I didn't always look forward to the AWP (Association of Writer's and Writing Programs) Conference each spring. In fact, AWP used to scare me a little and it took me a long time to feel comfortable there. As a college writing teacher I cut my teeth on what we affectionately call, "C's," or the annual national conference on college composition. Although any national conference can be intimidating to the uninitiated, a glance at the programs for these conferences tells you all you need to know: the C's program lists presenters only by last name and session number, so that even a composition giant like Peter Elbow becomes Elbow, P. A19. The AWP program, on the other hand, publishes a biography for every presenter focused mostly on publication, publication and also, publication.
As a first time conference-goer, it's easy to be cowed by the long lists of books published by the people walking the halls with you and to think AWP is all about ego. Unfortunately, there is some of that--writing is an art and art, like many endeavors, seems to bring with it the risk of degrading to an ego fest. As John Warner aptly put it, while AWP attracts "many many people of great sincerity and goodwill, my experiences (emphasis on the my) is that the primary lingua franca of the conference is a combination of posturing and sucking up." However, if I chose to focus on the ego element, I probably would have stopped attending after my first conference in Baltimore in 2003, so filled with luminaries that I remember Richard Bausch remarking that one well-placed suicide bomber could wipe out most of the American literary establishment. 9/11 was, of course, still very much on everyone's minds.
Instead, in true glass-half-full, pony-in-there-somewhere, writing-geek style, I choose to focus on what I have to look forward to at AWP, situations that, writing and teaching in America's southern heartland, I can't experience any other way. Surely I'm not the only one with such feelings or thousands of writers wouldn't go to such trouble to descend from the far reaches of the US onto a major city every year. Are you an AWP first timer? Here's some of what you can anticipate:
Cross Sections of Your Life Converging in One Place: On a given day at AWP, I am likely to catch up a colleague from my undergraduate days, have coffee with a dear friend from my years at George Mason University and dine, as my husband and I ritually do, with another couple who we've known since we were starving artists in Louisiana. Most satisfying of all, however, is running into former students who are living out rewarding literary lives of their own. Yes, you read that right. In a field that most detractors would like you to think produces more fast-food counter staff than any other, lots of our talented, hard-working former students are surviving and thriving.
Learning from Other Writers How to Do Your Job Better: Although you'll still hear occasional chest thumping comments along the lines of "I only phone in this wretched teaching thing to pay the bills," these kinds of protests are on the decline, drowned out by conversations between writers-teachers who genuinely care about their effectiveness in the classroom and who demonstrate it by standing at the back of packed halls to discover how to orchestrate a better workshop or nudge novice writers into the twenty-first century. Along the way, you also learn more about craft and about navigating the publishing world, something that can inform not only your own work but also that of your students.
Re-learning what it means to be the writer only you can be: I wrote recently about writers' tendencies to compare themselves to other writers to the detriment of their own work. My friend Tom Williams uses an athletic analogy to explain this phenomenon. In sports, there's always someone better than you are; your best hope is to be the kind of player only you can be. Attending AWP is like spending three days in Olympic Village--you're surrounded by people who also yearn for the kind of literary success you do and many who have already achieved it and then some. If you can't focus on following your own path here, while standing in line to use the hotel bathroom behind a Pulitzer prize winning author who's younger than you are, there's little hope of you doing anything but despair when you get back home.
Celebrating the word: Novels are on life-support, poetry has been stolen, short stories are dead no wait they're coming back, no wait, really, they're dead. Reading as we know it is gasping its last breath. We the word lovers, the writing geeks, spend all year cringing over these headlines. But each spring as I look out over the AWP book fair, at booth after booth overflowing with words as far as the eye can see, I feel a throb of hope. Thousands of literary aspirants can be intimidating, sure, but most of them are people who love language as you do, who pour that love into beautiful handmade broadsides and exquisitely hand-sewn chapbooks and thousands upon thousands of lovingly written, edited and printed volumes. At AWP literature is not dead; it does not even languish. Surrounded by thousands of people, some old, some middle-aged, and many quite young, who will never let it die, the word lives on and calls us back each year to rejoice.