My fictional fantasy: Finally, a world where writers matter!

I was once among those who scoffed at writers' conferences. Then I attended AWP and felt powerfully transformed

Published March 7, 2014 11:58PM (EST)

  (AP/Henny Ray Abrams/Reuters/Joaquin Sarmiento/Knopf/Erin Patrice O'Brien)
(AP/Henny Ray Abrams/Reuters/Joaquin Sarmiento/Knopf/Erin Patrice O'Brien)

Writers are an easy mark. Announcing the arrival of the AWP Conference & Bookfair in Seattle last week, the city’s weekly paper, The Stranger, described attendees as “verbose, bedraggled, and socially inept,” all of which are often true of people with solitary pursuits, but which still constitutes a lazy characterization. Like everyone who gets flattened by stereotype, there is so much more to aspiring and established writers than broad comic brushstrokes. I say this as much for others as for myself.

I had long dismissed the annual gathering of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs as a tediously academic ritual centered around networking, selling and those formally constrictive events called “panels.” AWPs are often in convention centers. I didn’t start writing to hang out in convention centers. I’m not a pharmaceutical rep. Plus, I doubted that the institutionalization of a creative endeavor could do any good to the quality of, and the Olympian effort required to make, what we call literature. AWP smelled suspicious. It was also easy to dismiss when it was held in cities so far away as to render it cost-prohibitive.

I’m a West Coast freelancer, house sitter and retail clerk. I can’t afford annual stays in Boston, New York and Chicago. This year the conference took place in Seattle, though, a breezy three-hour drive from my home in Portland, Ore. A friend I hadn’t seen in years was attending. Literary magazine editors who’d published my essays were attending. Proximity and free lodging made AWP a presence I could no longer ignore. And after finally attending — after four straight days of author readings, book fairs, parties and perpetual conversation — I realized how much of the richness of humanity I’d ignored with my stereotyping. These, my own people — and I’d dismissed them! Even as a part of the tribe, my cynicism with the profession (a profession that, as publisher Richard Nash put it in one panel, is perched atop a hobby) and the routine administrative frustrations (pitching, submitting, constant rejections) can overwhelm my sense of camaraderie, but this weekend showed me how wrong I had been about AWP. The convention didn’t feel like a hive of 13,000 networking sycophants as much as a camp-out with kindred spirits.

* * *

According to Alec MacGillis’s recent New Republic piece, American fiction writers are often characterized as people who “break out of their bubble only for the occasional trip to a writers’ conference, where they hold forth on panels conducted in NPR-level murmurs before returning home with another tote bag to add to the collection inside the hall closet of their appropriately shabby-genteel Craftsman bungalow. …Our writers, the complaint goes, are too cloistered. They sit in their cosseted college towns, leading desultory MFA workshops and crafting lapidary stories and poems for tiny-circulation journals…”

I don’t know what world the normally astute MacGillis is living in, but in my 38 years I’ve never lived in a bungalow, largely because I’m too busy writing stuff rather than working at the sort of high-paying, full-time “normal” jobs that would allow me to inhabit something larger than an apartment.

Should I workshop that sentence to make it lapidary?

Despite having broken out of my own bubble to attend the conference, I only attended one AWP panel, and I snuck into that without paying; in fact, I didn’t pay for anything. Due to lack of interest in panels and budgetary restrictions, I only went to readings, which were free, and attended the book fair on its traditional free day. The bubble I normally inhabit isn’t the cloistered academic one to which MacGillis alludes, either. It’s a self-imposed one designed to help me remain productive. Although I do have an MFA and debt, I’ve never taught a college class, and I’ve never received grant funding. I would love to do both, but like many writers, I defy MacGillis’s stereotype because I live not in academia but in multiple prosaic worlds. Many of us work regular jobs (for me, retail) and have regular families (working-class Okie and New York roots), often composed of blue-collar people who worry about or question the wisdom of our literary pursuits. And we find time to write when we’re not raising kids, paying rent or doing jury duty in that big bubble called America.

