10 Random AWP Observations

1) I’m terrified of approaching people I only know from the Internet at AWP. You two make eye contact. What do you say that won’t sound awkward as hell? You stare at your feet and feel like a loser, or, worse, an aloof jackass. AWP has a great way of reminding us what middle school was like.

2) I’m equally terrified of the bookfair. Again, what do you say? What do editors say other than repeating what’s already on their websites? Trust me, I’ve been on both sides. I’m not suggesting the bookfair is worthless—it’s a great way for journals and presses to promote and make coin–but that doesn’t make many of the social interactions less awkward and shallow. Editors cannot (and should not) discuss rejections or submission statuses. Often, they can’t even discuss work of yours they’ve published. Every veteran AWP attendee has had that moment where he or she worked up the courage to approach the table of a journal that’s published his or her work, only to get a blank stare from some hungover MFA intern who wasn’t on the staff that accepted said piece. “Um,” the intern says, “would you like a contest flyer? George Saunders is the judge and we’ve extended the deadline. Also, spin this wheel for a chance to win a free back issue.” You spin the wheel and win, and the intern hands you the issue with your work.

3) I love AWP, the buzz, the energy, the inspiration, the feeling that there are others like me. It’s rejuvenating. Writers spend lots of time explaining things to well-meaning people. At least for a few days per year, it’s nice to visit a strange city if only because you don’t have to explain to your Grandfather or Uncle that if he wants to read your story, he’ll have to send a $15 check to a university, that he can’t buy The Cimarron Review at Rite-Aid. It’s nice to exist for half a week with people who don’t need everything explained to them, or view you with suspicion.

4) I hate AWP, the awkward, often forced social interactions, the “networking.” By the end of the first day, I usually consider spending the rest of the time alone in my hotel room. Also, see 1) and 2).

5) This was the most therapeutic AWP ever. Seattle 2014 AWP will be forever known as “The Therapeutic AWP.” I’ll resist Seattle cliches and consider it a coincidence. Tons of panels on writerly psychology and such. I needed that. I needed to be reminded that writers should aspire for a devoted readership, that quality trumps quantity.

6) The idea that writers, regardless of success, are never satisfied, was a related and recurring theme at this year’s panels. It’s easy to forget that all writers are insecure, that no matter what they do, someone will always do it better or be more successful.

7) Let’s keep this going: you can allow petty bitterness and envy to destroy your life (and it can), or you can return to the reasons why you became a writer. No one became a writer out of bitterness and envy. That shit comes later.

8) You can also forget that people who are more successful than you have their own insecurities and lives outside of writing. What if the more successful writer is in a failing relationship or has a debilitating mental illness? As one of my former teachers said, “everyone in this class has someone who loves them.” Every more successful writer you know (or know of) has people who love him or her because they knew “the successful writer” long before he or she became a writer.

9) The essential you existed before you became a writer, the person family and friends love.

10) As Tim O’Brien says in The Things They Carried, “It’s 1990. I’m forty-three years old, which would’ve seemed impossible to a fourth grader, and yet when I look at photographs of myself as I was in 1956, I realize that in important ways, I haven’t changed at all. I was Timmy then; now I’m Tim. But the essence remains the same. I’m not fooled by the baggy pants or the crew cut or the happy smile–I know my own eyes–and there is no doubt that the Timmy smiling at the camera is the Tim I am now. Inside the body, or beyond the body, there is something absolute and unchanging. The human life is one thing, like a blade tracing loops on ice: a little kid, a twenty-three-year-old infantry sergeant, a middle-aged writer knowing guilt and sorrow” (223).

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