AWP 2016: Day 3: All the books and all the hugs

It is late Saturday night. I am exhausted. I have blisters the size of my thumbs from the daily 2.5-mile walk from my hotel to the conference and back (not to mention all the walking in between, in search of books and in search of presses and in search of panels and in search of food and in search of drinks and in search of friends . . .). I have accumulated and laid out the swag I picked up in the book fair — a relatively light haul this year but plenty of amazing stuff for me to look at it later. I have taken stock of the books I brought and accounted for the ones I sold or gave to friends. I have downloaded all the photos I’ve taken and typed up all the notes I wrote during panels — craft notes and story ideas and observations.

I’ve said more than once in these posts that this year’s AWP was different from any other AWP I’ve been to. Today, I realized it was in many ways the reverse of most AWPs, at least in the sense that I started the conference exhausted and burned out and crabby, and I ended on an exhilarated high from all the connections I made, ideas I gleaned, hugs I gave and received . . . .

In fact, today was so full and productive and pleasant that I imagine this will be the longest of my posts, because I have to account for the experiences I had and the memories I created and notes I took. I also attended as many panels today as I attended in the previous two days combined, so there’s a lot to report on. And of course there are other photos, though I’ll probably save those for tomorrow. (If you’ve been following me on Twitter or Facebook, you’ve probably seen many of the photos already, anyway.)

I would like to begin today out on the streets, where, mercifully, I did not awake to construction for a change. Instead, I walked through a shootout in the streets — and a director yelling into a megaphone as the cameras rolled. Seems CBS is launching a tv show based on the film Training Day, and I walked through their set this morning. But television is small potatoes compared with the literary world of AWP! So, as I shared on other social media, instead I have to tell you the story of the woman I met in the elevator this morning.

Yesterday, I stopped by The Writer’s Hotel table in the bookfair and, after a conversation with the representatives, went ahead and signed up for a 30-minute manuscript consultation with an editor. Every little bit helps, after all! (More on that experience in a bit.) So this morning, I was going down to my hotel’s business center to print several pages from a novel manuscript so I could take it to the editor today. I wasn’t leaving the hotel, I wasn’t going to the conference yet, so I didn’t have my usual AWP paraphernalia with me: no tote bag, no name badge. And yet, when I got on the elevator and found a woman, similarly unidentified, riding down to the lobby, I was surprised when she glanced at me and asked immediately, “AWP?” I said yes and asked who she was with, and she told me she was representing Juxtaprose. Then the elevator dinged and we got off and went our separate ways, but I kept wondering how she knew I was part of the conference. Then I caught myself in the mirror and realized I was wearing my Portland Review tshirt, which I had brought on purpose to advertise the magazine and Oregon writing in general — but I had forgotten its relationship or, more accurately, its abnormality outside the writing world. Of course she knew I was a writer; of course she knew I was with AWP.

I told this story on social media this morning because it amused me, but this evening, I also discovered that Juxtaprose had reblogged my first post from AWP, so it turns out we had more connection that I realized in the elevator. I wish I had asked her name. I will definitely be paying more attention to the magazine.

I’ve been saying all along that this year’s AWP is different from years past, but I realized today that I’ve had a bit of a backward AWP: I started the conference cranky and sleep-deprived and ended it boisterous and eager to meet everyone.

And boy, did I meet everyone!

The theme of my conference this year, I think, has been no-win choices: it seems like everything I went to this year meant I missed something else equally amazing. Last night, for example, I was attending one event at the expense of another that I had been eagerly looking forward to for months. But it was one of those situations where, if I bailed on one thing, I would’ve been heartbroken to have missed the other. So I had a wonderful evening last night, and also was heartbroken to have missed a bunch of other wonderful people. The good thing was, today I managed to run into most of the people I missed last night, and many hugs were shared and many selfies were taken. So I suppose the takeaway is that, if you fully commit to AWP,even when you think you’ve missed the people you need to see, you will eventually see the people you need to see. Or at least that’s the way it played out this year.

One thing I think everyone needs to know about AWP is that Saturday is the free-for-all. AWP typically opens the bookfair to the public on Saturday; and also, because it’s the last day of the conference, exhibitors and vendors are eager to distribute their stock at whatever cost rather than have to ship all those books and journals home. So it’s a day of steep discounts, and seasoned AWP goers know this, so they frequently wait until Saturday before loading up their tote bags.

This was more obvious this year than I’ve ever seen it, and while there was a lot of interest in both my novel and my chapbook, I only sold one copy of each on the first and second days. Total. Both of them on the first day. Today, however I blew through two thirds of my stock, and I gave away a lot of bookmarks and business cards as well!

