Report from AWP18

After the 2017 AWP Conference in Washington D.C. (AWP is the Association of Writers and Writing Programs and holds an annual conference in a different city each year), I vowed I would not be attending the 2018 Conference in Tampa. There were several reasons for that decision.

First, I had no interest in visiting Tampa. It’s not particular easy to get to from where I live in rural Virginia, and Florida does nothing for me as a destination (I get enough sunshine at home in the summer). Second, the conference itself is problematic on several levels. It’s expensive (registration, airfare, hotel, meals—it adds up to a hefty sum if you are an independent writer without institutional funding). Presentations are of disparate and unpredictable quality. It has become something of a young-writers’ gathering, and I have felt increasingly out of place in recent years. Plus, efforts to improve the organization’s gender diversity record have resulted in a conference that is dominated by women (a significant majority of presenters are women—nearly two-thirds). There may be good reasons for all of these developments, but it makes the conference feel less relevant to me. And third, I did not have a book come out in the past year, so I had no new publications to sell at the book fair.

But as the deadline for registration (not to mention travel and hotel reservations) grew closer, I felt my resolve slipping. Many friends made plans to go and urged me to come. Press 53, publisher of my two books and two anthologies, expected to have a large presence, including almost 30 of its authors. And I realized that it might be valuable to touch base with some of the small presses in attendance to stir some interest in a completed novel manuscript that needs a publisher. There is nothing like the AWP Bookfair for making those connections—800 exhibitors ranging from tiny magazines to large publishers all in one football-field-sized space.

In the end, I changed my mind and decided to go. This, then, is my report of my AWP experience and a few lessons learned.

  1. Travel/Hotel. Book early. Because I waited too long, my best flight option was to fly from Roanoke VA to Chicago to Tampa. (One blessing is that I used frequent flier miles, so at least it didn’t cost anything.) Because my flight out of ROA left at 6:23 am, I had to leave home at 3:30 am. That was no fun. I have no idea how one gets to Portland OR (site of AWP 2019) from here, but I’ll definitely book the trip earlier than I did for this year. And my hotel was pretty funky. It didn’t bother me much that it was a mile away from the convention center—I love to walk, especially when the temperatures are mild—but being closer is potentially convenient and better. I’ll try to book the main hotel for next year.
  2. Panels. I didn’t attend as many panels as I thought I might, but the ones I did go to were pretty good. Like many writers of literary fiction, I’m torn between plot—which I struggle with—and style. So I attended several panels on structure and plot and one on style, and I think I learned a few things, although I’m still torn. Plot is important—readers expect something to happen—but sentences are just as important. So I got something out of the panels I attended. However, looking at the schedule of panels, I was astounded by the number of panels that were made up entirely of women. And I’m not talking about subjects that are only of interest to women, whatever those might be. I would have thought that AWP would want to see diversity on its panels, but only 31% of panelists this year were male, down from 33% the year before. As noted above, maybe there are good reasons for this imbalance, but if the goal is equality then we’ve taken a wrong turn, in my estimation. Because panelists get some advantages—discounted registration and early access to conference hotel reservations—I have resolved to participate in panel proposals for 2019, against the apparent odds.
  3. Offsite Events. At AWP, there are the regular panels and the sanctioned evening events, like the keynote address (this year delivered by George Saunders). For some people—perhaps the people who didn’t have panel proposals accepted?—the “offsite” events are just as important. I usually stick pretty close to the main events, but this year I ventured out and attended a few things, such as an Authors’ Guild party and a reading at an Irish pub by alums of the Indiana University MFA program. (I didn’t get my MFA there, but I did get an MA in English there, plus one of the readers has contributed a story to the anthology I’m editing and I wanted to meet her.) Another event I wanted to attend resulted in a rather bizarre evening. I made my way in the rain to the venue listed in the program, a wine bar several blocks north of the convention center. It was loud and busy and no one there knew about the reading. Puzzled, I paced on the sidewalk outside wondering what to do. I was sure I had the right place, although the program listing mentioned a second floor space, and this wine bar clearly did not have a second floor. Just as I was about to give up, a manager came out and told me that she didn’t know what the mix up had been, but the reading had moved to another location, and she named a bar. As it happened, I’d seen that bar in my walks between my hotel and the convention center, so I knew where it was. I got there, ordered a drink, and waited. Eventually, the event organizers arrived and started to get things set up with the management, except that it became clear that the bar was not prepared for the event. The organizers reached a conclusion: there would be no reading. Instead, we were invited to a pub across the street for a drink on their dime. So we headed en masse across the street, had a drink, and then disbanded. But a few folks wanted to find dinner, so six of us—people I’d never met before—went to a Vietnamese fusion place not far away—and asked for a table. While we waited outside for the table to be ready, three of our group gave short readings on the sidewalk. So the reading happened after all. And then we had a pleasant dinner together.
  4. Bookfair. For me, the best part of AWP is the bookfair. Some years, when I’ve been actively submitting short stories to journals, I enjoy visiting their tables or booths and talking to editors. This year I was more interested in learning about small presses who might publish a novel manuscript I have available. I had even gone to the trouble of checking out these presses in advance and had made a list of the publishers I wanted to talk to and also the places I’d already submitted the book so I could follow up with them if they were in the fair. I printed the list out, and then forgot to bring it with me! But no matter, having done the work, I remembered most of what I needed to know. As a result, I had several productive discussions. Also I got to spend some time with the folks from Braddock Avenue Books who are bringing out my novel next year (in time for AWP in Portland) as well as my current publisher, Press 53 and visitors to their booth. I also bought a load of books and was also given a few books, making my suitcase way heavier for the trip home.
  5. Friends. AWP is one big reunion. I was able to see old friends from my MFA program, from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, from my publisher’s stable of writers, plus other writers I’ve met over the years. I also got to see several of the authors from my anthology series, including the new one that comes out this fall. I even had drinks with a friend from high school! (That was a long time ago.)

