“AWP is one of those manic, slightly regressive rituals (like college reunions or taking Ecstasy) that's easy to badmouth, but foolish to condemn.”—Steve Almond talks AWP in The Writing Boom at a Time of Declining Readers | New Republic
The Uneducated Poet Goes To The Big Writer's Conference
There are a lot of elevators. And escalators. Entry points, not manned by security. It is much like entering a poem: look for the least difficult side, drag your tote and badge through the small opening, find the most obvious place to sit. When conversations need to happen, it goes much like jail. What did you do to get in here. How long will you be staying. I don’t really belong here. Mostly, I listen to the expert’s bios. Brightly colored cans of condensed milk sweetening each introduction. The experts wear nice jackets and good shoes. Some experts drink beer at the pulpit. Some say shit and fuck. To let you know they are just regular.
Everyone here wants to know they are not alone. Also, they want to know they are different enough to keep their job. I want to know how to speak the language of Print. I speak Stage. I speak Feelings and Facial Expressions. I have published two books but I have no idea how to navigate the bizarre highways of publishing. I don’t even know what questions to ask. I tell people I am a poet for living and I feel like I am telling them I won my life from a radio raffle. My friend tells me there are not two different camps. If you think you are from one camp or the other, you are probably not from either. He tells me to find my people.
On the last day, I go to a panel about art and commerce. The thing I am constantly trying to learn: how to feel good about exchanging art for money. Steve Almond, the expert writer who will gut me, speaks in a clear, shovel-like tone.
“When I come home from writing something, my wife asks if I made a lot of money. I say Yes, Baby. She flops on our bed and I make it rain.”
Finally, someone breaks the seal. The stiff, pretentious seal. I come from poetry slam. An elaborate competition where we trade our poems for scores. There are trophies and ranks. We say some poets are “better” than others. I am protective of the sport but when I call out the absurdity of it, it feels like I am closest to it’s origin. It was designed to break poetry free from academia. To get an audience to experience poems like good meals they can afford. Since then, it has become a strange network of worth. A way to acquire status in a uncharted hierarchy. I hate slams so much, I compete in them every year. I am convinced, some day, I will bring home a giant trophy with a gold plaque that says, Validation.
“Be envious of the way another author pays attention to the world, the careful way they craft sentences, not the advance they get.”
Steve tells us to take a brutal self-inventory. “When do you write best? How can you write at that time more often? “ He wants us to put books in the world that “feel like artifacts, not commodities.” He says we will never get on the other side of the hustle. The hustle is the gristle. The gristle is the electric bill. I am pretty sure he is speaking directly to me when he says, “Learn to offer 1,000 words with no bullshit. They need you to be a lot smarter and more mature than you are.”
When the panel is over, I know what I came to this conference to learn: We are all in this absurd boat together.
Jeanette Winterson said, “When you break your leg, you go to a doctor. When you break your heart, you go to a poet.” Most of the time, you do not spend hours deciding which doctor sets bones best. You do not check their credentials or ask to see their awards. You go to the one closest to you. The one the ambulance drives you to or the one your friend recommends. There is nothing mystical about writing for money. Be the one that is easy to find, the one that best serves your neighborhood. Do it well and often. Find the least guarded entry point and enter there. Wander around until you find your people.
In And To And From And After #AWP13
Back Bay roofs from the Hynes Convention Center
I attended five panels. Two I left early. Two I would have gladly sat through for another hour, or reconvened. Two I overslept. In a panel titled “Argumentative Fiction,” Marlon James asked why Katie Roiphe discusses only the Davids and Jonathans, and not Junot Diaz, and why she does not compare Portnoy to Yunior. Two panels that I wanted to attend were Friday morning while we shoveled snow and snow fell so fast that in the ten minutes we took to change from our shoveling clothes a quarter inch had covered my car. On the Mass Pike braking was impossible, one lane entirely snowed over. We arrived, parked underground, found the narrowness of our spot and the florist’s truck next to it hilarious.
A very incredibly belated post on AWP in which I am a drooling fan girl, want a hat, and have a quarter-life crisis.
I’ve been meaning to post about AWP for the last almost month now, but I was too busy breaking the Guinness World Record for the most mucus created by one body. So, my apologies. I’m fairly certain that AWP was directly responsible for my three-week long illness, because a) symptoms appeared the evening of Tuesday, March 12, 48 hours after returning home from AWP, which is the exact gestational period of Human Rhinovirus, b) BLIZZARD, c) severely inadequate clothing for blizzard, and d) 11,000 germ-carriers from across the country in one building. Movie proposal: a virus sweeps through AWP, claiming America’s great writers one by one. It’s called, Contagion 2: Literature Really is Dead.