I also staffed the Literary Arts table during the lunch hour, and we distributed a lot of scout books and tote bags then as well. This is, in fact, good business practice, because people do eagerly take these items and often follow up on them. But it’s also a convenience for people like me whose luggage is already over stuffed with the things they picked up from other people’s tables. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to fit all of my stuff in my luggage — a common problem in each year — but today I sold a lot of books and made room for the books I bought, so I’m doubly happy.

Most gratifyingly, I’m told that while I was sitting at the Literary Arts booth, a pair of men were so interested in the last copy of Hagridden at the Blue Skirt table that they were nearly ready to armwrestle over who got the book. Apparently, they settled the dispute more amicably, and shortly afterward I brought in more stock from my backpack. But it thrills me to think that any two people were interested enough in my fiction that they were ready to wrestle for it. I wish I could’ve witnessed that.

When I signed up for my editorial consultation today, I wasn’t quite sure what manuscript I would bring, because I hadn’t intended to consult on my work in the first place. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, an “impulse purchase” even though it was free. And the consultation was actually more an advertisement for The Writer’s Hotel Master Class, a kind of mini conference/workshop/retreat, but I listened to the pitch because I was genuinely curious, and when I saw that my friend Bill Roorbach was on the faculty, I knew it would be something special. So I went ahead and checked out the consultation.

My appointment was with Scott Wolven, and, on a whim, I decided to print out a chapter from my novel in progress. This is the same novel I took to Sewanee last summer, where I workshopped the first couple of chapters with Allen Wier. Again, I have waxed rhapsodic about Sewanee before and will do so again soon, but I need to say here that Allen’s insight to my book was deeply helpful, because he showed me the process that I could follow to develop the story and also, more importantly, he showed me the heart of my book and the humanity of my characters. In other words, he showed me my novel; he showed me myself as a writer.

Which is why, not under Allen’s advice but because I knew it was the right thing to do, I tossed a lot of the draft I had written beyond what I took to Sewanee, and last fall I started over with a new framing narrative to reconnect with the people in my book. The short chapter that I brought to Scott Wolven this morning was the first of that new material, because I wanted to see if I was on the right track based on Allen’s advice.

What wound up happening, in my brief 30-minute conversation, was fascinating to witness. I handed Wolven my pages, and he asked me for a bit of information about the book so he would have a context in which to read the pages, so I explained to him the plot as well as the thematic grounding of the book. And then he read a few sentences and out came the pen, and while I sat there watching, he started scratching at and scribbling all over my words, line by line, slash mark by slash mark, tearing the piece to shreds. And yet I could tell that he wasn’t simply digging into it for the sake of making my time worthwhile; he had found something immediately and was using that as a guideline by which to read the rest of the work, something I sometimes do when grading papers but haven’t witnessed from the other side like this before. Even when I was a student (well, more formally a student — in truth I will always be a student), all the response to my work happened “off stage,” so to speak. So it was harrowing to witness today as a writer, but it also was instructive to watch as a teacher, which made the second half of his reading all the more gratifying: eventually, he sat back in his chair and just read, nodding in places, getting my work and following my story and what I was trying to do because he was seeing it as a reader.

When he finally put the pen down and begin speaking to me again, explaining the notes he was writing on the first several pages, he showed me my own worst faults. He revealed to me the language things that I suspected I was doing and worried might be problems, but he didn’t simply point them out and tell me to stop doing them. He explained to me what they were doing in the text, how they affected the reading of the work. He became my audience, and then he spoke up.

So I knew the problems that he was telling me about, even before I showed him the text, but they were the kinds of problems that I allow myself to ignore because I’m still drafting, or because they’re stylistic choices, or because “that’s just how I write and other people need to get used to it.” And what Wolven explained to me today is that while other people might be able to “get used to it,” agents and editors and publishers don’t have time to get used to it and this is exactly the kind of thing that I need to be cautious with in my work if I want to share my work with a wider readership.

And he was exactly correct. And I knew it.

Some of his tips I’ll be sharing with my own students when I return to the classroom next week, or will file away in my brain to recycle on individual essays when I begin grading again myself. But mostly, it was a thrill to sit there as a writer and watch a reader — an intelligent, insightful, careful reader, exactly the kind of reader I want to write for — react to my work with mindfulness and constructive criticism. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that in action. It wasn’t the kind of feedback that would help me develop a whole book; it wasn’t the kind of feedback that would allow me to tell this story in the first place. But it is the kind of feedback that will help me sell the story once I’ve told it. So while today’s consultation was free, it also was invaluable.

I think later, when I post photos, I will try to take inventory of all the people I met whose work I love so much. Tonight, let me focus instead on the panels I attended.

The details might also have to wait for a future post because I took so many notes and I felt like I had so many epiphanies today that I can’t cram them all into this tonight. If you’ve been following me on Twitter throughout the conference, you’ve probably seen some of the things I felt most noteworthy, but trust me when I say they were but a few drops in many buckets, so I have a lot more to share.

