary-centric folks. It is a frenzy of panel discussions, readings, off-site events, where more than a few drinks are hoisted with old friends, new friends, writers who make you nervous, and soon-to-be forgotten acquaintance who have likely watched you put your foot in your mouth at least once during the four-day conference. Thus, I have come to think of AWP in a bittersweet way.

My first AWP was meant to be the conference in Atlanta. I was a senior in college right outside of Atlanta, so it made perfect sense to go. I had battled a cold the entire week prior, and I had worked hard to recuperate before the conference because I wanted to go. After all, I had dropped seven MFA applications in the mail, was waiting to hear the results, and I thought going to AWP would give me a chance to meet the admissions people from those schools.

My second AWP - Chicago. This is also the night I discovered I actually can't pull off eyeliner.

The conference was supposed to kick off with a joint reading by Robert Olen Butler and the always fantastic Elizabeth Dewberry at the Margaret Mitchell House, where I had been an intern.

It was at this time in my life, dear readers, that I was going through some interesting fashion ideas. My friends and I generally encouraged each other to dress as ridiculous as possible. If you bra could show, if you could wear heels that made you want to remove your feet at the ankles, if you could mix shabby and glamorous, the general sentiment was, “Go for it!”

On that day, when the kick-off reading was supposed to happen, I carried my sickly butt to school on knee-high black boots with three-inch heels. I wore a pencil skirt, a fitted orange t-shirt from Old Navy, and a black blazer. I wore chunky bracelets, and my hair was unstyled but down around my shoulders.

After-partayzzzzz

I went to my musical theater class, where we, for the first time all semester, had to sing solos. We stood around the piano and took turns singing “By the light of the silvery moon” with only the piano behind us. I had been sick for a week and actually had no voice. I croaked and wheezed my way through. My classmates patted me on the back afterwards; I didn’t just suck. I warranted sympathy.

No matter. AWP was upon us. My friends and I would go and feel like real authors.

But then a massive storm settled over Atlanta and blew the power at the Margaret Mitchell House. The reading was cancelled.

My friends and I bitched each other out, and I tried to leave, but I forgot my umbrella. Rather than climb the stairs to the second floor of my friend’s apartment, I collapsed on the bottom step and sobbed. There would be no reading. There would be no conference. My throat hurt, my body ached, my head was pounding, and I barely felt well enough to drive home.

It's not all play. There's work involved. "Why yes, I can tell you about ODU's awesome MFA program..."

My first flu. Knock wood, my last one, too. No AWP for me.

Not until graduate school, that is. For the next four years, I would pack up, pile into a hotel room with my friends, and go to panel after panel, reading after reading, and try to feel inspired. I say try. I mean it.

Some people find AWP inspirational and fun and invigorating. I find it exhausting. I alwyas leave feeling vaguely defeated. Obviously, I’m showing up, I’m listening, I’m reading, I’m taking advice, I’m talking to people. And I have fun, too. I go to parties, I see the sights, I clink wine glasses with authors and fellow writers and teachers alike. I eat really awesome food. But somehow, I miss out on that AWP sparkle. I leave feeling rusty, not sparkly.

But let's be real - there's a lot of play, too.

Last year, my friend and I drove home from DC, and we compared notes. What was it that we were missing? Why did we not feel that shimmer and sizzle that others seemed to feel? I’m not naive; I know they’re usually just as exhausted as I am, but somehow, I don’t feel like everyone else goes home and begins using themselves as a punching bag.

So this year, I decided to take some time off. This year, I have worked on writing. Not all of it will get me published (likely very little of it will), but I have worked on becoming the writer I want to be, with my own interests, my own ideas. And a little bit of confidence. I want my next AWP to sparkle.

My sparkle's broken.

There are things I will miss, though. I will miss seeing friends who have moved away (I’m looking at you, Natalie, and Monique, and Joanna, and Christian). I’ll miss directing people to the Barely South Review/ODU MFA table (which people should really go see – that journal is beautiful and is now accepting submissions for the Norton Girault Fiction Contest – M19. Go.). Last time I went to the Chicago conference, I was in a state of emotional distress, so I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have, so I’ll miss not being able to give Chicago another chance.

I’ll miss getting to see Cheryl Strayed speak (she’s the mysterious Dear Sugar from The Rumpus, unveiled and absolutely wonderful). I’ll miss flopping down on my bed in the hotel room, highlighter in hand, to look through the positively massive program schedule to see what events I want to attend. I have a sneaking suspicion that Shaking Magazine, the magazine that accepted my first short story publication, will have copies of that issue to sell (go buy it! take a picture! send it to me!).

This was a sparkle moment in Denver. Perhaps I just need cupcakes?

I’ll miss the feeling of being totally overwhelmed by the book fair. I’ll miss Monique and Andrea finding us some ridiculously delicious place to eat. I’ll miss coming home loaded down with pounds of free journals and bookmarks and calls for submissions.

But I’ll see you next year, AWP. I’ll see you, and I’ll be ready to sparkle. And for all my friends and colleagues who are Chicago-bound:  have the best time! Sparkle and shine and tell me all about it when you get back. But seriously, I’ll bake you cookies if you send me a picture of my name in print in Shaking Magazine.


6 thoughts on “My First Year Away from AWP

  1. Maybe I’m just off, but in addition to being exhausted after a professional conference, I’m normally annoyed by the groupthink I encounter. Speakers preaching to a very sympathetic audience, normally. The few speakers who do challenge the audience get treated poorly for a few minutes, then people just seem to tune out. (Those of them who stay and listen, that is.) It almost seems like it’d be better to be lousy, and not annoy them than to be good and controversial.

    I’ve often wondered why I haven’t taken a year off from the one I normally attend, but the ticket sale window rolls open, and there I am trying to get one…..

    The second problem? When I get home, after recuperation, I never seem to get around to writing down all the things that bounced through my head during the conference, and on the ride home.

    1. I don’t think you’re off for that, Sean, though it hasn’t been my personal experience. I often felt the same sort of post-conference high (and subsequent crash down) after church camp when I was young. We’d be so hyped up, grooving hard on sound bites and catch phrases, and by the time we got home and a week had passed, we began to lose that fervor we had at camp. We forgot. Because I guess like conferences, snow days, and Christmas, it can’t last forever. You have to come down and get back to the everyday stuff.

  2. I was feeling a little sad too. So thanks for this lovely post on the good and bad, the ridiculous and the profound. Hopefully next year I’ll be there too, with sparkle. (And my first short story just came out in print too! so those going, find the Saint Katherine Review table–Joanna and I are in the latest issue!) Dana, so proud of you and your first accepted story!

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