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Saturday, March 9, 2013

My First AWP: What I don't know now that I thought I knew then

In many ways the AWP (Association of Writing Programs) conference represents the peak of the year for creative writers.  Unlike literature, history--I assume science--we don’t have sub conferences throughout the year for things like lyric poetry or mystery novel writing.  It all happens at once, with AWP, everyone converging in one pass.  Since I had never been to a AWP conference before I had built up many expectations, which would be inevitably ripped asunder.  Here are five ways my expectations were turned at my first go-around. 

1. Wearing a blazer makes you look professional, professorial, and cool.

That was my hope when my parents bought me the brown-tweed jacket I had been eying for my birthday.  I had seen the blazer all over campus, magic with patches sewn on.  Throw a blazer over a polo, a button-down—a T-shirt if you’re rolling Miami Vice style—and it’s instant class.  I assumed a well-placed blazer could ratchet up my status at AWP from first-year noob to seasoned panelist in a snap.

Not so much.  The secret to this magic trick, the one written in fine print, is that the wearer must own it; he must truly own his wearing of the blazer, believe he deserves to wear it.  In fucked up Monkey Paw wish fashion, I have learned that I can not own a blazer, at least not in the direct company of others who own it with such authority, but wearing without confidence exposes me for the fraud I am.  Wearing my birthday blazer on the first day of the conference, I felt like a Bar Mitzvah kid wearing his dad’s old suit that he had yet to grow into.  But at least, just as my Grandma had told me at my Bar Mitzvah, don't I look so cute wearing my big boy jacket?
Hmm, maybe I shouldn't have gone with the slender-cut blazer?

2. AWP is all about getting free swag

The thing that I had heard most frequently prior to AWP was that everyone gave out free stuff—like mad free stuff.  Suitcase-busting, knee-knocking-as-you're-walking, overloaded amounts of free stuff.  And I’m all about free shit.  The thing that seemed to have been omitted from this statement was that about 87% of it is shit no one wants.

Most of this figure amounts to literary journals.  Everyone has literary journals at his booth or table.  The good ones cost money and the bad ones are hurled at your head as you pass by.  On the last day of the conference multiple copies are hurled at you in rapid-fire fashion. There are pens, but after about 27 of them, I’m good.  And the booths that are swilling pins—I mean really?  Pins?  Come on, nobody’s trying to build up their flare collection to teach Freshman Comp.  The best thing I picked up was a beer koozie and one or two journals that I’ll actually read.  The remaining 87%?  Hey, meet this dumpster.  I don’t know what AWP's slogan is, or even if it has one, but this should go at the top of the list of considerations; AWP: shipping shit to conference cities so you can throw it away!

3. Hostels are for dirty hippies and foreigners

The only word dirtier than memoir at an AWP conference might be hostel.  This year the conference’s convention center site was connected to a super posh Sheridan, which was right next to an equally posh Hilton, which was just down the street from a couple other semi-posh, grown-up, “I’m a professional going to a professional conference” hotels.  I stayed in a hostel.  I get why the professors and writers and people making over $15,000/ year chose to stay in hotels and one day I hope to be able to make that choice as well.  But how are all these grad students staying in these hotels?  How many of them are in a room?  All of them?

When I told someone I was staying in a hostel, the response was generally the same; a double take where eyes were widened, gulps were swallowed, and words were spoken along the gamut of;

“Really?  Oh, well I heard that one is actually pretty not that bad”


“Oh God, do you want to sleep in my bathroom sink or something instead?  I mean—here, I have, I think that’s almost 80 cents.  That can probably get you a Twinkie, right?”

Aside from being my only financial option, the hostel where I stayed was a legitimately great place to stay.  Lounge areas with big screen TV, a good continental breakfast, quiet rooms, Wifi, study areas—it was essentially like living in a nice college dorm on the cheap.  It was close to the conference and was even located in a pretty trendy area of town.  Fuck it, I’m going to schill out for this place—40 Berkley in south Boston, minutes from downtown!  If you don’t stay here while visiting Boston you’re either dumb or rich, which in the case of the latter you’re allowed to be the former. 

Not my room mates (at the hostel).

4. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and there was booze

To say that attending my first AWP conference was an emotional roller coaster would be a sin of the greatest nature in literary laziness, but this is what this conference has reduced me to.  It has drained my life force and my will to write originally. 

In its most brilliant moments, AWP was an event that brought hundreds of current writers, former writers, teachers of writers, friends of writers, great impersonators of writers from around the country and crammed them all into this space where they could all nerd out unabashedly and uncontrollably for a few days.  I had a 45 minute conversation with someone about how to write imagined dialogue of close family members during moments of tragedy in a funny way—yeah.  That was an actual conversation and it was great.  Tons of interesting panels, readings, off-site readings, conversations about shit I didn’t even know was going on.  It was Xanidu for the creative writer and it was marvelous.

