You Always Remember Your First

April 5, 2022 § 16 Comments

By Andrea A. Firth

I woke at 4 a.m. to catch an unreasonably early flight. Once in the air (and after a snooze) I pulled out the book I’d set aside for the journey—A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays edited by Randon Billings Noble. I already knew Noble’s essay in the collection, “The Heart is a Torn Muscle.” I’ve taught it many times. Excited, I dug in and immersed myself in flash, segmented, fragmented, collage, mosaic, and hermit crab essays—lyric in performance on every page. I marked my favorites with yellow post-it notes, like Angie Chuang’s “Scars, Silence and Dian Fossey,” combining her experience of ovarian tumor surgery, her trip to see the gorillas in Rwanda. and her take on the enigmatic life of the primatologist Dian Fossey, the essay a brilliant braid that connects and spins on the metaphor of a scar.

I landed on the East Coast seven hours later, the first time I’d been away from my husband since his work life moved into the spare bedroom at the start of the pandemic (I missed him already). The first time I’d see my brother and extended family in real life, in over three years. And by a fortuitous coincidence (my family lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia), the first time I’d attend AWP.

I boarded the train to center city the next day in typical spring weather, wet and gray. Outside the window, old two-story homes with steep pitched roofs made with the tan, gold, and gray fieldstone that I only see when I come back to Pennsylvania, dotted wide green lawns as the conductor called out the towns along the stretch known as the Main Line. Malvern. Paoli. Bryn Mawr. As we expressed to 30th Street Station, the Philadelphia skyline came into view. Everything felt familiar.

I started each day with coffee and a sticky cinnamon bun (a Philly specialty) and mapped out the sessions I’d attend, my focus creative nonfiction and memoir. Thousands of writers and the constant buzz of conversation filled the convention halls. I sat before panels of great writers who I’ve read, admired, and emulated. I’d heard much of what they said before, but here, in person, in real life, voices and thoughts amplified, they sounded clearer and resonated deeper.

The first draft is the place to put it all on the page. Be transparent. Don’t edit.

It’s easier to cut than add. As writers, we are always making choices.

Constraints lead to discovery. What you don’t remember presents opportunity.

What’s left off the page speaks volumes.

There is no truth. Memory changes with each recollection.

Write both the light and the shadow. We are all flawed.

I wandered the Book Fair. Aisles and aisles of booths for journals and publishers. Despite the masks covering half of our faces, eyes smiled. Everyone was anxious to engage. At least eight journal editors told me that they receive significantly fewer, quality creative nonfiction submissions. I’ve heard this before. Now it was clearer. Note to self: Submit more. Make sure it’s your best.

I ended each day with dinner, a glass of white wine, and my brother and his wife, talking and talking as if we hadn’t talked in years.

I attended the last session on the last day, pleasantly surprised to find Randon Billings Noble moderating a panel of contributors to her anthology. Another fortuitous coincidence. Before the session started, I approached Randon and told her how much I’d liked the collection, how I’d read it on the flight. As she autographed my book, the panelist sitting adjacent asked “Where are you are from?” pointing to my conference badge with my name and Diablo Writers’ Workshop, where I teach. Diablo, the mountain anchoring the skyline in my part of northern California, was the clue. She was originally from the same small town where I now live. We chatted. I settled into my seat to listen. And when this writer discussed her essay about a tumor, gorillas, Rwanda, and Fossey, she was Angie Chuang. Another fortuitous coincidence? No—this was connection. This is what good writing does.

I gathered with family on Sunday, my brother, sister-in-law, nephews, niece, great niece, aunt, and uncle. We ate brunch and talked and talked, telling the same funny family stories we’ve told over and over for years whenever we get together.

I woke the next morning at 4 a.m. to catch another unreasonably early flight. In the air (and after a snooze) I finished reading the last couple essays in the anthology and made a list:

Most everything has already been said but always sounds better in real life.

What makes home memorable is the familiar.

Stories are worth repeating.

As the lyric essay does, we connect in myriad ways.


Andrea A. Firth is a writer and journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area and the co-founder of Diablo Writers’ Workshop. She is teaching the personal essay class, Your Story, exploring craft, genre and writing technique in the contemporary essay and how to use it in your own work, in April and May. Details and register here.

AWP 2020: Lessons for Three Weeks After

April 1, 2020 § 7 Comments

kim macqueenBy Kim MacQueen

I’m home because we’re all home. I’m sitting on my couch, looking out the window, because we’re all sitting on our couches, looking out our windows. We’re all watching our neighbors walk their dogs, or take out their trash, then go back inside and shut the door. It feels like we’ve been here forever.

But it was only two weeks ago that I was lugging two heavy bags 2,000 miles through five different airports to the writer’s conference, trying not to freak out. When I made my rushed and distracted travel arrangements, I’d bought two different flights at two different times from two different airlines. I sort of decided, in this annoying way I sometimes have, that both flights would connect at JFK. They did not.

