AWP Minneapolis wrap-up: my students respond

Back from Minneapolis less than 24 hours and I was in my classroom, rearranging the tables and spreading out all my books, magazines, brochures, business cards, submission flyers, notebooks, pens, fake tattoos, noisemakers, and buttons, creating my own miniature bookfair for my students. And yes, I let them take a lot of what I brought back (but not my books!), and afterward, I went through a rundown of the panels I attended and answered questions.

But none of this was much of a surprise to my students, because they’d been following my blog the whole time I was away, and I’d required them to write responses to my AWP adventures. A lot of those responses included some interesting comments and questions, so I asked their permission to share some of those here on the blog. Only a few gave that permission, which I understand — it’s hard putting your words out there! But even this small sampling should give you an idea of how engaged my students were, and their emails and response posts were a big part of what kept me going that last day of the conference!


From my composition course:

It was [great] that, seeing that we all are writing about our communities that we are involved in, we get a digital view of the wider version of the community you are involved in, which is awesome. The layout gives me a blueprint to a degree of how to layout my community papers that I’m actually eager to write about.

~ Salim Hakeem

My comp class this term is writing a series of essays about a community; each student selects her or his own community, and their first essay is primarily a definition essay explaining what that community is and how it functions. I get some terrific topics from my students — this term, I’ve got churches and make-up salespeople and music groups and a waste treatment plant — but it was nice the turn the tables and show them a bit of one community I belong to. This was really just a happy accident, a result of timing more than design, but I’m glad it happened and gladder still that Salim pointed it out to me!

I bet it was really exciting being surrounded by authors like yourself. Did you also autograph your books for people? It sounded like fun, meeting for dinner and drinks with all your friends. Did you have to wear a tux at all?

What is your old mentor like? Your old professor David Breeden? That’d be so cool to see the one that’s responsible for you becoming what you were meant to become, or what you wanted to be.

Also, what is a full novella manuscript?

~ Ruby Ritter

A lot of students sent me question-heavy responses, which I loved. So I thought I’d use this post as a way to answer a few of them:

As a matter of fact, I did sell or trade all but one of my books, and yes, I did autograph a few of them! I also got a ton of autographs — practically every book I brought back has a signature. I love the stories those handwritten names and inscriptions tell when I read and reread the books later.

I never did wear a tux, but I did nearly pack my kilt for the conference. My wife and I have been binging on the Outlander tv series (and my wife is reading the first novel now), so I’ve been in a particularly Scottish mood lately. And I’ll take any excuse I can get to wear the kilt! But my wife, wise and practical woman that she is, reminded me that I was packing carry-on only and the kilt weighs half a ton, and even my casual cargo kilt is no light garment. So, alas, I left them at home. No fancy dress for dinner. 😦

David Breeden is much as he ever was, still an usher through my academic and creative life. I’ve written about his importance in my career before, but it was wonderful getting to reconnect with him in person.

The novella manuscript question stems from some news I got at AWP — that a publisher was interested in my novella and had requested the full manuscript. To address the latter part of that: I had submitted a query (which is a bit like a sales pitch, a description of a writing project to gauge a publisher’s interest) and a few sample pages from my manuscript. If a publisher is interested, they’ll ask to read the whole book. It’s a bit like sending in an application and cover letter and then later getting called in for the interview; they’re deciding if they want to “hire” my book.

In class, though, Ruby also asked what a novella itself is and how it’s distinct from, say, a novel. Which is a more complicated answer. I gave the class the run-down, but if you’re looking for that explanation in print, here’s my old blog post about novellas.


From my creative nonfiction course:

I mostly envy the community you seem to have found among writers. How do you meet these people? How do you know everyone? Absolutely phenomenal.

~ Aubrey Jarvis

I spent a lot of time talking to people at the conference about how much I love this community aspect of AWP, this sense that however solitary our normal writing routine and however small and localized our little writing groups are, we are still part of this huge literary world, and AWP helps us remember that once a year. It’s as exhilarating as it is overwhelming, as invigorating as it is exhausting, but it is, to quote Aubrey, “absolutely phenomenal.”

And even in a world where I meet writers every day on social media (the most common greeting at AWP is “I know you on Facebook!”), I still wind up meeting whole gaggles of new writers at AWP. That’s a large part of what AWP is for: discovering new voices, if not in person then at least on the page.

This year, for example, I met for the first time a handful of publishers, several new writers, and the editorial staff of several literary journals. I also connected with new undergraduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, where I used to teach, and with new graduate students in the creative writing program at the University of North Texas, where I earned my PhD. Many of these new writing colleagues, of course, I have since friended on Facebook or followed on Twitter. I also swapped books with some of these writers and publishers, so we’ll get to know each other through the written word and (so the intent goes) help promote each other online if we like what we read.

And how amazing it must have been to give your mentor books in which he is acknowledged. That is a dream of mine to do someday.

I also liked that you got to see Bill Roorbach. (I say hi too.) The more I read Writing Life Stories, the more I feel like I have a story in me that has meaning to more people than just me, and the more I feel prepared and confident to do the work, put in the time, and become a great author. I already know I will be using the book for more than just this class, and it is something I will most likely refer to repeatedly over my life and (hopefully) career.

~ Daniel Holsonback

One of my favorite things about engaging with the writing community — at a huge conference like AWP or at a local event like the Terroir Creative Writing Festival (which happens this weekend and, yes, I’m running a session there) or even at a single author’s booksigning — is that you get to meet these people you admire and aspire to become. They serve as role models, sure, but by and large, they also serve as occasional mentors, ushering you into your own writing life even if only a few minutes at a time. (Bill Roorbach is especially good at that; if you haven’t met him in person, you can always follow the writing blog he shares with Dave Gessner — they’re currently celebrating the fifth anniversary of that blog.)

And if things pan out and you do wind up publishing some work down the road, yeah, it’s not just good etiquette but also a thrilling experience to have the opportunity to thank those folks who helped you get there. Writing my acknoledgements was one of my favorite parts of my whole publishing experience. And I still have a lot of people left to thank, so I hope to publish many more books where I can acknowledge them. 🙂

And finally, rather than end on my own response, I’m going to let a student have the last word, because I love Kianna Johnson’s response to the whole experience of AWP:

I loved the photo on Day 1.2 of the side of the building — covered in all those music notes. I thought I was just trying to distract myself from reading, or writing (music does that to me) but then as I thought about the concept of music and literature it all made a lot more sense. You have to have rhythm when you write and you have to have enough creativity that your words can sing to your reader. My theory (no pun intended) continued to remain relevant as you talked of standing and singing “I” — “We are that ‘I’ song.” Our lives are a reflection of who we are, and if we’re lucky, they’re songs — and it’s incredibly beautiful.

It was great to see you having so much FUN throughout all this “research,” “work,” and “development.” You, hanging out with a bunch of writers across the country but interacting with people just like you — people who understand writing and how to get it out in the world. I feel that we idolize the greats (why wouldn’t we, they’re awesome), but I think it’s important for us to not hold them too far above us. What makes them more capable than we are? With proper guidance, hard work, dedication and positive influence, couldn’t we be great writers too? The answer is yes.

~ Kianna Johnson

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