April 12, 2010

AWP, Part 1

The first thing I wanted to do this week in trying to recount AWP is to express why it (and conferences in general) is so awesome.

So, Wednesday morning, the first day of the conference, I awoke in my hotel room and didn’t want to get out of bed. The room was cool with the fan going and the heavy comforter was cozy, but the morning sun forced its way through the curtains reminding me I had somewhere to be, that I had paid good money to be there and had abandoned my four-year-old twins with their dad and grandma. “Mommy, why are you going away?” I was wasting this time that I had wrested from the world. All I wanted to do was to turn on the boob tube and order room service.

One reason I didn’t feel up to it was that I received a big rejection a week or two ago. For the most part, I’m pretty even keel about rejections in general. I think of it as part of the process. However, this rejection was from a (wonderful) agent who wanted to take my novel but couldn’t. I understood why. Still, I really had felt like it might happen, so I was pretty crushed.

And that was why I really didn’t feel like dealing with anything writing-related.

I’ll just check my email, I told myself. I got myself out of bed and started my laptop. I had a lot of emails from work to respond to. Once that was done, well, I was already out of bed so, what the heck, maybe I’ll get going. I shower and go downstairs and order an Earl Grey latte at the bar. The man (whom I won’t name) sitting at the bar is a poet from the Southwest who is drinking doubles glasses of Jim Beam, one after another. I introduce myself as I wait for my latte, and we have a wonderful conversation about poetry and teaching. The startlingly beautiful blonde, blue-eyed woman who’s serving us ~ Lisa, from Russia, who is a translator ~ joins in the conversation.

I walk down the block and step into the Colorado Convention Center and into the heavenly smell of roasting candied nuts. There are people everywhere ~ gathered outside on the grass and the concrete barriers, entering and emitting from the open doors that pass from hand to hand, streaming up the escalators, down the escalators, gathered in mobile knots, leaning against the wall texting, wandering aimlessly while looking at the conference program. As I walk up the stairs to the ballroom to get my registration packet, I immediately see Dan and Jake, two writers I’d never met in person but whom I’ve friended on Facebook, on the down escalator next to me. I say, “Dan! Oh, and Jake!” And we talk in the moment they pass by. “This is crazy,” Dan says. “I’ve already met a bunch of people I know on Facebook.” (More on Facebook in a subsequent post.)

I go into the ballroom and hear the buzz of people talking, laughing, coughing, shuffling books, walking, moving. The energy and excitement. I think, These are my people. I joke with the people at the registration booth and chat with the conference people who stand in their blue suitcoats and ties with pleasant expressions on their faces.

The first panel I go to is on the long short story. I am late and there is standing room only, so I sneak over to a side wall. On the panel are two people I know from online ~ Jill is the moderator, and she led a fabulous online workshop I took, and Josh is a panelist and writes these amazing rural pieces. As I scan the seated crowd, I see a lot of people I’ve met before ~ Scott (a short story writer I know from the Tin House conference and from being in the same online workshop), Rashena (a short story writer I know from The Writer’s Institute conference in Miami and who is my great friend who I’d picked up from the airport the day before), and Alyson (who is the fabulous author of Ghosts of Wyoming and my mentor and friend). Though I’d never met her in person, from the back I recognize Lucy (whose fabulous work won a contest I was runnerup in and who is my Facebook friend and whose book The Big Bang Symphony is just out).

After the panel on the short story, Rashena and I go to the panel on men writing women and women writing men. I introduce myself to the woman sitting on my other side ~ Katie, who has beautiful strawberry blonde hair in French braids on either side of her head and startling eyes matching the brunette of her highlights. She’s working on her MFA. I exchange contact information with her, as I do with everyone I meet. Later on during the conference, I will meet Jonathan, who was the moderator of this panel, and have a wonderful conversation about writing and about Wyoming. After the panel I run into people in the halls that I know, among them Chivonne, a writer from my hometown of Laramie whose story will probably appear with mine in the next issue of Talking River. Later, I run into Pierre from New York, whose short stories just blow me away. I met him at Tin House.