There was nothing to do but admit my mistake and fork over another $300 for a new trip involving three trains and five airports, that would start 18 hours earlier than planned and end 7 hours later. My trip lasted 16 hours and felt like it had been planned by a monkey.

At first I wasn’t even going to tell my husband about the travel snafu. Then I gave in because I needed to let him know that, even as he planned to drop me off at the airport at 8 am, I wasn’t going to be able to send him a “Landed safely!” text until after midnight, as my trip to Texas was now set to last longer than a recent trip that took him from New York to South Korea. He just shook his head as I fled the bedroom with my head down so I wouldn’t have to continue the conversation. If I was my own personal assistant, I would totally fire me.

So I set off on this ridiculous trip. I brought a magazine and two audiobooks and six hours of editing work and one online mindfulness course I signed up for on a whim. I didn’t do any of those things. Instead I jumped full-on into pretending this had been my idea the whole time. If you’d stopped me in any of the above-mentioned airports and asked me why I looked so tired, which luckily nobody did, I would have told you I’d actually wanted to fly this circuitous route from Vermont to New York to Chicago to San Antonio in the same day. I would have claimed I was excited to see whether I could get from JFK to Newark Airport (route: Airtrain to Long Island Railroad to Penn Station to New Jersey Transit) before passing out for lack of food.

And it kind of worked. After a couple of hours of pretending I was enjoying running through five different airports, I found I did kind of dig it. I started talking to myself in that way you do when you’re traveling alone. I watched a show on the plane where a young blonde woman who really needed a haircut, or a blowout, or something, talked about all the different wines you can pair with tater tots.

I should write something clever about this given the amount of time I’ve spent consuming tater tots and the money I’ve spent learning about wine, I told myself. You’re the one who needs a haircut, my self said back.

I did not pass out from lack of food. I had an egg salad sandwich in Newark that was more than serviceable after I pulled off the disgusting wilted lettuce, and a martini and sushi in Chicago that was perfectly fine if I ignored the glare of the awful Gate C lighting and the fact there were a few specks of somebody else’s food on my menu. The more I pretended to be interested in experiencing the people and food of five different airports, the more fun it was.

And I learned some things. I learned that most of the transit apps on my phone don’t work to actually get me anywhere. “Those apps are a pain in my you-know-what,” said a friendly Long Island Railroad guy, who then told me the train I’d been trying to get on for the last 20 minutes would take me not to Penn Station but to the site of the movie The Amityville Horror on the other end of Long Island.

I eventually got to Texas, where I did what I’m doing now in Vermont: sit on the couch and look out the window. Then my friend Anne got there from Massachusetts. She sat in the chair, because I had commandeered the couch. The next day we went to Association of Writing and Writing Programs (AWP) Annual Conference for the few sessions we were interested in that hadn’t been cancelled by COVID19. Most of the programming we’d traveled 2,000 miles for was moved online. So.

So we had nachos and margaritas by the river at a restaurant that had been there since 1946 that is — unthinkably, horribly — closed now. We had cocktails at the longest wooden bar in Texas, watched over by a bison head the size of a Volkswagen, and the egg-and-potato tacos we had for breakfast the next morning at Patti’s Taco House II helped me deal with my hangover. We sat under a tree with fragrant purple-pink flowers in the front yard of our Airbnb and ate grocery store pizza I’d thought would be good (it wasn’t). But Anne was nice about it.

At the time I thought, this trip is totally worthwhile, just for this. Maybe not the pizza, but all the good things around the pizza. A chance to connect with people I love and admire, some for the first time in person. Time with Anne to sit in the sun; time to hang out if just for a minute with all the people who served me at those airports and restaurants. I got to see them and talk with them and eat their food. I so hope they’re okay.

Now I’m back on the couch in Vermont. Enough time has passed that I now feel lucky I didn’t become infected or infect anyone else. A trip like the one I just took is unthinkable now. And good, because the way I set it up was super dumb. And not good at all, because without that trip I would have missed all that life-sustaining connection through writing and food and just knocking around Texas together, buying bad pizza and trying to figure out where to park the rental car. In the end, I still have my window and my couch. And I can talk to my friends online. I’m grateful for them.

Kim MacQueen teaches writing and publishing at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. She is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Bay Path University and has published two impossible-to-find novels. Come and visit on



Kim MacQueen teaches writing and publishing at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. She has published two impossible-to-find novels. Come and visit on


Jane Friedman’s Guide to Writing Conferences

January 30, 2020 § 2 Comments

Color headshot of a white woman with brown curly hair and glasses, wearing a blue print blouse, against a blurred outdoor backgroundWondering what conference is best for you as a writer, your book and your career? Trying to figure out if pitching agents in person will get more return for your efforts, or hoping to build some speaking credits with your writing-related expertise? The comprehensive guide is here!

