A few weeks ago, I packed a suitcase with extra room for books and literary paraphernalia and boarded a plane for blustery Minneapolis. It was my first time in the city and my second time at the annual AWP Conference. (You can read all about my inaugural trip here.)
Attending AWP last year gave me such an incredible boost of enthusiasm and motivation. I went home with a backpack full of journals, business cards, and call-for-submissions fliers. I was ready to really commit to being a writer, and to my own happy surprise, I have submitted a few pieces to various literary journals – all without success. That’s why this year, I attended a few panels about how to cope with rejection!
This time, I not only entered the conference with a more personal knowledge of the reality of rejection but with a greater understanding of the madness I was descending on. As I boarded the plane to Seattle for the conference last year, I imagined the looks I would get when I told people that I hadn’t been published yet or that I was only getting my bachelor’s degree in literature. I expected everyone in attendance to have already written their first novel. Now I know that is wholly not the case.
Of course you do run into some profoundly successfully writers, and it’s such a joy to see them and hear them speak. (This year, I chatted with Ron Carlson and was able to attend panels with Stuart Dybek and T.C. Boyle.) But the AWP conference is also full of students and new writers who are trying to break into the world of literary publishing through small journals and publishing houses. It’s incredible to be in the company of thousands of aspiring and inspiring writers and editors. This year, walking into the book fair at the Minneapolis Convention Center felt just a little bit like coming home.
Here are some things I’ve learned from my first two AWP experiences:
Offsite events are the best. This year, Superstition Review co-hosted a reading with Blue Mesa Review and Hayden’s Ferry Review at The Nicollet, a lovely little coffee shop. I also attended Literary Death Match and a poetry reading in a supposedly haunted German hotel.
Missing the keynote is part of the AWP experience, especially after your first year. Admittedly, I was pretty disappointed to miss Karen Russell, but I was enjoying a really tasty bowl of pasta at the time, so I can’t complain too much.
It feels great to represent a magazine. Having Superstition Review printed on my badge did wonders for my confidence, and meeting past contributors as they stop by the table is pretty exciting. Plus, table 318 was my little haven in the swarming book fair.
Go outside. It’s easy to forget that there’s a world outside the convention center, so when you get a chance, go for a little walk; grab a bite to eat that isn’t a personal pizza or boxed salad.
The book fair is where it’s at. The panels are great, but there are so many people to talk with and new publications and presses to meet. Plus, you can get some amazing reading material and literary loot.
The floors creaked in the attic I rented. For three nights I tiptoed around ancient furniture resting on old Persian carpets, the hard wood floors beneath wailing with each imposition of my weight. It had all of the makings of what I imagined an attic to be: fake tiffany’s glass lamps, an old radio, a dusty vanity, and a porcelain doll in the corner staring at the twin sized bed made up for me. In Arizona, we don’t have attics. Or if we do, not ones like this.
I was in Minneapolis for AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, but instead of staying in the conference hotel like the more foresighted and experienced attendees, I rented an attic from Airbnb. Connie, my temporary landlord, made me carrot cake muffins to bring with me to the conference, so, with my muffins wrapped in tin foil, and my backpack thrown over my shoulder, I called an Uber to take me to the conference.
In the car, Ashraf, my driver, asked if I was a writer, if I was going to the big writing conference, if I had written a novel, if I was going to meet anyone famous, if all the writers were going to be out tonight drinking. I don’t know. Yes. No. Maybe, but hopefully not. Definitely.
I suppose I could tell you about the overwhelming atmosphere of the book fair. I could tell you that I was too scared to talk to the people at The Paris Review, because if I said something stupid, like I usually do, they would remember me forever and never publish my work. I could tell you that I walked up to a total of five booths because I was anxious. Because, maybe, I didn’t belong.
I am not in or graduated from an MFA program. I don’t have a finished manuscript. I have one published short story. I’m writing a novel but I don’t want to talk about it because then it’s something people expect me to finish.
However, in the first panel I went to, the anxiety was washed away. Once I was sitting amongst other people, all with notebooks and pens, I felt at home in the role of student. I wondered about the difference between those of us in the chairs with the notebooks, and the five people at the front with microphones. If there is 12,000 of us in Minneapolis trying to learn something, trying to find the secret to this whole writing thing, when do we actually get to be a writer?
At the end of the first panel, I reentered the book fair, ate a convention center taco salad at a standing table, and watched the people wandering through the aisles. I wondered which ones were successful, and what that meant. One book? Two? An advance? A National Book Award? No one looked particularly famous, the way that you imagine fame to look, with perfect wind-blown hair and designer couture. Everyone had the same tote bag, similar business-casual outfits.
After eating, I walked down one of the front aisles and saw one of the panelists that I had just heard speak the previous hour. He was sitting at a booth, looking uncomfortable, trying to talk to people about a magazine.
I told him I loved his chart on the plotting of epiphany stories, that I was in his panel. He shook my hand and thanked me, in a genuine, non-fame kind of way, but in a very ordinary kind of way. His palm was clammy, and I was glad to see his nails were not perfectly manicured. We talked for maybe ten minutes about writing stories and the workshop environment.
He is a writer. And I might be a writer. Though I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to say that word comfortably without cringing, or feeling some sort of doubt, like someone will call me out as a fraud. He attends workshops just like I do. He sits in panels and writes down charts like I do.The only difference between a writer and a not-writer that I can think of is in the act of writing.