MacGillis’s use of the academic-literary writer archetype does raise certain questions for AWP attendees; one I frequently asked myself as a convention-averse person: What can be learned at a conference? For one, that those scrambled eggs are powdered, not scrambled, and two, not to use passive tense. But besides that?

Certainly not how to write. Hopefully few people come to AWP for that. Judging from the panel topics, many come to learn how to sell, and how to publish, promote, pitch and submit stories to magazines and books to publishers. Those skills can be learned. I learned them all somewhere, though not here among the 13,000 attendees. I’m likely not the best person to comment on what people learn at AWP. I didn’t interview anyone to find out. I’m not going to check figures, either. I’m only here to relay my own experience, and it’s not one concerned with craft but revitalization.

When your spirit sags – and it will – and you wonder why you bother with this writing thing at all, AWP reminds you: you do it for these people. Not to please or make them love you, but because they are your readers, and you’re theirs. In a world of seemingly great indifference, AWP reminds writers that people care. Maybe most of those people fit under a single conference center roof – likely not – but that crowd still numbers enough to provide a sensory impression of the vastness of America’s readership, and to make your efforts feel at least slightly significant. It’s conference as a vote of confidence that independently published books get read and magazine subscriptions filled. When rejection has a writer down and you’re ready to throw in the proverbial towel because you work your draining day job and write in the morning and at night, all the while wondering why you still give a shit about the literature we call ‘lit,’ go to AWP. You will care again. At least for a little while.

Although many people certainly come to self-promote and make “connections” (eyes rolling), the event offers ample opportunity to learn, to socialize and to immerse yourself in the collective enthusiasm. As New Yorker Page-Turner editor Sasha Weiss said, AWP feels like “a giant reunion of English majors thrilled to be back at school.” That describes most people I met. Even if traditional publishing and print are dying (they’re not), that dire state didn’t darken the mood. Neither did the widespread hangovers and sleep deprivation. People were tired and besieged but generally pleased to be here. Why wouldn’t they be? Nowhere else in America was the written word being celebrated on such a grand scale.

I’m sure if you asked certain literary magazine and university press editors about their AWP experience, they’d tell you about fatigue, overeager submitters and pushy attendees, and describe a weekend spent with their defenses up, talking till their voices cracked. If you asked many writers about their time at the conference, they’d likely recount certain panels they attended, interesting people they met, and specific subjects they learned or failed to. It’s not that panels and meetings don’t matter. It’s just that I didn’t come for those. I was there to hang out. And for an introspective, workhorse solitaire like me, that was a much-needed change of pace.

I’m not a joiner. I didn’t play team sports. I never worked on the school paper. I was a gently rebellious, anti-authoritarian skateboarder who grew up drawing and reading. Even as a less rebellious adult, when I see a group activity like a class reunion or work retreat, alarms sound in my introvert brain and I head the opposite direction. I feel the way essayist and novelist Leslie Jamison feels when she says, “I became a writer because I’ve always enjoyed observing more than being observed. …My worst nightmare had always been walking into a room of strangers and choosing a cluster into which to insinuate myself.” Cocktail parties and gallery events unsettle me, but after years of hard, solitary work writing essays and articles and an unpublished (and unpublishable) novel, so does the prospect of spending more time alone with my laptop. When it’s your job to stay glued to a desk and computer, you start to crave some social interaction with like minds. You want to talk about books and writing, or just talk, about anything.

Writing is solitary work. Reading is, too. AWP gathers people who understand that, and who understand you, because they share the intense interest in the things that we build so much of our lives around: reading, writing, magazines and books. Sports fans can appreciate that. Musicians and storm-chasers and car collectors, too. It’s not the particular interest so much as the nourishing necessity of talking to people who share your pastimes and profession, and that, at its core, is one of AWP’s defining attractions. You can learn stuff. You can buy stuff. You can also soak in its great ocean of excitement. Too bad many of us will only see each other once a year. It’s not all about selling. It’s also about getting out of your writing room or office to talk and dance and drink (three beers constitutes a wild night to many writers) and eat tacos after midnight, and there are few things more universal and beautifully human than the need for connection. You see it in novels all the time.

