Once a year, writers gather in large numbers. They migrate from all over the country. Some travel internationally. Poets, novelists, nonfiction writers - the participants come from different genres. Some are established authors with numerous publications. Others are emerging. Only the glimmer of the writing life exists in their hungry eyes. What is this nexus of writers? It's the Associated Writing Programs conference, of course.
When I first heard about AWP I wasn't sure what to make of it. Writing is a solitary task. What need would I have for surrounding myself with people milling in every direction? At the conference writers run everywhere. They move from panels to the book fair to readings to launch parties and back again. The cycle repeats for three days until the participants dissipate, exhausted but with a renewed energy for the writing life. They spread forth just as strangely as they congregated, seemingly drawn by some otherworldly force. Each returns to isolated lives as writers in remote places far away from all of their kind. New friends and contacts are made. The occasional row and late night hookup make for good stories in their regular lives. Each in turn waits for next year when writers convene en masse and the stories begin again.
In all, the experience is an intense one. No writer is fully prepared for the madness that ensues. As I said earlier, writing is a solitary task. Being surrounded by so many others can be taxing, but it's exciting as well. Anytime thousands of writers come together, an exchange of ideas occurs. You can see the lights going off in people's heads. There is a palpable hum that accompanies you as you walk through hotel meeting rooms and hallways. Cafes brim with ideas uttered and met with understanding. Individuals recognize similar beliefs in other people's eyes and words. You leave happy to have met others like you, people who share the same tastes and goals. You share a common language with the people at AWP. For someone who spends the majority of his or her time writing alone, the experience can be overwhelming, yet there's a strange euphoria in the hyper-stimulation of the senses. It's as if you meet what you sought after years of writing and found it was too much to take in all at once.
I must admit, the stories I had heard about AWP resembled MFA Spring Break more than a meeting of literary luminaries. All the cliches about two weeks spent in Cancun seemed to apply to this convergence of writers. You see the young literati drinking pbrs, sporting beards, dropping names of who they met at readings, all while looking wolfishly at each other through a haze of alcohol.
That culture exists at AWP. There certainly is a festive element to the atmosphere as friends from school reunite from the various paths they took in their writing lives. Others take part their pursuit less seriously and see the conference as an excuse to leave their literary ambitions behind in order to party.
What surprised me was that genuine exchanges do occur. The panels are actually informative. If nothing else, participants learn the landscape of the writing world they hope to traverse. It's like seeing a field map to the literary life. Readings are everywhere. Emerging authors and established figures all have moments where they share their work with audiences eager to hear what is being written today. The host city must collectively increase its literary awareness by the sheer number of spoken words alone. It's in the air.
I sat in on panels on independent publishing and new media. The indie panel spoke to the attention you receive as an author with an indie press. You get to work on the design and layout of your book. The publisher actually edits it as opposed to the trade giants who basically act as printers. As an emerging author, I had questions about how agents place your work in someone's hands as opposed to the slush pile. It sounded as if most panelists had agents at some point in their careers. They opted to move to indie presses after being noticed because of the experience of having a hand in how the book is made. The new media panel focused on creating an online presence for authors. More often these days writers need to establish their own following in order to get noticed, either by publishers or readers. Some of the useful ideas are to post readings of your work online, write about literary issues on your blog, or share literary links with the online community.
As a writer, I feel that you have to connect with the writing community throughout your life. How else will you get published? For me, AWP offers a useful meeting place to share ideas with other writers on a scale not normally available. You have to pick and choose how to wend your way through the conference. It can be exhausting going from panel to launch party to book fair to dinner to readings across the city followed by after parties in hotel rooms. You have to set limits for yourself. For the writer who chooses his time wisely, who follows his interests and explores the city, AWP can be a rewarding experience, one relatively free of the notion that AWP is MFA Spring Break.