AWP 2016: Day 1: LA, the bookfair, and hanging with writers

I’m writing this post in two parts. I began it in the morning, wearily sipping coffee at the desk in my hotel room, but I will finish it late tonight.

This morning I’m writing about my journey here last night and my exhaustion (already!?) this morning; later, I’ll recap the day.

The trip here, really, was fairly uneventful. I taught class yesterday (hi, WR 115 students!), so I had to catch a late flight, but I had already planned and packed so I didn’t have to rush for the airport.

And I had a charming taxi driver. We talked languages — he’s Kenyan but after he had a brief phone conversation with his roommate, he explained to me that he had been speaking Somali on the phone. He was trying to explain that he wasn’t speaking Arabic, but I told him I already knew that: I only know enough Arabic to give directions to a taxi driver, but I knew whatever the tonal similarities in modern Somali, it wasn’t Arabic.

He chuckled at my “Arabic for taxi drivers” line and told me he didn’t speak any Arabic at all. “I really only speak two languages,” he said. “Somali, even though I’m Kenyan, and English.” And he explained he was still struggling with English. I told him I understood — I had a little French from high school, but I’d mostly forgotten it.

“Yes!” he said. “It was like this too, for us. We learned Arabic, they tried to teach it to us, you know, in the schools. In the high school. I did okay I guess, but I forget most of it now. I’m learning English.”

While we were talking, an obnoxious, repetitive, oversimplisitic pop song was playing on the radio, and during the chorus the driver started laughing at it.

“Music today!” he said. “Makes it hard to learn English, yeah? That’s bad English, yeah? But it’s how we learn!”

I laughed along with him and he switched off the station, but he pointed at the silent radio. “It’s hard, though. Learning English. I try, but all the new words! English takes so many words, so many. All the time, new words coming in, yeah? We can’t catch up!”

I told him he wasn’t alone there — I could barely keep up myself!

On the plane, I noticed that a woman in my row was writing in a notebook. I knew immediately that she was headed to AWP, same as me — same as most of the plane, I suspect. I even tweeted about it (though in the dark in my hurry to tweet before shutting off the phone, I misspelled “I love writers!”).

Turns out the guy seated between her and me was also a writer, also headed to AWP. I didn’t catch the woman’s name because it’s always awkward talking around other people, but the guy I sat next to was J. Andy Kane, a fiction writer like me. (The woman at the end of the row was also a fiction writer — we enjoyed the fact that we were on Prose Row in the airplane.) Andy and I struck up a conversation because he was curious about the novella I was editing, and when we landed, we split a cab downtown and talked about Cormac McCarthy, because really, you get two white male writers of a certain age together long enough, sooner or later they start talking about McCarthy. Especially if I’m one of those writers.

So, all in all, a pleasant trip down, even though I didn’t get settled into my hotel room until 1 am.

And then the construction began.

Seriously: after just a few hours of sleep — before the sun was even up — I awoke to raucous construction sounds: machinery, crashing rubble, jackhammers, shouting men, that beeping alarm of a big truck backing up. Sometime around 5 am!

I’m up on the 8th floor in my hotel, and I can’t even see the construction out my window — I think it’s down the block somewhere — but I might as well be standing on the sidewalk watching it. The way sound carries in these urban canyons is amazing.

I’m usually not this tired until day three of AWP, day two at the earliest, but man, I’m starting this conference off exhausted already, so who knows how long I’ll manage to keep up with all my busy, hard-partying friends. The second half of this post might be awfully short.

But I have a full day ahead, and I’m eager to get to meeting folks, so I’m off until tonight.

Well, it’s currently 8 pm. I should be at a pool party right now. But it turns out that I’m nearly 40 years old, and my knee hurts, and I slept too little, and whatever other excuses I can pile on here. And even though those are all just excuses, I’ll add one more — the most important – and tell you that I’m making good progress on the novella revisions I owe Blue Skirt Productions, and I’m perfectly happy for any excuse to call it an early night so I can sit in my (now relatively quiet) hotel room and write.

Not that it hasn’t been a full day.

But, as I hinted in earlier posts, it’s been a different kind of full, one in which I get to do my own things according to my own agenda, and much as I love having students assign me homework (tit for tat, y’all!), I am liking this new, arguably purer way of experiencing AWP.

So, things I’ve gotten up to today while I’ve been my own boss:

By the time I’d walked the 1.2 miles from my hotel to the conference, found the line for registration, navigated my way through the meandering ropes in order to register, and then found my way to the post-line line to pick up my tote bag and a lanyard, I had not only missed my 9 am panel, I was nearly running late for the 10:30 panel.

Still, I made it to a solid panel — right there in the bookfair itself — on chapbook publishing. I can’t say that I learned anything I didn’t already know (I’ve written about chapbooks here in this blog before, and I’ve published one already and I’m publishing another later this year), but it was a good panel, full of quips and one-line advice, some of which I tweeted during the discussion.

More interestingly, though, one of the panelists is an editor at a press where I’ve recently submitted a chapbook (fingers crossed!), and even better, when I laughed at a panelist’s line disparaging a certain Hollywood celebrity who thinks he’s a writer, a friend of mine recognized my laughter (apparently, I have an immediately recognizable laugh) and snapped a photo of me during the panel. Thanks, Jane!

