Thursday, March 8, 2012

Impressions from the AWP Conference

Photo courtesy of Sun Hee Yoon - it
reflects a serenity hardly found
 at the conference
It's taken me some time to recover from the last week's AWP 2012 Conference in Chicago, which surprised me because I didn't even spend all three full days at the conference. But with 10,000 people attending, hundreds of panels, a book fair that tops any mall shopping experience, the intensity of meeting old MFA friends, and hearing great writers read and discuss aspects of craft, my head was simply too full for me to produce anything these past few days, including a blog post. While the magnitude of the conference is overwhelming, probably for most participants, I am always struck by the great fortune of having such a conference in the first place. We are privileged that AWP provides such an impressive forum to meet so many others who are interested in literary writing, and offers this opportunity to discover and to browse.

Since the AWP conference is not a new experience for me, I asked some of my students for their impressions of the conference:

From Sun Hee Yoon: When I returned home after the 3rd day of AWP, the over-loaded laundry, piled dirty dishes in the kitchen sink, and my 4-year-old girl's scattered toys and children's books reflected what my mind looked like. I needed to tidy up! Now, a few days later, I can inhale and exhale at my own speed. I can listen to my heart beat. Since the AWP fog in my head is gone, I can think clearly. I admit that I had high expectations of the AWP conference and bookfair, and it was the experience that I needed to be challenged. Whether it was positive or negative, whether it was pretty or ugly, it was necessary. My questions are still same and the answers are still unheard. I always hold onto something, and this time it was a simple line, and I still hear the echo from Margaret Atwood, "Make them laugh, make them weep, and make them wet!" And I know what I need to do; I need to write.   

From Barbara Coe: On Friday at a 9:00 a.m. session, I went to a tribute reading for the former editor in chief of Fourth Genre, Marcia Aldrich. I was captivated by one of the authors, Ryan Van Meter now has claimed rock star status in my eyes.  He read a stunning piece “Discovery,” published in The Iowa Review (Vol 40, number 1) which I went out and bought immediately. My second find of the conference for me was a surprise. I had not intended to slide into the 3:00 p.m. session on “Narrative Transitions: Teaching and Taking a Reflective Turn in Creative Nonfiction.”  I thought the emphasis might be teaching the craft so I put the topic on the back burner. Snoozing in one of the comfy chairs by the elevator after leaving the prior session early, I decided I should get up and try to find coffee, which I couldn't. To stay awake, I floated into the session and was engulfed in the most interesting question central to the memoir writer's task: How and when to reflect on the experience you are writing about. I loved the panel, but was exceptionally drawn to what Jennifer Sinor was saying. I approached her after the session and was struck by her accessibility. It always moves me that these people who are so busy will be so gracious to carve out time for someone needing advice. She encouraged me to read Live Through This by Debra Gwartney  as an example of memoir that does not allow the story of runaway daughters to hijack the book. I plan getting that very soon. 

From Diann Martin:  AWP was amazing, I was struck by the diversity in age, ethnicity and culture across the group; the commonality was the passion for writing and literature in all forms. Most of the sessions I attended were on nonfiction and the big debate/issue was truth. Interesting that in our century we are still back at this elemental level.  I learned so much from scholars and authors about point of view, handling time and its passage, telling a story, and balancing between narration and reflection.  I came away with a laundry list of "must read" titles and "must view" websites.  It was a challenge to be in a crowd of 10,000 people who all wanted the same cup of Starbuck's coffee at the same time that I did.  I was energized and recommitted to my writing practice and amazed at the work of my friends and colleagues.  I went home inspired to write and committed to stick with it.

From Kelley Clink: I attended the 2009 AWP conference in Chicago, and found it to be exciting and informative. I saw Nick Flynn and Donald Hall do a reading. I was introduced to the work of some great authors I might never have discovered otherwise (Peggy Shumaker, Bernard Cooper, Joy Castro).  There were timeslots so jam-packed with intriguing panels that I wanted to divide myself into four people. When I signed up for AWP at the end of this January, I was hoping I would have a similar experience. But once I took the time to sit down and look at the list of panels, my heart sank.  There were a few discussions I wouldn’t have minded attending, but nothing inspired me. The conference drew nearer and I learned it had been sold out.  Just the thought of cramming into hot rooms and fighting for a patch of carpet to sit on, my back aching and my elbows bumping against bodies while I tried to take notes on a topic I didn’t much care about anyway, exhausted me. When I registered on Wednesday, I determined to make at least one panel a day. I failed. All I ended up doing was picking through the book fair—which made a can of sardines seem roomy. Maybe it’s just me.  After all, I’m in the process of recovering from a long illness (which has taken a toll on my strength and my writing). Maybe I’ve come to a quiet dip in the curve of my career, where daily meditation, walking, and reading are more valuable than tips and strategies and discussion? Maybe it’s time to draw inspiration and energy from other sources?


  1. Wow wow wow- no wonder you were overwhelmed- a GREAT type of overwhelmed- it was great reading about each person's experience- and what each person took away from it.

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