Jane Friedman, author of The Business of Being a Writer and publisher of industry newsletter The Hot Sheet, has one of the most valuable websites in the business. With posts on querying, book proposals, writing craft and professional practices, it’s worth your time to browse the archives and keep up with her daily posts, both from Jane herself and a series of guest experts. Now, Jane’s Guide to Getting the Most Out of a Writing Conference gives a terrific overview of just about everything you need to know before choosing, attending, and spending money on a conference.

Key points include:

  • Determining the conference size and focus best for you
  • Connecting with other attendees on social media, even before you arrive
  • Planning your time onsite
  • Why panels are such a crapshoot for sharing expertise, and how moderators and conference organizers can do panels well

…and much more. I especially love Jane’s tips for socializing, even if you’re shy (top tip – carry a paper book, it’s a great conversation starter) and how to follow up socially with writers you want to keep knowing. And of course the number-one thing for presenters to remember: use the microphone. No matter how small the room or how terrific your theatrical training, there’s going to be at least one person with a hearing disability or who becomes a victim of weird acoustics. I’d add, from experience, using the mic means not having to yell everything you say (find those levels!).

Whether you’re packing for AWP or trying to decide if Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference is part of your summer, check this guide first—and enjoy browsing the rest of


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

I Didn’t Want to Go: A Post-AWP Reverie

April 16, 2019 § 6 Comments

Lorri in the Library (3)By Lorri McDole

When Talking Writing’s editor Martha Nichols asked if I’d be at AWP Portland to sign the Into Sanity anthology I’d contributed to, my first thoughts:

Too Damn Big. Too Much Anxious.

But second thoughts:

It’s only a 3-hour drive, and I’ll get the new experience of signing books at AWP. Plus, it’s only October! Surely, I’ll be in a better emotional space by March?

As soon as I registered, Dread moved in for real and unpacked his bags, which were legion: thousands (and thousands) of people…alone this time (I’d gone to AWP Seattle with a friend)…alone-Lyfting (was it safe?)…no MFA friends (because no MFA) to cower with. Etcetera.


On March 12th (verified by my journal), I started scheming about bowing out, because I hadn’t heard whether the anthology would, in fact, be published in time. On March 13th, Austin Kleon tweeted a page from Anne Boyer’s A Handbook of Disappointed Fate that, very loosely translated, read, “You can say no.” Permission! Relief.

Later that same day (really), Martha emailed, also loosely translated: The book is done, it’s beautiful!

Dammit all to hell.

If I had to go, I needed more than a how-to-kick-AWP’s-ass plan. I needed a finely-honed mission.

Beth Ann Fennelly

I discovered Beth Ann’s book, Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, through The Writer, which ran a micro-memoir contest that Beth Ann judged. My story was published as a finalist, so I packed Heating and Cooling and my copy of The Writer (thinking I could just point in case I couldn’t squeak the words out). I got up super early for her Thursday morning panel, snagged a second-row seat, and watched her walk in: long red hair, skirt printed with rows of books, teal velvet crop top (!), multi-colored shoes. I don’t remember what she talked about (I have notes somewhere), but after all her University of Mississippi students, who also love her, made it through the line, I got to meet her. She wrote something lovely in my book and said, “I remember your story! It was so good!” Swoon.

Yi Shun Lai

Yi Shun, an editor at The Tahoma Review, is a passionate, no-nonsense speed talker. I knew she had another panel to run to, and I surprised myself by matching her fast talk when it was my turn, leaving out my notorious comma-speak: “I know you’re in a hurry but awhile back you gave me great feedback on a short piece that I then submitted for Beth Ann Fennelly’s contest at The Writer and they published it!”

“I love stories like that!” Yi Shun said, and she was off. Short, sweet, no time for awkwardness.

Ira Sukrungruang

On Saturday, heading to lunch with fellow Talking Writing contributors, I saw Ira, the editor of Sweet, going up the escalator while I was going down. Time was diminishing (as I once misheard my husband say on the phone), so I threw my arm up and waved. “Hi Ira! You don’t really know me, but you published me a couple of years ago.”

“Hi!” he waved back. “Come by the booth later!”

I almost didn’t—I’d already said hi, what next?—but I also wanted to buy one of his books. He’d sold out, but I did snag a beautifully-designed chapbook Sweet had published. When I confessed that AWP made me nervous, Ira gave me some personal picks and tips for choosing a smaller nonfiction conference to attend. He was as generous as I imagined he would be.


There were things I didn’t accomplish. I didn’t see Liz Prato, with whom I originally workshopped the story that would make it into Talking Writing’s anthology and whose book, Baby’s on Fire, I carried the entire weekend, hoping to have her sign it. I didn’t visit the mentor booth (I’m probably too old to be mentored anyway, right?). And when Allison K. Williams called out before her panel started, “Hey, this is So-and-So (I’m sorry So-and-So, I didn’t catch your name), and he’s in the book Flash Nonfiction Funny,” why didn’t I stand up and call back, “Hey, I’m in that book, too!” I didn’t even get to meet Allison—who had rejected my story (positively!) for Brevity’s podcast—because I had to leave the panel early.

