In Search of Lost Swag: My Decade of AWP Conferences
February 14, 2017 § 2 Comments
By Kim Liao
As I packed for AWP this year, it occurred to me that my first conference in Atlanta was now ten years ago. I stopped sorting toiletries and thought, Who was I ten years ago? I was a writer in zygote form, somebody who was impressed by cocktails with paper umbrellas and awestruck by Tin House. I’ve experimented with several different AWP personas in the last decade: student, first-year writing instructor, journal section editor, book reviewer, slush reader, and panelist. This year was the first time I attended simply as a writer.
At AWP in Atlanta in 2007, I was 22, and just before I left for the conference, I kissed a poet in my graduate school program. I was aflame with possibility. I took copious notes at panels, seeing the study of writing craft and literary theory as an alive, pulsing thing. I discovered my love of dirty vodka martinis and the Book Fair. Working the Redivider table as a fiction reader, I got hooked on chatting with writers who stopped by, our would-be subscribers and submitters. It conjured up my love of selling books over years of working in my town’s independent bookstore in high school and summers during college. That summer I started submitting my first essay to journals in manila envelopes with enclosed SASEs. My relationship with the poet didn’t even last a week.
At AWP in New York City in 2008, I was full of sophomore swagger, the rising Nonfiction Editor of Redivider with my first publication forthcoming in Fringe Magazine. I shared a hotel room five ways with my closest Emerson friends, who were also my trivia team. I played with them every Tuesday night after the Nonfiction Book workshop class I was taking with my mentor. This was the book project that would turn me into a writer, with its magnetic pull encouraging me to dig deeper into the suppressed stories of my father’s family and with its endless frustrations along the path to crafting compelling storytelling. The manuscript would take much longer to finish than I could ever imagine. On late Saturday afternoon of the Book Fair, we auctioned off Redivider issues for rock bottom prices, and I ran around to other journals’ tables in a frenzied haze, swapping Redividers for journals that would become the basis of my authoritative lit mag collection.
At AWP in Chicago in 2009, I shared a hotel room with my writing group. We danced on our beds and drank beer and took photos before they were called selfies and laughed endlessly. I was about to graduate, almost finished with my thesis, an excerpt of my family memoir about retracing my grandparents’ footsteps through the Taiwanese martial law period. Through the writing process, I realized that I would need to go to Taiwan in order to get the whole story of what happened to my grandparents after World War II. I gushed about the free issues of Poets and Writers at the Book Fair to my friend in the conference hotel elevator, only to have Kevin Larimer say next to me, “I’m the Editor of Poets and Writers,” as he departed to his floor, leaving me a deep shade of magenta. I went to the Dance Party on Saturday night with two girlfriends, feeling drunk on the intoxicating force of women in control of their destiny. After accidentally falling asleep in my friend’s room, I took the elevator back upstairs at 7am in party clothes and bare feet. When travelers looked at me with judgment in their eyes, I just gazed back at them and smiled.
In 2012, at AWP in Chicago, I spoke on a panel about finding funding opportunities such as fellowships and residencies, having just returned from a Fulbright year of book research in Taiwan. Someone mistakenly put us in a lesser ballroom. The other panelists did fine, but I crashed and burned, and did so slowly, because an hour an fifteen minutes is not a short amount of time. Before the panel, I poured bourbon into my paper coffee cup, in case I got anxious and needed to relax. That probably didn’t help. I wasn’t working on a journal anymore, and felt lost and untethered as I walked through the Book Fair. I stopped by the Fourth River table, who had finally published an essay I wrote five years earlier. They were polite. Right before leaving Boston for AWP, I kissed the same poet again. Have you learned nothing??
A year later, at AWP in Boston, every Emerson alum, student, and faculty member who I’d ever met attended AWP. We all recognized each other with more warmth and charitable familiarity than we showed one another as classmates. I was almost done with the first draft of my family memoir of the Taiwanese Independence Movement, but this draft had exacted a toll on my body and soul. Writing this draft felt more like vomiting than like composing, and being almost done was like being almost finished with an exorcism. Someday the demons would finally exist outside of my body. I shared a hotel room with one friend, and we marveled at finally having our own beds. We felt so grown up.
