5 Lessons From AWP 2017

Last month, I attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ annual conference in D.C. This was my second time at AWP, and it’s funny to think back at how nervous I was before the conference in Los Angeles last year. I’m not sure what horrors I thought a convention center full of nerdy writers had in store for me. Tote bags, that’s what. And AWP Bingo, apparently.

This year’s conference crept up on me. I had no time to worry or scheme. Perhaps because I didn’t spend hundreds of dollars traveling to the conference site this year, or because I had friends in town for the conference, or because I’d maxed out my mental energy before the conference even started – I took a different approach this year. I slept in. I skipped sessions to make sure I was well-fed and well-caffeinated, or to catch up with friends. I spent more time strolling the book fair, and less time waiting in lines to get books signed. I missed some sessions I had really hoped to catch. I had a wonderful time. Here are my top five take-aways:

  1. I need to read more. We all do, right? We all have unread books. We all swear we won’t buy any new books until we read some of the older ones. We’re all liars. My bookshelf will always be more than 60% filled with books I’ve yet to read, I think. But I bought those books (or borrowed them, or got free ARCs of them) for a reason, damn it. I want to know them. I want to find the lessons that are hiding inside. In a dramatic gesture after AWP this year, I piled up all my recently procured but yet unread books on the floor of my apartment. I picked two books to tackle first (Citizen and Homegoing). I’ve bought at least four more new books since then… Today I finally picked the unread piles off the floor and put them back on the shelf. It was a cute monument, but I get it: I need to read more. And I will. Maybe you can help keep me accountable. 
  2. Keep your friends close. Despite going to fewer panels, what made AWP so great this year (besides the $0 travel costs) was having my good friends there. I had coffee and lunch partners at the ready. Even when we didn’t plan on attending panels together, we sometimes ended up in the same room because our interests are well-aligned. My favorite panel ended up being the one my friend Stephanie Feldman, an award-winning fantasy writer, was on about the pros and cons of getting an MFA in writing. (Hint: you’re not screwed if you skipped the degree, and you didn’t waste your time if you pursued it, hopefully for free). There’s nothing cooler than seeing your friends shine, seriously. 
  3. It’s okay to lead an essay-less life. A friend mentioned she was coming away from the conference with a bunch of ideas for new essays. I racked my brain for any such inspiration. Nope. I had nothing. Essays are great. I love to read them – preferably the ones that leave me crying at my desk or scrambling to call someone I love. I like to edit them. They’re a great way to get published online or in print. Surely, as a journalist and fiction writer, I could string together a poignant story about some slice of my life. And again the Lord looked upon his creation and said “Nope.” While my life provides plenty of fodder for blog posts, comedic sketches, humor pieces, and even plays, it’s short on essay material. And that’s fine. Maybe I should be thankful I have the kind of ups and downs that can be chewed through with a long run or a new playlist. Maybe that’s my innate boringness shining through. Maybe I avoid thinking about the things that are more difficult to process. The day I have a bunch of essays in me is the day my comfort-bubble pops. It’ll happen eventually. And that’s fine too. But for now, I’ll just enjoy my essay-less life.
  4. Everyone has to be careful when writing about the experiences of another race, ethnicity, or culture. Everyone. I’m guilty of being a bit naïve here. I’m biracial, with a group of best friends straight out of a 1980s United Colors of Benetton advertisement. Surely I can write about another race or culture – with due care – without running into the cultural appropriation issues that some white writers have fumbled into. I attended a panel about writing Native American characters as a non-Native because a current project of mine has a secondary character who is a Lakota Sioux. But by the end of the panel, I was questioning whose story I had the right to tell. Sure, I’m not the older man in the audience who came to the panel in search of good resources on “Native American spirituality” or the non-Native panelist who said she writes about Native characters “because they exist.” But that doesn’t mean I’m not engaging in risky business. During the panel Native Hawaiian writer Kristiana Kahakauwila urged us to “create characters, not caricatures.” And when writing “the other,” she said, be prepared to be called out on your bullshit. Duly noted.
  5. Resist. Needless to say, there have been some huge changes to the country’s cultural and political landscape since last year’s AWP conference. Pair unrest about the new administration with the fact that we were in “the very seat of government where [you know who] sits,” and you get protests. Lots of them. Some attendees marched on the Capitol, others held vigils. One afternoon I came upon a huge line of people linked arm-in-arm in the convention center, chanting “don’t just stand there, join us.” (Which is apparently the chant most likely to get me to join anything). Though I’m more of a “donate money online” than a “march in the streets” protester, I know it all matters these days. And our writing matters, too. How can we use our writing to resist becoming our worst self as a country? How can we use our writing to stay sane during a crazy time? I don’t know the answers, but those are my questions and you’re welcome to them.

I’m not sure if I’ll make it to AWP in Tampa, Florida, next year, but I’ve definitely penciled myself in for AWP 2019 in Portland, Oregon. Happy writing! (And check out my other “5 Lessons” posts.)

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