Friday, April 15, 2016

Tales of an AWP Virgin; or, How I Survived the Conference Without Gnawing Off My Own Hand

For the past six years I’ve attended the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference...via my Twitter feed. I fall into that category of never-been-but-always-kinda-sorta-wanted-to-go. This year’s conference in Los Angeles, attended by more than 12,000 book-lovin’ souls, was no different: I kept up with the panels, the readings, the publishers’ booth displays, and the kissy-face author-drinking-with-fellow-author selfies while sitting at my desk in my Butte, Montana home. I was completely exhausted after four days of virtual-AWP’ing.

I was curious to know what it was like to really be there pressing the sweaty flesh and chugging Starbucks while trying to stay awake during the umpteenth panel discussion on “Genre: Does It Really Matter Anymore?” So, when my friend Amanda Turner said she was there and had taken “thousands of notes,” I jumped at the chance for an insider’s report. Amanda promised to be a lively commentator on the eventone which is equally mocked and loved among my friends, who’ve always ended their emails to me with “You need to go at least once just to experience it.” Maybe 2017 will be my year.

Amanda, a humorist from Boise, Idaho who’s written several books (including Mommy Had a Little Flask and Hair of the Corn Dog) agreed to answer a few of my questions via email...once she’d fully recovered from her AWP hangover.

Jess Walter and Amanda Turner: Selfie BFFs
Was this your first time at AWP?

Yes. My friend and writer Alan Heathcock raves every year about AWP. After years of hearing about it, I decided 2016 would be the year I would go. It also happened to be the year Alan and many other friends decided not to go. At first that seemed unfortunate, not having anyone to pal around with, but as writers we often stay with what is safe and comfortable. Without a wingman, I was forced to leave my comfort zone and meet people, so it worked out well. Obviously I’m searching for the silver lining. A wingman would have been awesome.

What were your expectations before you went?

I anticipated learning as much as I could at panels and networking with others in the industry. The networking happened sometimes via meaningful conversations and at other times loosely in the form of following panelists on social media. I also had the expectation of experiencing the literary crowd, of which I don’t generally consider myself a part. I’m a humor writer, not one to be described as literary. (While I was at AWP, most of my fellow humorists were in Ohio at the Erma Bombeck conference.) That said, I didn’t foresee feeling like an outsider as much I did. On more than one occasion, I would befuddle someone by admitting that I didn't have an MFA, nor was I in search of a program. Disclosing that I write humor was equally confusing to a few people. While AWP wasn’t exclusively centered on literary fiction, poetry, and academia, those three things were the core of the event.

Pressing the flesh at the F(r)iction mag booth (Photo courtesy of D. M. Hedlund)
If you had to describe the AWP experience in three words, what would they be?

Overwhelming. Literary. Expensive. Wait, can I have more words? Because with just those three I sound like a real downer. It was also Inspiring and Educational.

What were the best events you attended? 

A panel with Erika Krouse, Kai Carlson-Wee, Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum, Maggie Shipstead, and Alexander Lumans called “There and Back Again: Writing from the Road” was downright dynamic. I would say the same of “Writing About Other(ed) Spaces” with Jeremy Jones, Justin Nobel, Catina Bacote, Wendy Call, and Stephen West. These are people whose work I am now actively seeking out because their writing is stunning and important, everything you want writing to be. These were the standouts who managed to be literary without pretense, spanning film and poetry, from Appalachia to the Arctic Circle to a conflicted but loving remembrance of growing up in a housing project. Their work was gritty, real, beautiful, and by turns funny and poignant. I can’t say enough about them. I’m now stalking all of them on social media.

I attended two other panels of note: “Guerilla Girl Marketing” which discussed the benefits and logistics of forming a writers’ collective, and “Does Travel Writing Have a Place in the Age of Instagram and Google Earth?” (the answer is yes, it does).

