AWP Post-Mortem: What Was That?

by jbloodwell

This past weekend I went to the annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP, though obviously it would more accurately be “AWWP”) in Washington, DC. It was fun. I got to see some great writers read, among them Stephen Elliott, Nick Flynn, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Amy Hempel, and Gary Shtyengart. I got a good, large dose of Richard Bausch, who is as entertaining, wise, and funny in person as are his stories. (Actually, he’s way funnier than his stories, which rarely “work blue,” in contrast to the man.) And I dropped in on a couple panels preoccupied with my own preoccupation, making a living as a writer (while not giving up on my personal, creative work).

But as I made my way back to Pittsburgh, the dominant feeling was something like “So that was AWP.” Kind of a flat feeling, like “Why did I do that again?” My hope for the conference was that I’d come out of it hungry to write, inspired by what I’d seen and heard. And while that sort of happened, to a greater extent, it didn’t.

I’d been to AWP once before, three years ago when it was held in New York. But in some ways I considered this my first conference because in New York I slept on a friend’s air mattress up in Queens, and it seemed that my days divided neatly into AWP Time and Friend Time. AWP Time featured panels and perusing the tables at the Bookfair. Friend Time began with a subway ride north, and was centered more on bars and strip clubs, with not as much overlap between the two as you might expect. In the time between conferences, I’d come to understand that a lot of AWP’s value stemmed from networking, and that a lot of that was done outside of panels and the Bookfair, at off-site events and over drinks (though never, that I’ve heard, at off-site events hosted by strip clubs, or over watered-down strip-club drinks).

My first reaction to the “flat” feeling mentioned above was that the trip was a waste of money and time (during which I got zero writing done, it bears mentioning). I opined to my traveling companion that it would have been better to do a writer’s retreat kind of deal, where a part of each day was spent actually writing.

That’s probably true, but in the fullness of time—two days later—I think that such a reaction misunderstands AWP’s purpose. I have a friend from grad school whose AWP schedule was positively packed, and the reason is that he attended a few of those writer’s-retreat deals—Breadloaf, Sewanee—and met a lot of people there. AWP’s function seems more to refresh those connections.

And/or to solidify them. My roommate, Sal “Chugg-a-Lugg” Pane, knows a lot of literary people only by way of the internet. It was interesting to see him talking with people in person whom he’s “known” for some time, but never actually met. (These observations also served to bring home the fact that a lot of literary people are quite awkward in person.)

These are incomplete thoughts, but when an experience feels flat or vaguely unsatisfying, it’s usually useful to think about why that is, and whether or not you’re “doing it” wrong. (Heh, heh.) I didn’t do AWP wrong, exactly, but it was less than it could have been. The way to do it, it seems to me, is to use AWP as a meeting space for old friends, understanding that it’s not going to help your writing transcend previous limitations, but, if done correctly, it might help you renew your commitment to the writing life.

Seemingly Unrelated Addendum: The writer Pam Parker (whose blog, Finding Meaning with Words, is well worth your time), is a Green Bay Packers fan and jokingly suggested some kind of wager between the two of us (as the Packers just played the Pittsburgh Steelers, my local team, in Super Bowl XLV). Nothing came of it, but in the spirit of friendly sports-wagering between writers, I thought I should acknowledge this “rivalry” and give Pam a small shout-out for having backed the winning team. Congratulations to the Packers, who also mowed down my real team, the Philadelphia Eagles, en route to becoming champs.

(This addendum is related, in case you are wondering (and still reading), because the Super Bowl was the culmination of my long, eventful weekend—i.e., I was home for maybe 90 minutes before kickoff—and thus the conference and the game are tightly linked in my mind.)

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