But there were other things I experienced on the fly. An engaging conversation with Jennifer Jean, poet and Managing Editor of Talking Writing, about hybrid texts, how you can use dreams and suppositions and maybes in nonfiction stories if you clearly signal what you’re doing. The serendipity of sitting next to a guy in a panel who heard me fangirling over Beth Ann (again) and said, “Hey, I hired her at Mississippi.” Finding out that the company I was keeping in the new anthology (you never know, right?) was stellar.

I could have gotten a lot more out of AWP, but I also could have gotten a lot less. It’s been two weeks since I made the 5-hour trip down to AWP (an anxious girl has to stop more than most to use the bathroom), and this is what it still feels like: I brought the behemoth that is AWP down to my size, and I killed it.

Lorri McDole’s writing has been published in The WriterCleaver, Prime Number Magazine, Sweet, The Offing, and Brain, Child, as well as in several anthologies that include Into Sanity and Flash Nonfiction Funny. Her essay “Storms of the Circus World,” which was a finalist for the Talking Writing Prize for Personal Essay, was nominated for a 2017 Best of the Net award.

AWP 2018: The Definitive Packing and Preparation Guide

March 5, 2018 § 4 Comments

vintage photo of light blue suitcases stacked on lap, woman's heeled shoes and puffy white skirt showing, feet are resting on another suitcaseFrom the Brevity Editors:

As AWP draws near, first-time conference attendees and veterans alike stand over half-filled suitcases, frantically scrolling weather apps while trying to pack for the snowstorm on the way to the airport, the tropical humidity in which they will land, and the convention-center air-conditioning (setting: Meat Locker) in which they’ll spend most of their time.

The questions are endless: What do I wear to the Dance Party? How many minutes per room must I spend for two simultaneous panels, one containing three friends and a recent ex, and the other two mentors and a dream agent? What’s the proper conversational opening to a group of editors, 3/5 of whom have previously rejected my work?*

The Brevity Editors are here to help! Pooling our years of experience (25 years, 8 years, 6 years, and 1 ½ days), we present the Definitive AWP 2018 Packing/Preparation Guide:

  • Cute summer dress because Tampa! Fleece blanket to use as shawl in over-air-conditioned conference hotel. (May substitute manpris and higher basal body temperature)
  • Brand new sandals/mandals for walking shoes with cute summer dress/manpris. Band-aids. Iodine. Antibiotic ointment. Last year’s sneakers.
  • SPF 188.
  • Bathing suit for the Marriott hot tub. T-shirt to wear over bathing suit. Additional t-shirt to wear over t-shirt. Water shorts.
  • Notes on elevator pitches to hone on the plane.
  • Hormone replacement regimen because perimenopause! And Tampa!
  • Virginia Woolf tote bag. No, F. Scott Fitzgerald finger puppet. No, both. None. OK, just the finger puppet. Pageboy wig. Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Vintage lunchbox.
  • Airplane reading: Friend’s manuscript you owe feedback on. Student papers to grade. Six oldest New Yorkers from the pile. Entire lit mag slush pile. Lincoln in the Bardo. Infinite Jest.
  • Business cards with your old email on them. Call Office Depot to determine if new cards can be a) fast b) cheap and c) attractive. Begin penciling in new email on each card. Call department secretary to see if you can have your old email back.
  • Ten copies of your book. No, eleven. No, three. No, none. No, twelve. Bring one and forget it (and student papers) on the plane.
  • VGA to HDMI to VHS to BluRay to hamster wheel to clean coal adapters for panel. Post-it notes, index cards, and six colors of dry-erase markers for other panel.
  • Power Point of key panel slides on your phone in case of laptop failure. Power Point of your WIP on your phone in case of literary agent in elevator.
  • Hand-held folding fan steeped in cannabinoid oil and lavender. Look chic and mysterious as you fend off imposter syndrome, panic attacks and neurological disaster.
  • White-noise app. Noise-canceling headphones. Earplugs. Note from last year reminding yourself “[Roommate] SNORES.”
  • Flash cards with photos of keynote speakers so you can recognize them at cocktail party. Self-ejecting jet pack in case emergency party escape is needed. Portable smoke machine because go big or go home.
  • Novelty hand buzzer.
  • That Starbucks gift card you got four months ago from a student you thought hated you but didn’t after all, and that you’ve saved for “a special occasion.” Please note: lobby Starbucks closes at 2PM.
  • Nine pens.
  • Color-coded, strategically-plotted, much-folded-and-re-folded printout of schedule, including personal plans A, B, and C, with pop-up 3-D flowchart and Venn diagrams. Leave on table in lobby Starbucks at 1:58 PM.
  • Xanax. Pepto Bismol. Extra-strength Tylenol. Tylenol PM. Tylenol with codeine. Nyquil. Advil. Advil PM. Benadryl. Calamine lotion. Quaaludes.
  • Printout of Sober AWP meeting list. Downloaded version of Big Book. Sponsor’s cell number. Therapists’ cell numbers. Pocket guide to 12 steps. Mindfulness meditations. Blindfold. Cigarette.
  • Wine. IT’S A PRESENT.
  • Chapbook from your favorite poet, so you can “casually” bump into them and “just happen” to have their book on you and they’ll be so delighted they get your deconstructed villanelle fast-tracked at Poetry.
  • Updated CV. Just in case.
  • Entire choreography to Beyonce’s “Lemonade” (memorized and practiced obsessively instead of panel prep) for the dance party or just making people uncomfortable in elevators.
  • List of key points for MFA or no-MFA debate because that never gets old.
  • Emotional support pack mule.