Last year, at AWP in Los Angeles, I came to get a break from the full-time grind of my nine-to-five day job working for an attorney. I packed almost nothing, flying in on Thursday morning and out on a red-eye Saturday night – a parenthetical vacation. I desperately needed a reminder that I could still write stuff and sometimes even publish it. It’s been a long time. I don’t teach anymore. I walked around the Book Fair like a ghost. What do I want? What am I looking for? I met my mentor who was teaching in LA that semester; we had a cup of tea and it grounded me. I told him that after getting blocked on revising the family memoir, I started writing a novel to teach myself how to tell stories again. He thought this was a great idea, and that these things unfold organically. I pitched my novel to an Amazon fiction editor at a party and she gave me kind and helpful notes.
On my way out of the Book Fair late afternoon on Saturday, I spotted Kevin Larimer, the Editor of Poets and Writers (his face etched in my long-term memory for life), and pitched him a Literary Life essay I had been thinking about for awhile. He encouraged me to write and submit it. The essay would not get picked up by P&W, but instead would be published in Lit Hub and directly precipitate my signing with a pair of literary agents. On that particular Saturday, however, I knew none of this, so I celebrated the end of another AWP in the hotel bar with friends and strangers and my world swam back into focus.
On this past Thursday, I flee a blizzard in New York on an Amtrak train. It’s a reunion of three Boston friends in my hotel room suite, and our hotel serves free breakfast. A 9am AWP panel after eggs is literally a revelation. There are 12,000 of us this year and endless possibilities at every time slot. My friends and I mostly want to do different things during the day but agree to meet up at night. Everyone here looks so young. When did we get old?
I go to more panels than I ever have before, since I just want to hear talks by writers who I love. I listen to and fall madly in love with Jennifer Egan, Karen Joy Fowler, Hannah Tinti, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Celeste Ng, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Julia Fierro, Emma Straub, Ann Patchett, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Is AWP getting better, people, or am I just getting better at picking stuff to see?
On Friday, I leave the hotel room at 9am and don’t return until almost midnight. I say hello to the Redivider table, impressed that they have a whole new section for “graphic narrative.” I meet a poet friend for coffee, who admits that the Book Fair exhausts her and that attending panels helps her recharge. I laugh and tell her I feel the exact opposite. My great anxiety is the agency party tonight, because my agents have had my novel manuscript for almost a month and I don’t know if they hate it or not. Do they hate me? My telepathic powers are stubbornly on strike.
At the party, my agent smiles when she sees me, and introduces me to her other authors. I ask their advice, a carefully phrased plea for comfort. “You just gotta be real chill,” says the first author she signed, who has been working with her for a decade. “When they are reading, you just can’t do anything. Try to distract yourself.” Another agent who works on nonfiction asks me for my elevator pitch. “I’m pitching it differently each time,” I say, and give it a new spin. “Would you crack that book open?” Collected together, we are like a little family. The competitive sneer you sometimes hear at AWP is gone, because here, everyone is rooting for everyone else’s success.
On Saturday afternoon, right before that weariness overcomes the Book Fair like a great wind toppling a house of cards, I take a seat at a giant banquet table near the windows. I watch young wide-eyed students, grey-haired older women holding political signs for that night’s White House candlelight vigil, and two new parents with a young infant. I am none of them. Looking back over a decade of growing up, I see that in many ways, AWP is where I found my writer self, my particular mixture of scholar and artist, of salesman and kindred spirit. This year, AWP has grounded me, stabilizing my soul, heart, and mind, even while wreaking havoc on my liver, digestive system, and adrenal glands. When we are here, we are all home. Yet none of us would survive it for more than four days.
Kim Liao’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Lit Hub, Salon, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Another Chicago Magazine, Fourth River, Fringe, Cha: A Journal of Asian Literature, Hippocampus Magazine, and others. She received her MFA at Emerson College, was a Fulbright Taiwan Creative Research Fellow in 2010-2011, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is currently finishing her first novel.