I’ve been back in Arizona for a solid 24 hours and have had time to defrost and debrief on my time at the 2014 AWP Conference in Seattle. I have been reflecting on my experiences as an AWP novice and wanted to share my thoughts. Plus, spending three days with poets and writers really makes you want to scribble something down.
When I boarded the flight to Seattle last week, I was a bag of nerves. Why was I so unprepared? How was I going to speak coherently to the brilliant minds I was about to meet? What’s my name again? I settled in my seat, repeating “Erin Regan – I’m just an undergraduate” in my head, when I realized that I was sitting next to Benjamin Saenz, an author whose work I was introduced to last year in a Chicano literature class. I knew I would regret it if I didn’t say anything, so I introduced myself and complimented his work. We ended up chatting for the rest of the flight – him sharing stories about selling his mother’s homemade burritos for cigarettes as a child and offering me advice for the conference/life, me laughing and nodding and trying to take everything in. By the time he was suggesting I nurse my cold with a cocktail of bourbon and honey and texting Sherman Alexie, my nerves were abandoned.
Since that flight, I had the opportunity to be in the same room as some of my other favorite writers, people I’ve been reading for years like Sherman Alexie, Chuck Palahnuik, Ursula Le Guin, and Gary Snyder. Yes, some of those rooms were pretty big, but that’s okay. It was magical to hear them read from their work and speak about their experiences, but even more inspiring was being in the company of thousands of writers practicing their craft with such love.
As a literature and journalism major, and an undergraduate no less, I felt a bit on the outside this weekend. I’m a stranger to the workshop process and I’m not sure where/when/if I’m getting my MFA. When people asked me what I write, I had a hard time giving them a straight answer, stumbling over my words until landing on “I try to write fiction.” On Saturday, the final day of the conference, I offered this answer to a man behind his table at the book fair. He gave me a look and asked what that meant. Flustered and inarticulate as I was at this point (come on, it was the third day of this), I shrugged. He asked me if I liked to write, and when I said yes, he said, “I dub you a fiction writer.” I will continue to write and will begin to submit my work to literary journals, but regardless of whether or I get published, this weekend has made me a much more devoted reader and supporter of the literary community. This weekend, I realized that I am a writer among writers, a member of a community that is thriving.
On Friday, I was able to witness just how strong and spirited that community is during what is becoming an infamous moment in AWP history. Past Student Editor-in-Chief Sydni Budelier and I were sitting in the aisle of a packed room for a panel titled “Magic and the Intellect.” Lucy Corin was reading an excerpt from her novel-in-progress The Swank Hotel. The piece was rich with dark and disturbing images, a stream of dead baby jokes that showed us something powerful about the nature of humanity and pain. You can read a thoughtful summary of the panel by Naomi Williams here. In the middle of Corin’s reading, a voice from the back of the room, obviously offended, interrupted her and began a rant that accused Corin of “traumatizing” her audience. While the outburst was shocking, the support for Corin in response was truly stunning. People urged her to finish the excerpt, take her time, and someone even shouted “start over!” I, and many others, had tears in our eyes as a quaking-voiced Corin finished her reading to fierce applause.
This, I believe, is what we were celebrating at the AWP Conference: the communality of writers supporting other writers, creators praising and inspiring other creators. I’m thrilled to have been able to meet so many of our own brilliant contributors at the book fair as well – thank you to everyone who stopped by our table to say hello. I’m honored to share a community with all of you.