By the end of the weekend, I met more people like that panelist, people who embraced me in their community. People who invited me out with them. People who asked me about my work, what I’m reading, or what I think about a certain book. People who made me realize that studentand writer are not mutually exclusive, but are in fact different words for the same thing.
On Saturday, I returned to the desert, thankfully out of the snow, back into sandals and tank tops with the Sonoran sun beating down on my shoulders. In my workshop, the first day back from AWP, my responses to everyone’s stories changed. All of a sudden, I had a new perspective, new feedback to give. I taught my fellow classmates the epiphany chart I learned in that first panel, and though the vast majority of them stared at me blankly, like it was something they all knew and I was full of hubris for trying to show them something I learned, one or two of my classmates wrote it down. A few of them got it, and I felt like we were developing a community of writers on our own: people who want to learn, and people who want to write.
To admit to keeping a journal might smack of a twee sensibility, but I’ve kept one for years, and find them rather to be a necessity. These journals have long given way from their original, possibly naval gazing intent, which was to chronicle the days, and have become more useful for literary digressions, and a regular and deliberate writing about writing.
After the intense work of my MFA in 2006, I was writing a lot about process in my journal. While pursuing my degree I was writing in multiple directions creatively, and these experiments led to inquiries and writings on craft. Perhaps because in its normal guise this writing is known as criticism, it has a negative connotation for creative writers. But writing about writing seems to jiggle synapses, opening up my creativity. The beauty of writing about process is that the writing itself is often the process.
A journal, it seems, is the perfect vehicle for exploring topics in a blog. Thus, I naturally turned to writing a blog.
I’ve now written my blog for the last seven years–eleven years, if you count the one that preceded it but which I quit a few years in to go to grad school–and I’ve kept journals for much longer than that. In that time, I’ve written over 100 blog posts, most having to do with some aspect of writing and craft. Much like the critical work of my MFA, writing my blog has kept me within arm’s reach of that academic world–or at least, feeling as if I am still in the conversation.
During the AWP Conference in Minneapolis this year, Charles Baxter led a panel, “The Art of the Art of Writing,” for a discussion based on his Graywolf Press series, and it was the first seminar where I found myself writing down much of what was said. As Baxter said, “Criticism is/can be, an art.” To further make this type of writing palatable, Stacey D’Erasmo, one of the panelists, offered, “Criticism is thought, not judgment.” I was also pleasantly surprised to see this wasn’t a jam packed seminar–it was late afternoon when blood sugar levels drop–which gave me solace in that it’s one area where I don’t have to feel competitive. Writing fiction, sometimes, can feel like a competition; whereas writing criticism can be an opportunity to slow down, and to ruminate.
Maintaining a blog about writing is a great habit for writing fiction no less, and I can’t complain about writer’s block; I simply have to find the time to put in some writing, and invariably the ideas begin to flow. I actually don’t believe in writer’s block; Flaubert’s marinating is the occasion for me to write something different.
It may at first seem an odd preoccupation for a self described fiction writer to always return to writing about writing. But as I also review books, which is another form of writing about writing, the end result is a deeper appreciation and understanding–and excitement about–the process of writing. Blog writing occupies the logical part of my brain, leaving the dreamy and surreal side to flourish for my fiction.
Aware of the social network savvy-ness of blog culture, I have infrequently written a blog post hoping to garner hits. I long ago gave up trying to second guess that algorithm and instead have focused on pieces that have interested me, mainly. It’s a surprise usually to see which posts get the most hits. I would be curious to discover the site linked to my piece about short story openings–my single most read post.
I also, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, blog at a snail’s pace. I’ve never seen my blog merely as a place to post bite-sized morsels every week, though expediency has led me to these occasionally. If anything, the blog has become a practice for writing longer pieces. I’ve written a few posts that cracked 2000 words, but for the most part I’ve managed to keep them within 1000 words. I’m sure every writer has their sweet spot in a blog post, and I find 1000 words to be the perfect capsule for many of the topics I’ve written on–it almost subconsciously works out this way. Of course, these topics can be explored in longer essays, but the blog has an immediacy that lends itself to trying a subject out. I’m especially fond of E. M. Forster’s statement, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”
There’s no shortage of topics to consider, either, with the irreversible and remarkable changes in publishing over the past decade, or wide-ranging discussions of industry trends, or reviewing un-put-downable fiction. There are a number of think piece type blogs which have been resources for me, and have been models for posts I might write. The more involved with literary matters the better. (The Los Angeles Review of Books, Tim Parks’s blog at the New York Review of Books, The Smart Set, and Arts and Letters Daily are several I check regularly.) In fact, when I first began my blog, I was always surprised–and pleased–to find blogs with a similar sensibility. I couldn’t imagine this bounty if the internet didn’t exist.
In reading other writer’s blogs, I have discovered a diasporic community. So I have reached out–and been reached out to–by a number of interesting bloggers, who are all fascinating to me in their unique approaches to the medium (So many have come and gone over the years, I resist naming any here). This has led to requests for guest blog postings, and one for a serial interview when I published my novel last autumn. Though I may never meet these fellow bloggers in person, it’s been great to know we are connected in a kindred medium and subject.
Finally, one of the great rewards of this practice is that it has given me a log of my thinking over the years, a timeline in a body of work that parallels my creative output, since I’ve also been publishing fiction and reviews regularly when I can. It’s surprising to look back over the years and re-read a piece I wrote about daily writing habits, or a deconstruction on David Shields’s death warrant for the novel, or an essay attempting to describe Gary Lutz’s sentences. Having become something more than the sum of its parts, I often think that my blog is a book. One day it may very well become that.