As noted above, I have some concerns about AWP and wonder if the conference is still relevant to me. I’ve committed to attending next year in conjunction with the launch of my novel, but if it weren’t for that, I doubt that I would go.

AWP15 Wrap-up

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On Wednesday, I was scheduled on a 6:15 am flight to DC and then on to Minneapolis. But when I showed up at SHD (the tiny airport from which Silver Airways, a code-share partner with United Airlines, flies), I was informed that my flight had been cancelled. The young clerk I spoke with then proceeded to screw up my travel plans further by rebooking me on Delta from DC instead of United (although I believe it would have been possible to keep me on United). This had several consequences: I had to ride in a van to DC with other passengers similarly situated; I lost the first class upgrade I had paid for; and I also had to pay a fee to Delta for my checked bag (on United that would have been waived). I was not a happy flier.

Still, I got to Minneapolis in time to register for the conference, get settled into my hotel, and head over to the cocktail reception sponsored by the Authors’ Guild. That was very enjoyable and I met some very nice and interesting writers there, including the Executive Directory, Mary Rasenberger, who stopped by the Press 53 booth at the bookfair the next day. After that I met up with some friends at the Hilton bar for drinks and ran into a number of other friends, and finally went back to my own hotel and connected with my publisher at the bar there. Enough wine was consumed to make me forget about my travel woes, at least for a time.

Thursday marked the beginning of the conference. After visiting the booth in the bookfair, I attended a panel on structuring the short story. I’ve heard this topic discussed frequently over the years, of course, but all the panelists had smart things to say, so it was definitely worthwhile. The panel featured Caitlin Horrocks, Rebecca Makkai, Rob Spillman, and Pam Houston, and was moderated by Arna Hemenway. But then I spent the rest of the day in the bookfair, talking to people about Press 53, Prime Number Magazine, and my own books. That was great fun, but I was on my feet all day. Right after the bookfair I went for drinks and snacks hosted by the Millay Colony, where I saw an old friend and met some new ones.  Then I tried to find the Ragdale folks who were supposed to be meeting in the Hilton bar, but I somehow didn’t connect with them, so I had drinks/snacks with some fellow Queens University of Charlotte MFA folks. Last up for the evening was a visit to Hell’s Kitchen for the Slippery Elm reading. (I’m an advisory editor, so I was glad to hear some of the work that the magazine has published.) By the end of the reading, I was done and headed back to the hotel.

Friday was very similar to Thursday. I started with a panel: The Ethics of Book Reviewing. This was a fascinating discussion, but I don’t think there was anything new said there. I’m frustrated when I see reviews by people I know to be close friends of the author of the book they are reviewing. That’s bad form, as these panelists understood, but it’s awkward to really call the writers on those transgressions. Then I was back at the bookfair all day until I headed over to a bar for the official Queens gathering. I got there early-ish because I had to leave early, but it was nice to see some folks there. Then I rushed up to the Barnes & Noble for the Press 53 reading. We had 19 people reading for 3-5 minutes each. That was fun, and no time to get bored. The Barnes & Noble people in the store were great and we had a nice audience. Then I rushed back the convention center for the Sewanee Writers Conference reception and connected there with some more old friends. And after that I wandered over to an art gallery where Copper Nickel was hosting a party. (Fun party, but I saw no signage, so I’m not even sure I was at the right party!)