But anyway. AWP.
I will admit that I was kind of nervous about AWP this year. The only two times I’ve been before were with my MFA program, which meant I had a built-in group of friends and, more importantly, an identity. I was a writer, a real one who may be unknown, but is at least a little bit good. You could tell because it said so, right there on my lanyard: Claire Burgess, Vanderbilt University, Nashville Review. I was a part of things.
But this time, I was going alone. Sure, I was rooming with a friend from my MFA days (Jill Schepmann, who by the way is an amazing fiction writer and you can read her story “Space-Time Capsule” on NPR here), and I would surely be able to awkwardly hang around the Nashville Review table, for which I still read, if I was feeling lost. But still. That lanyard was blank but for my name. (And the sponsorship of the University of Tampa Low-Residency MFA, but that doesn’t count.) I was a loner among loners. A writer somewhere in the awkward space between publishing stories and publishing books. A free agent, without an agent. (Punny! I’m sorry. Agents, call me.)
To make matters worse, I had a minor meltdown while packing on Tuesday night because I decided, for definitely psychological reasons, that all my clothes were ugly and uncool. Because you know that all those AWP kids, especially the young ones, are hip as hell. I mean, objectively, I think we all know they look a little ridiculous, but we also know that they are on top of the world and filled with youth and exuberance and creativity and Kombucha, so we can forgive them their indoor scarves. Hell, I make fun of the flamboyantly (yet curiously uniformly) dressed hipsters, but while packing for AWP and strewing clothes about my bedroom with abandon, I actually yelled, with quite a bit of angst, “Why don’t I own any funky hats!” That is an actual thing that came out of my mouth. If someone had walked up to me at that moment and offered to put feather extensions in my hair, I would have been like, “How did you get in my bedroom,” and then I would have been like, “Welcome, please proceed.” It was a low point.
In hindsight, I believe my temporary wardrobe breakdown had something to do with me trying to assert that I belonged, that I was a bonafide creative type and not just some rando trying to write my memoirs, through owning a fedora (are those still in?) and a pair of floral-patterned skinny jeans (I don’t own these, but on that night, I wanted to). As if I’m going to be walking by the Dzanc Books table and have Matt Bell be like, “Hey, I can tell by your floral-print skinny jeans and rakishly skewed hat that you are a talented creative writer! Do you have a short story collection I can immediately publish, by chance?” HA, Claire. Ha.
Let it also be known that on the night of Tuesday, March 5, before and while packing, many beers were put into my body. It should furthermore be noted that I was listening (/singing) to country music while drinking said beers (also, innocuous detail: alone), which is an obvious indication that I was grossly depressed and should not have been allowed to make decisions about personal style, hats, or really anything else ever.
Anyway. Due to the aforementioned beers, and therefore the inability to operate a motor vehicle in the direction of Target, I ended up just wearing what I normally wear. Which is better, really, because otherwise I risked being known as “that girl who’s always wearing that funky hat” instead of, you know, Claire. There was a woman wandering around AWP dressed in what I can only call “goth dominatrix casual day wear,” and on the one hand I wanted to be like, “Yeah, lady! You do you.” But on the other, I was a little bit like, “Ehhh, probably not the most professional decision.” I have my dad in my head saying, Dress for the job you want, not the job you have! In this case, however, the job I want would be sitting in my artistically decorated writing studio all day churning out novels, and—let’s get real—probably wearing a ratty t-shirt and some leggings. So does that advice still apply, Dad? Should I have worn pajamas to AWP? I think it would be better if I wore real pants and some sort of blazer, probably. And as I don’t own a blazer, I settled for real pants and a shirt.
But enough about my quarter-life crisis. Back to AWP.
When I finally arrived Wednesday night, after my train having been delayed two hours because of the encroaching blizzard, I made the poor decision to walk from the train station to my hotel. It was only 0.6 miles, and even though I’m doing better now financially and could totally have afforded a half-mile ride in a cab (BIG SPENDIN’), a decade of being perpetually broke has conditioned me to never spend money on transportation when I have this built-in transportation called legs. HOWEVER, it turns out that Boston is, indeed, the labyrinthine navigational hell-scape that everyone says it is, even if you’re on foot and have plenty of time to read the street signs. Not even satellites can figure Boston out, it seems, because GPS DOESN’T WORK THERE. Not Google maps, not (unsurprisingly) Apple maps. The blue dot that is you flits around the map uncertainly, one second in the middle of a building, the next in a body of water. You look down at your feet, still planted on a sidewalk, non-moving. Your physical body and your iPhone spirit guide have become unmoored. How will you find your way back to yourself?