I often attend author readings in my hometown of Boise, so at AWP I focused on going to panels and checking out the book fair. While I can’t speak to any of the readings, the book fair was interesting. It’s a giant room full of people touting MFA programs and trying to sell literary journals. The irony is that they’re hawking literary journals to people who can’t afford them. (That was the great irony of AWP as a whole, that most of us couldn’t afford to be there.) Of course, there was far more to the book fair than just MFAs and lit mags, and it was entertaining to wander, chat with people, and pick up some swag geared for word nerds.

Which events were the most disappointing?

I attended a panel (which should have been billed as a reading) where the speakers took turns reading their work with the most robotic deliveries I’d ever encountered. It was so bad that when late-comers wandered in, I would stare at them and attempt telepathy, trying to communicate Run away! The panelists might have been fantastic writers, but I couldn’t get beyond the delivery, which made me want to gnaw off my own hand.

Another panel was titled “Going Global” and, according to the program, was supposed to “talk about strategies for reaching out authentically in a transnational context, as well as the benefits and costs involved.” The sum practical advice was to “make connections” and, if you can, save up money to attend conferences abroad. I found this less than helpful. Then the panelists would read their poetry. One gave a short, scripted lecture in which she worked in multiple instances of words like quotidian and peripatetic and began one sentence with “From the time of Mitochondrial Eve...” She also admitted her current project centers on studying creative excellence, because “you get money if you talk about creative excellence.”

Sasquatch: Hairiest dude at AWP? It’s still up for debate. (Photo courtesy of Jerri Bell)
What’s your advice for the first-time AWP’er?

If a panel isn’t working for you, leave. It’s difficult to plan your schedule with thirty panels and readings going on at once. Instead of choosing one that turns out to be less than what you’d hoped and suffering through it, have a backup plan and move on.

You’ll find people of all types at AWP, those with exceptional talent and others with overdramatic angst. There are people who take themselves too seriously, those who just want to hang out at the lobby bar, and nervous professors clad in corduroy and tweed. People range from painfully nerdy to quintessentially hip (many manage to combine the two). Try not to focus on your first assumptions, based on appearances, the presence or lack of an MFA, or a person’s inclination to use quotidian and peripatetic in the same sentence, and instead remember that we all share a love of the written word. Keep an open mind and use the experience to learn as much as you can.

What would you do different next time? Will there even be a next time for you?

I’d take my own advice and leave if something isn’t working. I think there will be a next time, though I don’t see myself going every year (owing only to the combined expenses of airfare, registration, hotel, and eating outmade doubly oppressive by this year’s L.A. location). My favorite panels were outstanding enough to make up for the deficiencies of others. I’d also recognize that while I felt like an outsider at times, most writers feel like outsiders. It comes back to the one thing we all share: an appreciation of prose. If I can celebrate that, if I can keep writing and never stop learning, then I belong at AWP as much as anyone.


  1. Way to go, Amanda! (I was passing through L.A. on my way up to Portland, wondering if I should have scheduled the conference.) Thanks for sharing your experience.

  2. I enjoyed reading this. I was a "virgin" this year too. My experience was a bit different (at one point I considered writing an essay about what it is like to share space with 12,000 introverts and there were some interesting comparisons outside the conference center when the LA Kings fans showed up for a game at Staples next door) but I got luckier with the panels I chose and I had a great time connecting with people I'd only met virtually. Loved the bookfair. And I also, strangely, was happy to be without a "wingman" because this was a crowd where being on one's own seemed okay and I could flit from place to place pretty easily. I am very grateful to the war writers who, in addition to running excellent panels, were very kind and included me in an informal dinner one evening. That, and staying with friends next to the Last Bookstore, made the trip terrific. I'd love to hear more about the "Othered Spaces" panel - I couldn't make it there. I totally agree with you, Amanda, about not sticking around if a panel isn't working. One more thing: I don't have an MFA either and am not looking for one any more. I was told before going that this event was "not for me." While this is built around academic programs, I found lots there that I could use.