I’ve just returned from Boston where the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) held its annual conference. This was my first time attending and I’ll admit it, I was nervous. I’m fairly new to creative writing and I don’t have an MFA so I felt like I was boarding a ship with no captain. And researching the conference ahead of time didn’t do much to ease my anxiety. Some writers on the Internet were cynical about AWP and snarky with their complaints about the panels that over-promise, the “Sophie’s Choice” they have to make between all their off-site party invitations, and the inevitable inconvenience of a brewing snowstorm.
Now that I’m back, here’s what I have to say to those people: get over yourselves. We were snowed in at a convention hall chock full of books and literary magazines along with 11,000 people who all love to write.
I don’t know, maybe my positive experience at AWP was unique. On my way to Boston from Los Angeles, I ended up next to a poet on the plane and while we flew across the country, I traded a tutorial in twitter for his edits of my poems. I was present at Jeanette Winterson’s revival-tent reading and I cried when she proclaimed that books will save us all. I saw Elissa Schappell set the room on fire as only she can. I got to meet and thank many hardworking literary magazine editors who work tirelessly so that I have a place for my voice. And I attended a gathering of Rumpus contributors where I witnessed firsthand why they are the salve on the wounds of the world.
Here are some other takeaways from the conference:
- Publishing is not dead. Books are not dead. When you view challenges as opportunities, the world is your oyster (New England pun intended).
- Submit only your best work.
- Literary magazine editors are people too.
- Sure, not all the panels were great but if you live your life with the expectation that everything is perfect all of the time then I want what you’re smoking.
- Yes, there is a sense that no matter what you’re doing at a particular moment, you are inevitably missing out on the best thing ever and it’s happening somewhere else. Just forget about it. Let serendipity find you right where you are. It will.
- I heard an agent verify something I’ve always hoped to be true: he does read literary magazines to find new voices.
- If you’re a writer and you’re not reading as much as you can, every day, then you’re in the wrong line of work.
- At almost every panel during the Q&A sessions, someone would ask for a short cut or advice on how to be the exception. And the answer was always the same. There isn’t one and you won’t be. Put your ass in the chair, craft a unique take on the world, and write well.
- My heroines and heroes in the literary world are those who are about the giving, not the taking. Steve Almond, Rick Bursky, Melissa Chadburn, Isaac Fitzgerald, Roxane Gay, Dave Housley, Maud Newton, Becky Tuch and the entire staff of Tin House exemplified that category for me at the conference.
- It doesn’t matter how much you convince yourself you won’t do it, you will end up on the dance floor.
- It’s a small world so for fuck’s sake, be nice to people.
On that last point, I’d like to address a pompous writer I met in a bar. I recognized him and you would too - he has enough writing credentials for all of us. I introduced myself and he looked at my badge on which, unlike other badges where people list their MFA schools or lit credentials, mine simply had my name. He asked me what I was doing at the conference and I said going to panels, trying to learn. Always trying to learn. He rolled his eyes or something to that effect. As if he has nothing left to learn. Then he searched the crowd until he found someone else he valued more and he walked away.
One day, when you come to a signing of my debut novel or short story collection or whatever I create from this fire burning inside me, I will remember the night you snubbed me at AWP. But don’t worry. I won’t treat you the way you treated me. I know you’re only a jerk because deep down inside something hurts. I won’t make you feel like you don’t matter. Who knows, maybe I will teach you something that day.
So there you go fellow writers: Be authentic, be original, be curious, work hard and be kind to one another. I’ll see you next year at AWP in Seattle.
Lisa Mecham writes a little bit of everything. You can find out more at www.lisamecham.com