Photo courtesy Jane Rosenberg LaForge.
Photo courtesy Jane Rosenberg LaForge.

Afterward, with no other panels on my agenda, I headed to the Blue Skirt Productions table to help staff it for a while.

I love helping friends sell books that I believe in, and sure, Blue Skirt is publishing a novella of mine later this year and is including me in their microfiction anthology that comes out in May, but anyone who followed my AWP posts last year knows that I’ve been a fan of their books for a long while. So it’s no trouble for me to hawk Blue Skirt‘s not-really-YA child abuse series by Gayle Towel, or their haunting psychopathic-prophet novella, or their veterans’ War Stories anthology, or their Butch/Femme photo anthology, or their adult coloring books. Also, they’re sharing a booth with Sally K. Lehman, who has two books that I have blurbed before, her parental grief anthology Bear the Pall and her powerful novel In the Fat, so it was no trouble to help sell those books either.

What I found interesting today was how quiet I become and how strong my impulse is to slink into a shadowy corner and disappear whenever anyone at that table celebrated my work. Blue Skirt and Sally were kind enough to let me set out copies of my chapbook Box Cutters and my novel Hagridden for sale, and they sold books for me. But to hear anyone describe my novel, for example, as one of their favorite novels ever, to hear people compare it to books like Slaughterhouse-five or The Red Badge of Courage — I honestly don’t know what to do with praise like that. It’s one of the things that makes me such a terrible salesman of my own work. I believe in the stories that I write, and I believe that they are worth sharing with other people. But I don’t know how to celebrate them in the same way that I celebrate the works of others.

So that was an interesting experience today.

Eventually, my poet friend Brianna Pike found me and we went to a late lunch, where we talked about fitting our writing into our busy lives, and teaching at community colleges and the pleasure we take from that — the essential importance of that level of work — and how fortunate we feel to have spouses who support our creative endeavors.

Bri, some longtime readers might remember, is the friend who brought me to her community college in Indiana to speak about and read from my novel in 2014; she is also the friend whose panel on maintaining a creative life while teaching I attended and wrote about from AWP last year.

She is also a dear friend, and she is one hell of a poet. One of my all time favorites. And over lunch we talked about her own manuscript, which is coming together, and which I am so eager to see in print.

Bri and I had a lot to catch up on, so our lunch ran long, and afterward I stopped in at the bookfair only long enough to sell a copy of one of Blue Skirt’s coloring books before I had to grab my bags and head off to another panel.

I chose a panel on teaching students who want to write about social justice, mostly because last term, in my introduction to composition class, I had a student write about her experiences as an immigrant to America, and another student write about her experiences as a woman in a male-dominated profession, and another student write about his experiences as a mixed-race child in an impoverished, single-parent family. Each of them touched on so many deeply important issues that I, as a cis white male from a moderately impoverished but relatively privileged to background, could never write about myself. So I wanted to learn some techniques for how to guide students through writing about experiences that I don’t share.

The panel was good, though mostly the panelists adopted a formal, “academic conference” approach and simply read from papers, so while I learned some things, it wasn’t as engaging as I wished it had been. Still, I took note of their names so I could look up their work elsewhere and continue to learn from them, because they had some good ideas.

And then it was off to a reading hosted by the American Literary Review, the magazine I used to work for when I was in my doctoral program at the University of North Texas. I’ve always had an affinity for that magazine, and I have become fiercely defensive of it in recent years as the university has cut its budget and taken it from a renowned print magazine to an online-only magazine. (I love online mags and ALR is still a hell of a publication; it’s not the medium but the budget issues that bother me).

And UNT continues to draw strong writers as students, so I always enjoy meeting the new cohorts in my old program. Last year, in fact, I met the former managing editor Caitlin Pryor, who impressed me tremendously at the time. Later that same summer, we reconnected at Sewanee Writers’ Conference, where she was studying with the poets, and we became good friends. Tonight, I reconnected with Caitline and some of the other ALR alumni from last year, and I also met another fellow fiction writer and another poet, as well as the new production editor (my old job at ALR), and every one of them made me miss my old grad-school days!

20160331_175234This year’s reading was at a whisk(e)y library, a dangerous place for me because I am such a fan of whisk(e)ys. The back room that the magazine reserved was small and a bit crowded, but it was a perfect location for a literary reading, and the work people read was beautiful. Most interestingly, from a personal perspective, was that one of the poets is a newly transplanted Portlander (I got a lot of laughter when I woo-hooed a shout-out to Portland during his bio) and another was, to my surprise, a fellow Sewanee alum from this past year. So it was a fantastic way to end my evening.

Not that the evening itself has ended. Most of the people at the ALR reading — and a few other friends who messaged me later — tried to convince me to join them for a dance party later this evening. Because sometimes I think this is the real purpose of AWP: to bring writers together not to share their work or sell their work or even to talk about their work, but simply to enjoy each other’s company, in party after party.

And there was a time I would’ve joined them, even though I look terrible in a bathing suit and I can’t dance for anything. But the truth is, I am now middle-aged, and I feel it. Particularly after such a rough morning, after so little sleep, with so much work ahead of me.

I found, walking away from the bar tonight, that I was looking forward to my hotel room, where I could pull out my writing and get back to the work of revision. Because really, whatever else we’re here for, isn’t that the point?

Aren’t we all here for the words?

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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