*(Answers: Orange; 26/32+17 minutes navigating from Ballroom A to Grand Salon C; “How ‘bout those liminal spaces?!”)


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

In Search of Lost Swag: My Decade of AWP Conferences

February 14, 2017 § 2 Comments

liaoBy 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, SalonRiver Teeth, The RumpusVol. 1 BrooklynAnother Chicago MagazineFourth RiverFringeCha: A Journal of Asian LiteratureHippocampus 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.

The Didion Fan

July 14, 2016 § 9 Comments

Kim Steutermann Rogers author photo

Kim S. Rogers

A guest post from Kim Steutermann Rogers:

Today, I tell myself, I will not scroll Facebook as if I were cram-reading War and Peace. I will not say yes when the wildlife volunteer coordinator asks if I’ll go to the beach to check on a cute new seal born just that morning. I will not slip out when a text alerts me that the Laysan albatross chick I’ve been watching since it hatched five months ago is standing on bluff above the sea, flapping its wings, about to fly off over the horizon, not to be seen again for three to five years. Today, I tell myself, I will get some writing done. Yes, I will.

As I write this by hand in my notebook, a cheap DECOMPOSITION BOOK with line drawings of safari animals on the cover, I look up. Staring at me from across the room is the free-floating head of Joan Didion printed on an oval piece of cardboard that is glued to a flat tongue-depressor-like stick. A hand fan. I picked it up at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference in Los Angeles this past April after a particularly heated session—the room, not the conversation—because, well, I am a woman of a certain age.

AWP: Think 15,000 academics and creative types crammed into the Los Convention Center. Think tweed jackets with suede elbow patches. And yoga pants. Think purple hair and tattoos, ripped tights, and Chuck Taylor Converse throwback basketball shoes. Think apple-cheeked children with crispy clean MFAs. And puffy-eyed, word veterans in need of coffee and, later in the afternoon, beer—or something stronger—from the beverage vendor at the south end of the book fair. Think best-selling authors, award-winning poets, and top journalists from around the country. Think the rest of us—with stories and books and essays and poems and clouds in our eyes and on the tips of our tongues, eager to share with anyone who will listen. I may be a woman of a certain age, but I fall in the last category.

zz didionJoan Didion is staring at me from across the room where I stuck her in a coffee-mug-cum-pencil-holder after a vigorous use of fanning one spring day when spring winds stalled in their tracks, replaced by summer’s stagnant-dog’s-breath-hot-air. A few degrees change in temperature does not go unnoticed, because you know, I am that age, that effing age.

Joan Didion’s visage sits just to the left of my computer screen. When I am sitting at my desk, presumably writing, I can see the Grande Dame of Literary Journalism out of the corner of my eye, her mouth set in a line and her makeup-free eyes narrowed on me. Damn. It’s the eyes.

Dame Didion is the toast of nonfiction writers across the United States. She was required reading during my MFA studies. She’s one of the first to be named when calls go out for lists of great essayists. Hardly an AWP—if any—goes by without her name prominent in a panel title.

I first read Didion as I was trying to craft my own writerly voice, and I fell hard. Major writer crush. Here was a wordsmith with whom I felt a kinship. A journalist. But not. A memoirist. But not. A personal essayist. But not.

In “On Keeping a Notebook,” Didion writes, “The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle.”

I have more than a few notebooks lined up across my desk, packed in plastic boxes in my closet, all to be thrown away upon my death, as I’ve made my best friend take a blood sister pact with me.

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

Amen, Dame Didion.

I mainlined every essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Then, The White Album.

“What I most appreciate about Didion’s writing is that she witnesses her world. Her writing may be about her, but it is anything but confessional,” I wrote in an essay after reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

But, now, some years later, the truth is I’m tired of Dame Didion. Oh, not her writing but of we writers who would bow on bended knee and kiss her writing ring, if her hand were ever proffered and if such a thing as a writing ring existed.

Wait. Does it?