At it’s lowest moments it was a giant pissing contest where at any moment someone prowling the corridors might be sizing you up as a writer.  What program are you in?  What have you published?  Where have you published?  Who do you know?  Who are you hanging out with tonight?  Everything was a literary measuring of dicks and I hate measuring dicks.  I hate competition really.  I want to be as good as everyone and no better than anyone.  In my perfect world we’d all be incredible writers published in equally amazing journals and we’d all be best friends who play video games and sleep over at each other's houses.  Okay, maybe some of us would be a little more equal than others at writing, and actually, there are some people I definitely don’t want to be friends with, but I still hate this hierarchical phenomenon that can happen when writers meet each other.  I think even dogs have better manners when meeting.

The other big gut-churner for me was the schmoozing.  More than I hate pissing contests, I suck at networking.  I suck at lying, especially when I have to lie, which is what networking feels like to me.  When I introduce myself to someone explicitly for the reason of furthering my career in some way--which I understand is how the world works, how things must work, get with it or get off--that feels disingenuous to me.  And yeah, at a three day conference where people are crazy busy, to a certain extent, authenticity must be shelved for efficiency, but I'm probably not the guy for the job.  There's this thing where I guess you're supposed to walk up to someone on the fly, smiling--for no real reason and it's assumed that it's not because you're actually deranged--and start talking to them about exactly what you're after, try to cultivate those professional connections.  When I tried this, it was like I made the whole world go awkward, and for what it's worth, I apologize to those folks I tried this on.  It's not you, it's me and you deserve better. 

To the people who I did meet authentically, to the friends I made at AWP camp, you're great, never change, have a neat school year, see you next summer! 

**On a semi-related note, I would just like to say how glad I am that our department is void of hipsters.  They were everywhere in Boston and AWP, and though I know hipsters lurk the PBR stills and suspender shops of Columbia, there are none in Tate's basement, for which I am immensely greatful.

5.  I’ll conclude with this…

One night I was running late to an event at the convention center so I was literally running, sprinting down the still icy street from my hostel to make it on time.  It had been snowing all week, making road conditions nasty, but I figured if I kept my pace, I'd only be 5-10 minutes late.  As I speed-tippy-toed around slosh puddles, picking my spots like I was racing over hot coals, checking my watch every four seconds, I thought of my good friend's creative nonfiction panel from earlier that day.  She had spoke of this idea of "premeditated writing" that CNF writers tend to find themselves doing, this thing where we purposely place ourselves in writable situations, strategically constructing our own nonfiction while narrating our lives as they happen.  Picking up my speed as I tore down the streets clad in button-down and what-used to be good, not soaked shoes, I wondered just how I came to be so late.  Was this a subconscious choice to create a good story?  Was it a conscious one?  If it wasn't premeditated, was there perhaps some internal narration going on as I continued to careen down sloshy lanes, heightening my pace, triangulating the center's neon spire's changing position through falling snow with every turn I took, remembering how my ex-girlfriend had always looked tired and distant, expectantly sad every time I had offered her an excuse for being late?  Nah.  But honestly, I said to myself, I'm always late.  This was no more pre-meditated than it was something write-worthy. And it wasn’t.  At that exact moment millions of people were just as late or later than me for events just as important or more important than mine and there was nothing remarkably writable about my particular situation.  That's when I bit it on the sidewalk, sliding face-first into a tree.  Then some guy bundled up on a road bike by, riding the wrong way down the middle of the street appeared and without pausing or altering his pace shouted,

"Slow down, fuckhead!"

Thank you, Boston, that’s been my time tonight.  Tip your waiter! 


  1. 1. The trick to wearing a blazer like you own it is to wear it a lot. Of course it won't fit -- metaphorically speaking -- the first time you put it on. Wear it so often that your friends begin to associate you with it, and then it will be yours. You, too, can rock in a blazer. Like everything else, it takes practice.

    2. "Sometimes what you get free costs entirely too much." Rule of Acquisition #218.

    3. I know you hate it when I do this, but the convention cite was next to the Sheridan? Really?

    4. It is indeed like blazers. See #1.

    5. I see what you did there.

  2. Ack, I hate schmoozing too. My first AWP everyone told me to "work the bookfair" or "work the hotel bar." The hotel bar was beyond overcrowded and too noisy -- if you couldn't shout to get the attention of someone you already knew, there was no way to start "working" the scene. And the bookfair was just way too overwhelming my first year out.

    My second AWP I was part of the staff of a lit journal -- this made life so much easier. People came up to me and asked questions -- way easier on me to start conversations when I had a built in topic (the journal) to get the conversation rolling.

    It's actually a really good place to scope out MFA/PhD programs before you apply since you can hunt down their journal's table and chat up the current grad students on hand.