One Week Post-AWP Reflections

The good news about being so slow to summarize my time at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in D.C. is that I’ve had a chance to read through some truly excellent, instructive, and entertaining recaps by others. The bad news is that I’m still not quite sure how to write my own summary/reflections.

Overall, it was a fabulous conference for me. So let’s start with the high points. Of which there were many.

  • Exiting Union Station Wednesday afternoon into bright D.C. sunshine.
  • Receiving my conference program and tote bag and turning around to find my good friend (and co-panelist—please see below) Andy standing right behind me on the D-F registration line, and then being introduced to one of Andy’s talented colleagues, a writer whose work I’ve admired for a long time.
  • Attending an amazing book party in my honor hosted by an extremely generous friend I was lucky to meet in a long-ago (1997) week-long workshop at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. Being humbled by the presence of people from so many corners of my life, some of whom went to great lengths to be able to be there.
  • Excellent one-to-one meals (and conversations sans meals) with friends old and new. (If you happen to be looking for D.C. restaurant recommendations, I’ll recommend a few of the restaurants I visited: Dino, Open City, and Policy.)
  • Several panels I attended (but did not organize and/or moderate!). Among the most interesting/relevant to my interests: “What They Didn’t Tell Us, We Will Tell You: Four First Time Authors Discuss the Nitty-Gritty of Publishing (with Michael David Lukas, Siobhan Fallon, Nomi Stone, Kevin Haworth, Rebecca Rasmussen, & Alan Heathcock); “The Future of the Book Review: How to Break In” (only got to attend a part of this one, and was sorry that only four of the five listed panelists seemed to have been able to be there, but they were great: Salvatore Pane, Irina Reyn, Emily Testa, and Paul Morris); “The Good Review: Criticism in the Age of Book Blogs and (with Jeremiah Chamberlin, Charles Baxter, Stacey D’Erasmo, Gemma Sieff, & Keith Taylor); and “Don’t Call Me Mother” (with Ellen Placey Wadey [who read for absent panelist Jan Beatty], Miki Howald, and Geeta Kothari). A few takeaways from all of these sessions: The first-time authors emphasized that “you don’t want to make these people angry” (“these people” being the big-house editors responsible for your book’s future); that, essentially, you’ll have to choose your battles (re: the cover, for instance); and that the marketing process is as intense as the editorial process. One book-reviewing session seemed to include plenty of people who had either taught/studied book reviewing in writing programs; the other seemed to think this would be a good idea, but didn’t have quite so much experience with it. On the other hand, I think it was Baxter (who is such an excellent presenter that I will henceforth attempt to attend as many of his appearances as I can) who suggested that “a good workshop” can lead naturally to the art of criticism. As for the “Don’t Call Me Mother” session, the big lesson there seemed to be that there are plenty of women (more than enough to pack a lecture room) who don’t have children and aren’t miserable about that fact and don’t find their voices represented very much in literary culture.
  • Of course, there were two other panels that meant a lot to me. The first, which took place on Thursday, was the one that I organized on “Beyond Bagels & Lox: Jewish-American Fiction in the 21st-century.” Either everyone was just being nice to make my co-panelists (Andy Furman, Kevin Haworth, Margot Singer, and Anna Solomon) and I feel good about ourselves, or it was a really terrific panel. I choose to believe the latter! We’d pre-selected the chief points/questions we wanted to focus on in this session, and they were all in keeping with the panel description. Each of us had “responsibility” for leading the discussion on a particular question: Anna led us in thoughts about managing multilingualism in our work, Margot helped us understand how Jewish-American fiction writers have been writing about Israel, Andy gave an overview of “new immigrant” authors and characters, and Kevin presented a seven-point manifesto on where he’d like to see Jewish-American fiction heading into the future (I concurred with six of his seven points, and explained my objections to the one that troubled me). Then we opened the floor to questions from the audience. We also distributed a handout.
  • I was equally proud of the Saturday morning session, where I really tried to stick to the “moderator” role (rather than my combined “moderator” and “participant” identities on Thursday) and leave it entirely to the expert presenters—Sage Cohen, Andrew Gray, Chloé Yelena Miller, Michael Morse, & Scott Warnock—to talk about “Finding and Creating Online Teaching Opportunities—And Thriving and Succeeding in Them.” So many takeaways here, too: BuddyPress is a platform independent online teachers might want to look into. Shortlisted candidates for teaching positions with the University of British Columbia’s optional-residency MFA program must complete sample critiques as part of the hiring process (and I can’t help wondering how many MFA programs have similar requirements–they all should!). For one teacher, the most successful online courses have been those that did not originate as courses offered “face-to-face” first. For another, online teaching for a private company has turned out to be a pleasant and profitable way to supplement a steady, full-time income. And, in the field of composition at least, there is plenty of work to be had.
  • Another overall high point was the time I spent with the folks from Fiction Writers Review. I was so happy to meet a number of people behind the names I’ve come to know through my work with the site, and I was profoundly grateful for the team’s generosity in hosting a book signing for Quiet Americans and me on Friday afternoon (which also gave me an opportunity to meet lots of other people I’d hoped to get to see at the conference, since they knew they could stop by Table B18 between 2 and 3 p.m. on Friday and find me).
  • I managed to make it to one off-site reading–featuring contributors and staff from The Sun–and that was terrific.
  • My own off-site event at the National Museum of American Jewish Military History was also a definite high point (and I’ve written about it here).
  • Not-necessarily-planned but very pleasant encounters with several people I’d hoped to see.
  • Wonderful feedback received about this blog and The Practicing Writer newsletter.
  • I should probably turn now to “low points.” But in all honesty, there were no truly low points (a situation that I treasure and find far preferable to the AWP that drove me tears some years back). That said, there were some…lower points:

  • Definitely not AWP’s (or anyone’s) fault, but the weather in NYC on Wednesday morning—a delightful mix of rain, snow, slush, and ice—made it look as though I might miss my train simply because it was so hard to get from my apartment to the train station. My stomach churned as the minutes ticked away and not only could I not hail a taxi, but I seemed equally unable to board any cross-town bus (the cross-town bus would get me to a subway stop to speed me to Penn Station). Five packed buses passed by before one appeared with enough space to allow my big suitcase and me aboard. But everything worked out fine for me. Not so for others who were simply unable to travel from various locations to D.C. Several conferencegoers I’d planned to meet/see remained snowbound at home.
  • I’m very grateful (and have said so on years of conference evaluations) that AWP has taken to holding its conferences in cities/facilities with strong smoke-free policies. But they need to go a step further. Particularly since one typically has to enter and exit the (in this case, two main) conference hotels multiple times in order to get from panel to reading to Bookfair, it would be really helpful and healthful if something could be done about the barrage of smoke and smokers smack at the hotel doors. I don’t know what the law is for D.C., but here in New York, it’s actually illegal to smoke beneath overhangs, which were present at least some of the conference entrances/exits in question in D.C.
  • I was busier than usual during this AWP conference. And that’s a good thing. I was busier because I had a new book to promote, lots of friends to see and meet, two panels to run, and so on and so forth. But when the conference ended, I felt that I hadn’t spent enough time at the Bookfair. I hadn’t received my full dose of the inspiration I usually get walking around and discovering new presses, journals, and programs. I hadn’t made it to certain tables to find people who’d advised that I could find them at said tables. That’s a disappointment. I didn’t pick up as many journals/books as I usually do. But, as I say, there were no truly “low” points, and my Bookfair time—limited as it may have been—did allow me to catch up with familiar faces and meet a few new ones.
  • Kind of in keeping with the “busier than usual” theme, and due also to my sense of self-preservation, I wasn’t much a part of the late-night scene. Again, this isn’t necessarily a “low point,” because I’m not much of a party animal and I don’t believe that I really missed out on much by being asleep before midnight. But even before “late-night,” I didn’t get to as many readings (on or off-site), as I might have. And when I look over everything—day and evening—that I did attend, I realize that I really neglected poetry.
  • After the conference ended, and for the next several days, I noticed a number of tweets and blog posts mentioning how excited people were to begin planning to attend next year’s conference (which will take place in Chicago). But in all honesty, I suspect that part of my extremely positive experience at AWP this year may have had something to do with the fact that I hadn’t attended the conference for three years. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and all that.

    So you may or may not see me in Chicago in 2012. (Remember, too, the not-so-small matters that, unlike the many writing professors and students in attendance, I have to take actual vacation days from my job to make these trips, and no one helps fund my travels.) But this AWP conference was wonderful enough that, even if it’s not next year, I will be back. Sooner more likely than later.

    2 thoughts on “One Week Post-AWP Reflections

    1. Glad you had such a good experience, Erika. I agree that it was one of the better AWPs I’ve been to. I hope you can make it to Chicago, but I certainly understand your reasons if you don’t.

      1. Erika Dreifus says:

        Thanks, John. We shall see!

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