I’m sick of the Didion worship that goes on in literary and MFA circles. Because I want her for myself. Because it seemed once my bright-eyed love for her blossomed, she went all Baader-Meinhof on me, and every other student of nonfiction writing adored her, as well. My secret, favorite writing mentor was mine no longer.

Joan Didion levels her steady gaze at me from across the room. She could have taken a pair of scissors to her hair and gave herself that haircut, I think, wispy bangs, and blunt, chin-length hair.

But here’s the thing about Didion: She got it done. Something like five novels, a dozen books of nonfiction, half-dozen screenplays, and a play. The woman wrote. She sat down and wrote. I can see it in her makeup-free eyes. The determination. The discipline. She’s a reminder to tap into my own determination and discipline. It’s there. Somewhere. I know it is.

Mentors. Muses. Inspiration. We tend to think it’s their words that help us. But at this time, apparently, it’s not the words but the face of Joan Didion I need. The bad haircut, thin set mouth, and those examining eyes remind me to just do it. Sit down, and write.


Freelance journalist, Kim Steutermann Rogers moved to Hawaii with her husband, two dogs, and twelve boxes of belongings in 1999. “We’ll stay for one year,” she told her family and friends. That was 17 years ago. Now, Kim shadows scientists into rain forests, volcanic craters, and throughout the uninhabited atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to learn more about Hawaii’s endemic—and often endangered—flora and fauna. But, most days, she sits on her bum and attempts to churn out words appropriate to the science and place and people of it all—and tells herself she should exercise more. Kim holds a Bachelor of Journalism from Missouri School of Journalism and a Master of Fine Arts in Nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is at work on a book about Mark Twain’s Hawaii and the psychological concept of place attachment. You can read clips of her work and her blog at and follow her on Twitter at @kimsrogers.

First Timer AWP16 Debrief, or Notes from a Literary Lilliputian

April 5, 2016 § 18 Comments

AWP16ThumbnailBy Phyllis Brotherton

At AWP you will meet for the first time your true tribe, literary geeks who nerd out on words. Since you are likely a literary type, you already know the Ben Franklin quote about what happens to fish and company after three days, so I won’t repeat it. Much the same can be said about AWP16 in Los Angeles, though there were also stellar moments. Here are a few of my takeaways.

You will see odd ducks of every ilk. Like the woman who walks away from the snack bar shaking her head and repeating loudly, “No, no, no,” after the cashier says, “$4.00.”

You will experience frequent frustration and joy in quick succession. Like the security guard in front of the Bookfair, who will speak with authority on how to get to Room 401, waving his arm in a direction that you already know is completely and utterly wrong. Soon after, the female security guard pushing mid-seventies, wearing thick, padded shoes from years of working on her feet, with the cool bleached streak in her hair and pink lipstick, who smiles and calls you, Honey, who walks you halfway to your destination. You love her so much for being kind and right.

Phyllis Brotherton

Phyllis Brotherton

You will see garb you have never imagined, first surprising you, then breaking you out of your Macy’s/Chico’s mode, taking mental fashion notes for next time.

You will attend good panels and so-so panels; panels you will walk out of and panels you won’t want to end.

You will spot your lit mag hero, whom you’ve joked is your “fantasy husband (if you were in to husbands),” with his titanium-orbed spectacles and Buddha body. You will walk behind him all the way to the conference center, sit two tables from him in the bar chatting affably to others, and you will never, not once, muster the gumption to walk up and introduce yourself, because you cannot fathom a follow-up sentence after hello.

You will not take advantage of the “Introverts & Networking” panel, since you want to attend the “Self as Protagonist” panel. (Fact-checkers beware: I am employing the “creative” aspect of CNF.)

You will not be invited to private parties because you are a literary Lilliputian. You intuitively understand this but detect a slight bitter taste in your mouth, an everyday and entirely human case of sour grapes. By the end of the bleary-eyed three days, you have ceased pining after literary rock stars and groupie kiss-butts, of which you were/are one.

You will appreciate the small audience who attend your reading, even if 25 of the 28 are friendly faces. You learn that sub-tribes exist and you will eventually locate one, which aligns with your unique set of writing desires, world view and quirks.

You will feel empowered by the feminist evening event where you witness unapologetic women kicking some ass of their own in their writing and performance. You will buy the t-shirt with the f-word on it and know in your gut that after you have flown out of this alternate universe, time warp of a conference and land in your own reality town, you may never have the courage to wear it in front of your spouse, to the grocery store, or God forbid, to work, even though you will want to nurture the tiny seed of radical womanness and help it grow into a fierce fire.

You will next time learn how to better navigate food. Feasting on bacon-wrapped dates, good wine, sumptuous burrata and $32 oatmeal (OK, with toast and coffee), will quickly break your budget, and when no university or other entity is footing the bill, you risk turning into the Shaking Head Woman walking out of the snack bar yelling, no, no, no! Next time you will pack instant oatmeal, tea bags, protein bars and almonds, resolving to persevere each day all the way to the evening meal, expending precious moolah only on water, and maybe, maybe a Diet Coke.