Saturday was the last day of the conference. Again, I attended one panel, this one on “The Politics of Empathy,” which touched on the much-discussed topic of cultural appropriation in writing. The panelists gave a thoughtful discussion of the topic and reminded me to be sensitive the issue. Then I spent the rest of the day in the bookfair, splitting my time between standing in the Press 53 booth and wandering around the fair picking up some books I wanted. At the end of the day, although we knew about some closing-night parties, we were exhausted and I went to dinner (at Zelo, an excellent Italian place) with Kevin and Cathy from Press 53, then stopped for one drink at Brits, a pub on Nicollet Mall.

And then Sunday: early flight from MSP to IAD and then a long layover before my puddle-jumper to my “home airport,” SHD. That long layover was painful.

I’ve now been to nine AWPs in a row: Atlanta, New York, Chicago, DC, Denver, Chicago, Boston, Seattle, and Minneapolis (or I may have the order slightly wrong), and I’m tired. The conference has become a young writer’s game, it seems to me. And although I always see lots of old friends and have fun, and I love visiting the magazines and publishers in the bookfair, and I also enjoy being at the Press 53 booth when people stop by there, I’m not sure I get enough out of it to make it worthwhile. I think it’s great for teachers or for folks who want to teach. But I’m not sure it’s really worth the effort for people like me. So will I go to the Los Angeles AWP next year? I don’t know. The deadline for panel proposals is May 1 and so far I’m not on any proposals. The conference itself is March 30-April 2, 2016.

Tips for Writers: Conferences and Residencies

rainbarA friend just wrote and asked me if I knew of a list of writers conferences and residencies. The best one I know of is the one at Poets & Writers: Conferences and Residencies. It’s pretty thorough, I think, and has pretty detailed listings.

For example, here’s the listing for the Sewanee Writers’ Conference (a social event for which is pictured with this post). And, of course, the listing includes a link to the conference’s website, for more complete and current information.

AWP also has a good directory, which is here: Directory of Conferences & Centers. (The listing for Sewanee is similar but not identical to the one in P&W.)

So if you’re looking for a writers’ conference or residency, those would be the first two places I would check. If you know of other lists or guides, please mention them in the comments below.

ETA: Shame on me for forgetting about another great list, this one maintained by New Pages. Check out their Writing Conferences & Festivals page!

AWP HEAT Flash Contest — Free to Enter!

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 Guidelines

  • The AWP HEAT Flash Contest is run in conjunction with AWP HEAT, a reading on Friday, March 8, at Dillon’s Restaurant & Bar, Boston, 955 Boylston Street, one block Hynes Convention Center. Free. 2:30 – 6:30 p.m.
  • Winners of contest announced at 4:00 p.m. at AWP HEAT.
  • Respond to this prompt:  “Fire”
  • Anyone may enter the contest, whether attending AWP or not.
  • One entry per person.
  • Entries must be 1,000 words or less.
  • Email entries to awpheatflashcontest@gmail.com as a doc, docx, or rtf file.
  • Stories may be submitted anytime between now and midnight March 1st EST.
  • Up to three winning stories will be published by JMWWPrime Number, and Corium.

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Events, Events, Events

admire_grunge_logoI’ve got lots of events coming up over the next few months. I’m grateful for the Events Tracker on this blog — it’s a great way for people (and me) to stay on top of what’s happening.

This coming Sunday, February 3, is Small Press Day at Fountain Bookstore in Richmond. I’ll be there from 1-2pm with a couple of other authors, and there will be signings in the store all afternoon.

On Sunday, February 10, I’ll be in Roanoke at One Night Standing, the terrific reading series that the creative writing program of Hollins University. That starts at 7pm at the Kirk Avenue Music Hall.

On Wednesday, February 13, I’ll be at Blue Ridge Community College in Weyers Cave, VA, to talk to students and faculty (and the public) and to sign books. That’s at noon in the College library.

March is even busier, but I’ll post those details later. I’ll be at the AWP Conference in Boston and I’ll do a booksigning there. I’m speaking to the Spring conference of the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association. I’ll be doing several events at the Virginia Festival of the Book, sitting on two panels and moderating one. Check the Events Tracker for details.