So I went old-school and used the skills that earned me my Girl Scout Orienteering Badge, and I eventually found my hotel. And then I got lost INSIDE MY HOTEL. (Girl Scout fail.) Even the hotel was a maze designed to rob you of your sense of direction. This leads me to believe that Boston and everything in it was designed by Daedalus, or M.C. Escher. Or the devil. Or, probably, by a creative think-tank of all three.
Needless to say, when it came time for me to meet some friends at a restaurant in a different part of town, I took a cab. Which flies in the face of not only my ingrained thriftiness, but also everything my mother has ever taught me about not getting into cars with strangers. I could have taken the T, but I just did not feel like figuring that shit out at the time, so I took a cab. I arrived alive and having only spent nine dollars, so all was well.
I then proceeded to spend LOTS of money on drinks and continued to do so all of AWP, which is different because drinks are sustenance, like food and water. That’s, like, the base of the hierarchy of needs and is therefore exempt from thriftiness. Also, one of the most beautiful things—nay, the MOST beautiful thing—about AWP is the community. You walk in, and even though it’s sheer madness and half the people are dressed like something from Portlandia, half are dressed like your grandpa, and the other half are dressed like a bag lady (Three halves! WRITER MATH), there’s this feeling of the clouds opening, and your soul spreads its arms wide and says, My people. The panels and readings at AWP are just a small part of what makes the butt-ton of money you spent to be there worth it. The mere fact that it’s so ridiculously huge and gathers so many of us together makes AWP an opportunity like no other for us weirdos who practice our craft mostly in isolation to mingle with other people like us. And by mingle, I mean drink. And by drink, I mean DRINK.
And drink we did. And I will not tell the internet about that because, like Vegas, what goes on the Internet, stays on the Internet, and forever. I will however take a moment to remark on this one guy who assumed my female friend and I were lesbians because we weren’t having any of his advances. Because, natch. If we’re not into you, very drunk bro-dude inexplicably wearing only a gingham shirt and no jacket in a blizzard, the only possible explanation is that we’re exclusively into vaginas. And then, because we’re obviously exclusively into vaginas, it follows that you can totally convince us fair ladies of Lesbos to have a threesome with you. Because having a threesome with a dude is totally at the top of every lesbian’s bucket list. I mean, WHUT. This man. So many things. I can’t even.
Moving on! Despite the copious drinking, I was a BOSS this year at getting to the 9:00 panels. Hangover or even worse hangover, I was there, in a seat, a coffee and a gigantic bottle of water in hand (for the hangover), when the conference started each day. Some days, it was worth it; some days, it wasn’t. But I did this because I largely squandered AWP when I attended as an MFA student on Vanderbilt’s dime. I mostly stayed up all night at bars or in the packed hotel rooms of people more exciting than me and then slept till lunch. Those were some fun times, don’t get me wrong, but this year, when the witching hour rolled around and people wanted to get another round or go across town to hear music or something, I was like, “No thanks, guys. I am responsible adult this year, so eight whiskey diets are enough for me.” I did this because when you’ve been out of your MFA program for two years, in the cold, hard world where people aren’t teaching you wise things about writing on a weekly basis, or waiting eagerly to give you notes on your latest crappy draft, or excited about discussing when/if adverbs are ever acceptable, you kind of long to sit in an uncomfortable chair in a windowless room with moveable sound-muffling walls and listen to people talk about writing all day.
Which brings me to: Were there more people at AWP this year or was that just me? I don’t remember ever being turned away from a panel by security because the room is at max occupancy and is pushing the fire code before. But this happened numerous times at this year’s conference. Were the rooms smaller? Did the organizers not consider the crowds the panels would attract and just stuck them in variously sized rooms willy-nilly? AWP Organizers: If George Saunders is reading something, anything, even the phone book, you need to stick him in the biggest room possible. The main ballroom, if that’s free. Same thing with Cheryl Strayed. This should be obvious.
Pro tip for 2014: Get to every session early. Like, real early. Never stop to pee, as this will be your downfall. You should start training your bladder now, probably. You have eleven months. Also, never wear a skirt or tight pants, because you will definitely have to sit on the floor at some point, as is befitting to your status.