The next panel is called Smart Girls, and it’s about women writers who are ambitious. Last year’s panel at Chicago was legendary (so I heard) and this year’s panel does not disappoint. I introduce myself to the person sitting next to me but do not have time to exchange info. I forget her name, but she is an undergraduate BFA student in Denver.

At 4:30 in the ballroom, I go to the One Story table to celebrate with Cheston, whose story “A Minor Momentousness in the History of Love” is out in this next issue. I know Cheston because he’s the coordinator for the Tin House conference, not to mention just a great person. I also introduce myself to Hannah and Maribeth of One Story, whom I've exchanged emails with, and say hi to Elliott, who is also with One Story and whom I met at my first Tin House. Then I wander through the east/west rows of tables of literary magazines and publishing houses and MFA programs. I introduce myself to some ~ ones I know and the one ones sitting there by themselves who glance at me with friendly looks in their eyes. At one point, I introduce myself to Diane and Angela at the Black Lawrence Press table, and without me saying anything they remember that I was runner up in their Hudson Prize in 2007. They even remember the year! My jaw hits the floor. As I’m wandering, I recognize faces in the crowd ~ people I know on Facebook or have been in online writers workshops with or whom I know from conferences. I always say hi and chat. Or if someone’s standing next to me at a table, I introduce myself and chat for a bit. I only make it a quarter of the way through the ballroom ~ eating cookies and drinking milk with Sonya and Jon at the Grub Street table when the 5:30 announcement comes over the intercom: “You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.”

Then I walk down 15th Street to the Rack and Rib for the Unbridled Books reception. On my way, I introduce myself to Julie and Eowyn, mother and daughter writers from Barrow, Alaska. We talk about kids and writing. They’re going to the Rack and Rib too. There, I meet Jenny, who’s book reviews in NewWest I much admire, whom I’m friends with on Facebook, and whose book The Ringer was a semi-finalist for the James Jones award and will be out in May 2011. Jenny introduced me to her friends Gesse and Angela and then subsequently I meet their friend Paula, all of whom are in a writers group together.

Finally, I go to the keynote by Michael Chabon. It’s in the Hyatt Ballroom, which is packed. I introduce myself to Anna, who’s sitting next to me and is originally from Denver but now is getting her BFA in the Upper Midwest. She’s interested in the conjunction of writing and spirituality. After Michael’s fabulous talk, I go up and introduce myself to Dinty, whom I’m friends with on Facebook and has these fabulous threads with all these people commenting. In the lobby, I run into a contingent of Wyoming people ~ Brad, Joe, and Evie. Brad writes fabulous short stories, I can’t wait to read Evie’s memoir but she’d just defended it as her thesis the week before, and I haven’t read anything of Joe’s but have seen him around for a lot of years. Finally, I ran into Pierre again, he introduced me to Linda and another woman (sorry! I can’t remember your name at the moment) from Taos, and then Pierre and I made arrangements to hang out the next day. Then back to my hotel room.

I think that’s enough. You don’t need the next two days. You get the idea. I probably went on too long, in fact, but I hope you get the idea of the social mecca of a conference. As a writer in Wyoming, there are few around me that are as serious and passionate about writing as I am. While they sympathize, they don’t understand. Here, they understand without me saying a word.

I think some people look at the vast expanse of the ballroom and are depressed. They think, all these people are my competition. Everyone here wants to get published too. I don’t see it that way at all. I think, really, the only person we have to best is ourselves ~ improving our craft, getting better. In that ballroom, I see everyone as a potential friend.

I think some people view the room with a cynical eye. We’re all a bunch of midlisters or future midlisters. I don’t see it that way at all. What I see is a whole bunch of people who had to courage to face the opposition within and without, to face incredible odds to actually CREATE. It’s easy to destroy; it takes so much heart and faith and courage to create.

I don't know if I've done the subject justice.

What I’m Reading Today: Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. I’ve only read the first seven pages, but oh the verbs!

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