I will say this: I think it is perhaps not coincidental (as though the universe is my writing program) that I began today with a panel about memoir in which my friend Jane Rosenberg LaForge discussed her own book, a mashup of sorts, a blurring or even an ignoring of lines between fiction and fact, between memoir and fantasy; and I ended my day on a panel about poets transitioning into the memoir, in which the brilliant Beth Ann Fennelly insisted on maintaining the lines between genres if only to understand how to write one thing rather than another.

Jane’s book, An Unsuitable Princess (Jaded Ibis Press), is described by her and her press as both a “true fantasy” and a “fantastical memoir,” because it is in many ways both autobiography and fiction; or, more properly, it is an autobiography about the fantasy life she lived as a girl, so that we get to juxtapose the life that existed in the “real” world with the life that existed in her child’s mind. The concept, at least superficially, reminds me a bit of the “Expectations/Reality” split-screen sequence in (500) Days of Summer (also an LA story!).

It’s an idea I love, and I began my day thinking that there is no such thing as genre anymore — in fact, I caught myself telling that to more than one person in the bookfair this afternoon.

But then Beth Ann Fennelly, in the last panel of the last day, talked so eloquently about the distinctions between poetry and memoir, between fiction and memoir, between one mode or medium and another, that I remembered how important some of those boundries can be. I have long described Beth Ann as my favorite living poet, but I also have long extolled the beauty of her first nonfiction book, Great With Child, and I adore the novel that she cowrote with her husband Tom Franklin, The Tilted World, and, at least based on her work, I absolutely believe her when she says that poems and memoirs can never really be the same form. They are discrete forms, with different paces and different meanings.

It feels weird to write this, because years ago I attended an AWP panel in which Beth Ann talked about the similarities and relationships between prose poetry and flash fiction, and here, today, she was arguing something like the opposite. But what actually happened is that I am seeing that earlier talk in a new light, and she is so intelligent and so thoughtful and so precise in her definitions of how words and sentences and lines and narrative pacing function that I find myself agreeing with her whatever she says.

This all sounds contradictory, because I’ve been following her work for a long time and have a long, nuanced perspective on her evolution as an artist. But I’m telling you, her discussion today was brilliant and convincing, and I’m happy to report that she brought hardcopies of her prepared comments, like a President delivering her State of the Union to the press before she delivers it to Congress, so I can quote her verbatim in a future post and I intend to. Let me tell you now: you are going to thank me for this.

I often tell people that Tom Franklin is the writer I want to be when I grow up, but that’s partly because I don’t know how to be Beth Ann Fennelly. They are, collectively, the two people I most admire in the writing world, and even the little bit that I know them, the ability to send them an email once in a while or sneak up behind them at a conference and get a hug or sit in the room and hear them speak, has been such a privilege in my writing life.

That is probably the thing I have been thinking about the most this final day of AWP: the privilege of knowing these people, of working among them. I think this every year at AWP, as I make my way through the bookfair or the readings or the panels, as I hug writers I know and buy their books and beg them to sign their books for me. But I was thinking about it today in particular as I staffed the Literary Arts booth in the book fair. People would come up and ask what Literary Arts was, and as I began my spiel — they are a nonprofit in support of the literary arts in Oregon, they organize the Oregon Book Awards and Wordstock and the Portland Arts & Lectures series, they support Writers in the Schools, they are a host for or promoter of other reading series and other writers — I found myself each time, with each new person to the table, flush with a sense of gratitude. Not just for Literary Arts (though of course for them, because they made my first novel possible), but also because of what they represent. Obviously, they are a facet of the multitudinous, interconnected, beautifully mutually supportive writing community in Oregon, but they also are emblematic of the community that existed already. Literary Arts is possible because the writers are already there, they are already supportive of each other, they already make so much possible for each other. And that’s not just the case in Oregon but throughout the US, throughout the world. And AWP, for a few mad, exhausting days each year, represents that massive community. That flood of support and love. That depth of genius in craft and artistry. That I can even for a short while tap into even a small corner of that has been a tremendous privilege, and it has opened up so many doors creatively, professionally, emotionally. It seems strange to consider people that I see once a year and I know otherwise only online as genuine friends, as family, and yet that’s exactly what they are. We are family, related not by blood but by ink.

I didn’t use to be a hugger. I used to be fairly reserved, happy to shake a hand but always wary of too much intimacy. I am extroverted professionally, as a teacher, but my preference is for introversion, for solitude and quiet. Give me a choice between a party and a night home with my wife and cats, and I will choose my wife and cats every time. I like smallness and quietude and simplicity. Conferences like this, where tens of thousands of people congregate, many of them with an agenda —it can overwhelm a person like me. And yet, for these few days, it feels so necessary because it is, actually, not an opportunity for networking or salesmanship but a reunion. For a bringing together of the vast diaspora family I’ve found in art. I love these people.

I was not a hugger, but I became a hugger in the presence of so much love.

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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