You will give some people a pass, such as the talented, MFA grad, who frequently came to class drunk, whom you plied with granola bars and peanuts to keep him awake, who reminded you of a young Ernest Hemingway on the verge of flaming out, who greets you from behind an esteemed lit journal booth, and says, “Oh, you are reading in that panel, too? So, it’s all of you.” All of us? All of who? The older women? While our moderator fell ill prior to the conference, two of the four of us present are under forty-five. We are a disparate group, one teacher, one professor, one retiree, and one working outside of education (me). Three straight, one gay (me). Three dark haired, one gray (me). Is his a categorization much like Edward Stein’s back-sleepers and front-sleepers?

You will give another pass to those you’ve personally invited to attend your reading, who decline because they have a conflict, a very real and valid excuse. You will also forgive yourself for making the same excuse when you want to attend another panel or can’t sit through one more panel or want to hibernate in your room. You will never make it to Room 507, the Quiet Space, though you desperately wish to; there is just no time to be quiet.

Didion's Corvette

Didion’s Corvette

You may manage to make one good point in a Q & A. Mine: A good-hearted and ever-so-polite smack down of one panel guy who posits that Joan Didion’s cool persona, i.e. the sunglasses, the Corvette, the cigarette, is merely a result of good marketing, while in fact the real Joan is crabby, conservative and slightly mentally ill. You ask if we should possibly consider that forty or fifty years after our cool twenties and thirties, after all that life and loss, who doesn’t become crabby, conservative and slightly mentally ill. Joan was cool. We all were cool in the Sixties.

You will be rocked by inspiring advice found in the oddest of places that will alter your writing journey. In your old copy of Like a Beggar, that you lug to AWP just to get Ellen Bass’s autograph, and on the way home on the plane you open it and read, “Be brave.”

You will drink your post-AWP morning coffee out of a mug inscribed with Cheryl Strayed’s words, “Write like a Motherfucker,” and you intend to do just that.

Phyllis Brotherton is a late-blooming writer, receiving her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fresno State University at the age of sixty-six. Her essays have appeared in literary journals including Your Impossible Voice, Spry, Shark Reef, and Under the Gum Tree. Her essay, “Ashes and File Cabinets,” was nominated for 2015 “Best of the Net” by Jet Fuel Review. She was fortunate to participate in the AWP16 Panel Reading, “Worlds Within the Other California.” She works at ValleyPBS and lives with her wife, Denise, in Clovis, CA.

So You Didn’t Get to Go to AWP

April 13, 2015 § 13 Comments

Picture of Bookfair

It’ll be just like this.

Another year of AWP has drawn to a close, and countless editors, writers and journal staffers are heading back to their home institutions with swag bags, connections and newly autographed books.

Not everyone got to go to AWP, and I just want to say that’s OK. We’re all in this together. In case, like me, you were at home watching the literary world scroll by on social media, here’s what you can do to recreate the AWP experience:

First, stock up on wine. You’re going to need a lot of it. Start with half a plastic cup of unfortunately-sharp white as you pull from your shelves every literary journal, small-press book, and poetry collection you own. Arrange the books on your dining or coffee table in a pleasing display. Rearrange three times. Settle on the original arrangement–it should be about the work.

Find the last tote-bag you got for free from a conference, signing, event or those Girl Scouts at the Super Walmart when you bought six boxes of Thin Mints. Fill the bag with two hotel soaps, a crunchy granola bar if you prefer chewy (or vice versa), five pens bearing the names of businesses you can’t remember patronizing, and some sticky notes. Carry it everywhere.

Switch to half a plastic cup of weirdly-tangy red wine. Even though you know you’re going to get a headache, it’s so much easier to mingle when you’ve got something in your hands.

Print out the first fifty pages of your newest manuscript, just in case. Put it in your tote bag. Each time a page gets crinkled or dog-eared, drink.

Using Google Images, download photos of Junot Diaz, Dinty W. Moore, Sue William Silverman, Karen Russell, Stu Dybek, Roxane Gay, Alicia Ostriker, Dani Shapiro, Arthur Sze, and anyone you can find from The Rumpus. Now, add in photos of similar-looking people that Google Images suggests. Create a slideshow with all of the photos and set the time to 1 second per photo. As the pictures flash, guess who each person is. Each time you get one right, choose a book from your pleasing display and put it in your tote bag. Each time you get one wrong, drink.

Scroll through Twitter on your phone. Favorite the tweets and follow anyone using the #AWP or #AWP15 hashtag. Retweet anything that makes you smile wryly.

Browse the books in your pleasing display and ask yourself of each one: Do I know this author personally? If so, why did they only sign their name and not something that says how great I am and how much they can’t wait to be beside me on the bestseller list? Each time your heart is stabbed with bitterness, drink.