So, sometime Thursday, what people in D.C. were cleverly calling the “Snowquester” started, and it didn’t stop until Sunday. LIke, it just dumped snow non-stop in an endless, beautiful, incredibly treacherous white sheet. While packing in my beer-and-country-music-addled haze Tuesday night, you can imagine that I did not make wonderful decisions when it came to fashion vs warmth. I remember the moment when I was deciding between my cute black pea coat or my huge, puffy, and very warm winter jacket. I chose the pea coat. But the knowledge that I looked cute kept me warm.
HAHAHA. No it didn’t. I was miserable every single second I was outside. I actually longed for the swiftly approaching moment that I would lose feeling in my extremities, just so they would stop burning. While walking to the hotel in the wee hours of the morning one of the nights, the wind was blowing snow into the side of my face so hard that IT FELT LIKE SOMEONE WAS THROWING GRAVEL AT ME.
Snow*. Real question. How are you supposed to protect yourself from it while walking out-of-doors? Are snow-brellas a thing? Because snow is essentially delayed rain. It will melt eventually, and you will be wet. And how about a wiper/defroster system for glasses? Because I could see pretty much nothing the whole time I was in Boston. Why am I typing this blog post on an iPad right now but no one has invented self-drying, self-defrosting glasses?! GET ON IT, TECHNOLOGY.
*I am from Alabama.
Some highlights, because this is getting really long and my dedication to finishing it is swiftly waning:
I MET ROXANE GAY. This was super exciting for me, since I love pretty much everything she touches and greatly admire her diversity and range of work. Like, I don’t know how she does it. PANK, Tiny Hardcore, The Rumpus, Salon, teaching, and on top of it all, writing amazing fiction and essays all over the place. And that’s not even a comprehensive list. Hell, she even blogs with a respectable frequency. I’m not doing 10% of the things she’s doing, and I can’t even manage to blog more than once a month most of the time. I didn’t even manage to write this rambling drivel about AWP until a month later, and when something happens in the world, Roxane Gay’s got a well-conceived essay churned out by the next day. Role model.
I walked up and introduced myself to her at the VIDA Prom, at the urging of my amazing writer-friend Jessica Kinnison, whose gorgeous prose you can read on the interwebs here and here, and without whom I would probably have just stared at Roxane Gay creepily over the top of my drink all night. Upon introducing myself, I basically word-vomited everywhere and demonstrated that I knew WAY too much about her for someone she’s never met before. Despite all this, she was super nice and gracious and commented on my height, which is the only time ever that someone has commented on my height and it hasn’t annoyed me, and this was because she was like (I paraphrase), “Hey cool, I don’t get to talk to women at eye level often. Tall women, yay!” and we bonded over our mutual tallness and it was beautiful. As opposed to, “Wow, you’re tall!” which is a bizarre observation akin to saying, “My, you have a large nose!” to someone with a large nose. As in, just why. You wouldn’t do that, because it’s weird and rude to comment on people’s physical appearance. It’s also like, Gee thanks for pointing that out because I definitely hadn’t noticed that my whole life. My other least favorite: “Do you play basketball?” Do I LOOK like I play basketball? Is there any musculature anywhere on my body? And contrary to popular belief, being tall does not mean one is automatically good at sports. Being good at sports requires lots of other things, like coordination and physical stamina, neither of which I possess. I did play basketball in middle school, and guess what! I received the “Best Hustle Award” at the end of basketball camp. That’s everyone-gets-an-award speak for “You Suck, but You Tried Real Hard.” So no, I do not play basketball. Stop asking me that. Am I right, Roxane? Let’s be besties.
Another highlight of AWP was getting to meet the editors who have published me in person. Like, that was the best thing ever. Last time I was at AWP, I wasn’t published, but this time, upon walking into the book fair, it dawned on me that Holy shit I’m in some of these! The folks at Hunger Mountain were especially cool. Miciah Bay Gault took a picture of me to put on their Facebook page, and I felt like a freaking celebrity for like thirty minutes after that. And then Barry Wightman was so complementary of my story that I blushed like a schoolgirl. And when I blush, I blush hard, because my skin is so lacking in melanin that it’s almost transparent. I try to play it cool and pretend like I’m used to attention and totally have this writing thing down, but actually I am not cool and not used to attention and have no idea what I’m doing at any given second of the day. Most days, my socks don’t match because I can’t be bothered to find matching socks in the morning. So when I’m standing there with my hip cocked acting all cool, actually what I’m thinking about is the fact that I’m wearing different colored socks and I wonder if you can sense this somehow even though they’re hidden under my boots and if I can’t even match my socks how the hell will I ever write a novel?!??! And then I start blushing. See. Not cool. So the blushing was kind of embarrassing, but the whole experience was mostly wonderful. And it was very cool to meet these mythological beings from the masthead and realize, Wow you’re a human, too! And a really nice, cool human, at that! And you’re eating a sandwich! I EAT SANDWICHES TOO!