Although I still find conferences and the literary academy symptomatic of writing’s compromised immune system, now that I’ve actually attended AWP, I can see the importance of both. MFA programs and AWP are filled with more heart than salesmanship. I write hard partly to avoid suits and fluorescent-lit offices. I’m not a businessman and never will be. So when the escalator was carrying my friend Titi and I up to the convention center’s fourth floor book fair on Saturday, I kept asking myself, “Why am I here?” The answer arrived moments after arrival. Friends and editors who I recognized while walking through the enormous hall all stopped to talk: “Steven Church!” “Elena Passarello!” “Justin Alvarez!” “Katherine Sullivan!” And in response: “Aaron!” People. Enthusiastic people. My kind, my family, my brethren, even the strangers. That’s why I came.

Instead of thinking, “I’ll never do that again,” I left Seattle thinking, “I want to see all these people again, and next time to hang out for longer, to get a cup of coffee and sit,” and that means attending AWP 2015 in Minneapolis. In other words: I am a convert. Despite that word’s religious overtone, I am not in a literary cult, and AWP is not an insider’s club. I’m just more social than I realized, as are many of us “verbose, bedraggled, and socially inept” writer people. We need other people. And these AWPers – at the book fair anyway – are my people.

Writers, of course, specialize in reflection. Leaving AWP, you inevitably take stock. Dan Cafaro, publisher of Atticus Books, said: “AWP brings an exhaustion that other industry conferences just can’t match. It must have something to do with all the stimulating talk about writing...but it’s not just the intellectual collisions; it’s the mutual admiration we share with everyone crazy enough to do this thing we do.”

University of Alabama professor Eric Parker said: “I can’t decide which was a more interesting highlight of AWP, being asked by a TSA agent in Seattle if I do a lot of hunting and fishing when he saw my Alabama driver license, or when the elevator doors opened the first morning in my hotel, and there stood my ex-wife and her current husband (whom she had an affair with in grad school) on my same floor. I told the TSA agent ‘no,’ and I told my ex’s husband, who didn’t recognize me, that he should probably step back off the elevator.”

Like them, my AWP highlights were the people: when a nonfiction writer who I love personally and whose writing stirs me came up to me and said, “Hey motherfucker, give me a hug.” And when I opened to a random page in the 200-plus page AWP catalog and saw my friend and fellow Powell’s Books alum Alexis Smith in the ad for Goddard’s graduate creative writing program. Alexis and I have come a long way since our days as bookstore clerks. The thing is, after you leave AWP, you realize how much further you have to go. For many of us, we have our whole lives to go. That’s an exhausting prospect. But there’s always next year’s AWP to revitalize you, this collective hug, an expensive nudge rather than a plateau on which to camp.

Like the fiction and essays that literary magazines publish, maybe the idea of AWP is something that will never fully reach the general public. It and my experience might be insider information best kept within the zoo of the convention center. But AWP left me feeling invigorated in too many ways to keep to myself. One of those ways is a renewed commitment to the highly uncommercial form of the essay, and a welcome visit from the old feeling of doing what you love despite saleability. Not that I don’t want to sell. I want to make just enough money to quit my day job, but that’s such a popular desire that it’s one of the oldest clichés in the book, as is the saying “in the book.” As I drove south from Seattle in my rental car, I felt a burden lift from my curmudgeonly mind, a sense that my age-old AWP cynicism had been profoundly counteracted by the enthusiasm and authenticity of the people inside the book fair and the writers I heard read at various bookstores, bars and house parties. My experience was a thrill and a relief. Even in a world of networking and ambition, where the specter of insularity threatens the durability of your project, the industry event that is AWP offers a very broad reassurance: great people abound.

By Aaron Gilbreath

Aaron Gilbreath has written for The New York Times, Harper's, Paris Review, The Believer, Virginia Quarterly Review and Oxford American. You can find him at @AaronGilbreath

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