Retreat to the safety of your sofa and watch CNN for 20 minutes. Then head for your kitchen. Turn the lights down low. Put on some music as loud as you can stand it. Go to that YouTube video of the coffee shop sounds and put that on, too, turned all the way up. Pour yourself a full glass of wine you actually like and call a writer you met anywhere last year, on speakerphone. Drink every time one of you says, “I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” At the end of the conversation, look through your display for any journals in which that writer’s work appears and add them to your tote bag.

Flee to the bathroom (leave the music on). Lock yourself in and look through the books in your tote bag. Find a poem so powerful all you can do is lean your forehead against the coolness of the wall and wish you had written it, even though you have never even contemplated making a poem in Sapphics.

Leave the bathroom and go to the nearest Starbucks in a taxi. Have whatever you normally order, but a size larger and with an extra shot. Go to Brevity’s list of craft essays and read six of them. Every time you find the word “ruminate,” drink. Scan the coffee shop. Does anyone look like any of the pictures of authors you downloaded? If they do, see if you can work up an excuse to talk to them without looking like a doofus. If they refuse to start a conversation, slink away, then drink. If they chat enthusiastically but are not in fact who you thought they were, drink. If you can’t figure out how to end the conversation gracefully, drink. Eventually you can excuse yourself to pee.

Go back home on foot. It will be farther than you remembered. Turn off all sounds in your home and enjoy the blissful silence and partial sobriety. Leaf through the last few books in your display and just take anything you want. Then sit down and look through everything in your tote bag, being honest with yourself about what you should keep. When you’ve decided “All of it,” start looking at the names of publishers, and writing down agents who are thanked in the Acknowledgements. One of them’s gotta be right for you, and Tuesday morning, you are totally gonna be on it.

Imagine a kind-eyed flight attendant with a cart of assorted complimentary drinks. Have a ginger ale and feel virtuous. Find the poem you loved in the bathroom and read it again. Imagine the writer you love most in the world feeling that way about your work. Pass out from exhaustion. In two hours, wake up and write something right away, before you lose the magic.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

AWP 2013: The Art of the Ending

March 12, 2013 § 3 Comments


A guest AWP report from Melissa Cronin:

I frequently don’t know where I’ll end up, especially at an AWP conference. And this year was no exception. But after I managed to muscle my way around a security guard and secured a seat at the session, Art of the Ending, I realized I was where I should be: among a group of panelists who also don’t know where they’ll end up. I could not have been more relieved to hear Margot Livesey say that it’s not until she writes the final page when she knows how the ending. At least she has a destination for her characters (I certainly wouldn’t fit too well into her stories). I’m not sure what Amy Hempel would have said. Was it Miles Harvey, the moderator, or Margot – I forgot where I was for a moment – who said Amy knows the last line of her books before she finishes writing them? But Amy couldn’t make it to the panel (I wonder where she ended up). Nevertheless, if you have been losing sleep over how the last page of your great American novel or bestselling memoir will end, rest assure that you are not alone. Look at Alice Munro’s short story “A Good Woman,” which the panelists pointed out ends with ambiguity, or what Miles calls “an ending that opens out.”

As writers, we tend to strive for a Hollywood ending. After all, don’t readers prefer the positive? At least that’s what Charles Dickens was persuaded to believe after he showed a trusted friend the proof of Great Expectations. Instead of keeping the original ending, where Pip and Estella part, Dickens changed it so that they stayed together. Personally, I revel in downbeat endings, and it was refreshing to hear Michele Morano, one of the panelists, say that she, too, prefers sad endings.

The overall consensus was that endings don’t need to be tidy, tied up in a pretty pink bow. The best endings are the ones that linger with us or, as Miles said, “the ones that stop but keep lurching forward.” That lurch can come in the form of a single word, reflective prose; or, if not for the narrator or characters, an epiphany for the reader. Sometimes we need to switch things up, reverse chapters, like another panelist, Scott Blackwood, did in one of his novels. He also cautioned against going too far, beyond what readers want.

But first we need to get it all down, heed the advice of the novelist William Maxwell: “Listen to your feelings as you would listen to a seashell then put it on paper.” I thank the panelist William Lychack for that sentimental gem.

I left the panel, entered the herd of other AWP attendees, and squeezed my way into the book fair, where I was to meet a friend at the food kiosk for lunch. She must have gotten lost, so I left, walked a long way, through the Prudential Center. Finally, I ended up at the Cheesecake factory.

Melissa Cronin recently graduated from Vermont College of Fine arts with an MFA in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Brevity’s book reviews and Hunger Mountain Journal’s “Sally Blog.” She is working on a memoir about the 2003 Santa Monica Farmers’ Market accident in which ten people were killed when an elderly man confused the gas pedal for the brake and sped through the market. Sixty-three others were injured, eighteen severely, including Melissa. She lives in South Burlington, Vermont with her husband and their stuffed animal Hawk.

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