But one of my favorite things of all is the late-night AWP dance party. You have to stop by at least once to just watch. The lines for booze are a mile long, and the DJ is always about on par with the one you parents hired for your bar mitzvah, but SEEING WRITERS DANCE. It is the best thing in the world. It is Christmas morning, if Christmas morning was people raving in cardigans and tweed. I am fully aware that I look equally ridiculous when I dance, and for that reason and more, this display of shameless dancing abandon makes my heart light up like the disco ball that they actually had spinning from the ceiling in the Sheraton. Also, the DJ kept yelling things like, “Heyyyyy! AWP Bostonnnn!” and “How are ya feelin’ tonight, Ay Dubya Peeeee!” Which was just flat-out hilarious. It also made me wonder if when he is DJ-ing for, say, a dental convention, he’s like “Wuzzup Dental Association of America!” It was brilliant.
So, long story long, my initial fears about AWP ‘13 were totally senseless and born entirely from my own head. AWP has the capacity to elevate your spirits exponentially, put the muse’s fire under your loins (that sounds like an STD), and send you off into the bright ether to create. Or it has the capacity to instill you with terror and dread at the idea of competing with alllllllllll of these people for publication, to open your eyes to the undeniable truth that you are but one teeny tiny un-special fly among thousands of other flies, all of you buzz-buzz-buzzing around the refuse of some famous writer or another, just trying to eat some special off of it. It just depends on how you look at it. So I willed myself to look at all those people and feel happy that writing is alive and well. And the big takeaway from either of these interpretations is you better go write something, goddamnit. What are you doing worrying about hats and whether or not there’s anything on your name tag? Silly girl. Hats and name tags won’t write your novel for you. Journals and MFA programs won’t complete your collection of short stories. You have to do that yourself. You have to do the work. So go write something. Something other than this incredibly long blog post. Why are you spending so much time on this blog post? End this blog post, and go write.
“Disappointingly, they decided to hold the conference at an address that was very easy to misread. Instead of having it at, say, 666 William Cardinal O’Connell Way, they chose 900 Boylston St., which is very easy to mistake for 900 Boynton St. Walking down Boynton St., I noticed the numbers didn’t go nearly that high, so I stopped when I got to the end of the street where there was a small park there. I thought perhaps it was an outdoor conference, so I sat and waited. The only people in the park were a pair of gentlemen, one asleep, and the other drinking something from a brown paper bag. “Writers,” I thought. As I neared them, I waved and asked, “read any good books lately?” (That’s the opening line I had been practicing because I thought it would be a good icebreaker.) The conscious one threw something at me. Excitedly, I ran to catch it, hoping it was an AWP conference shirt, but it turned out to be a horrible-smelling, stained shirt that gave my hands a rash. I walked to a payphone to call my friend Isaac Fitzgerald who I was supposed to meet at the conference where he would be manning the Rumpus booth. When he answered he was laughing and I could hear a lot of noise in the background. “I’m selling mugs!” Isaac exclaimed.”I’m selling mugs!” I could hear the glee in his voice. He was in the right place, exactly where he should be, but I was lost and wandering.”—Ted Wilson Reviews The World #174. AWP gets 2 out of 5 stars.
what i learned at awp
if someone has really strong eyebrows, they’re probably really nice.
there are at least 3 of “THOSE people” in every panel, the ones who try to teach rather than shut the fuck up.
if you see someone rubbing their nose it’s safe to assume they also have coke jaw.
that was Billy Collins who gave a disapproving look to my pepsi max & it was alright to grill him.
if someone does not have strong eyebrows, they’re probably a big fucking dick.
everyone wants awp booty, free stuff & sexual stuff.
if you get lost in the city just follow the stream of prop glasses & knit hats.
bring a flask.
do not point out the other writers prop glasses & knit hats.
don’t worry about making a fool out of your self..chances are your not important enough to remember.
don’t get too drunk. it looks like a gimmick.