I Didn’t Want to Go: A Post-AWP Reverie
April 16, 2019 § 6 Comments
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.
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 Writer, Cleaver, 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.
Three Days of AWP (Wipes Brow)
April 4, 2019 § 20 Comments
By Alexa Weinstein
I TRIED TO WRITE DOWN SOME OF THE GREAT THINGS WRITERS SAID
James Richardson said the short form is like math homework where you don’t have to show your work, you just have to give the answer. He was quoting someone else. Nona Caspers said Lydia Davis surrendered to the way her brain works, which is a kind of rebellion. Kimiko Hahn talked about how, somewhere in a haiku, the language has to wildly explode. Elena Passarello named a few ways to let the audience/reader know the piece is over: you can create a narrative ending or a rhythmic ending, or you can go cosmic (Thelma & Louise, Between the World and Me). James Richardson said most endings are too ending-y, and you should try every line you already have instead of trying to come up with one.
Michael Steinberg said student nonfiction writers deny themselves reflection, speculation, self-interrogation, projection, digression, and confession, even though that’s where the action is. Ana Maria Spagna said we tell readers which things we care about most by describing those things in depth, using accurate visual details. Phillip Lopate said what he meant by an intelligent narrator was an intelligent presenter of the self who proves trustworthy—not as a human being, but as a truth-teller. This requires maturity, which can be developed through extensive reading, which we shouldn’t be afraid to write about (the books we read, not the maturity). In the meantime, while we’re still growing up, bluffing is acceptable. Yi Shun Lai said our reflection on the page should avoid being static, and our speculation should aim to be transparent; it’s okay for both of them to be I-driven, and to stay unsettled.
Sara Jaffe invited us to deliver the gift of wildness. Jonathan Lethem said Robert Musil referred to his book The Man Without Qualities as “a half-finished bridge into free space.” Righteous! Leni Zumas described our strange, wild, private interaction with texts, and our devotion to them, as incredibly difficult to translate and share. In response, people around the room made that noise.
I GOT TIRED AND STARTED WRITING DOWN PHRASES I LIKED WITHOUT WORRYING ABOUT WHO SAID THEM*
(*when people were talking, not reading their work aloud)
who you’re telling • what you stumble on • when we break them • where you came to • why the edges
how it made me feel • how many pages
a whole human estate • a few lines is fine • a list of limbs • a toss in the air
in dialogue with the story • in a small town • in which I was complicit
not containable • not as concrete • not resolve the questions • not made of craft
the larger pattern • the slow fuse • the embarrassing • the line between • the only sensitive one • the one other thing • the unsayable • the falling away
no long speeches
as the plane crashes • as I learned to write
so weird and unique • so enchanting
for the picture • for the end • for taking it
like a sentence • like lying down
to stand in front of • to bank your understanding • to break open the narrative • to blur the line • to be on fire • to be in the world • to be ashamed • to hand this over
more silence • more attention
wants to arise
I PERIODICALLY LEFT THE CONVENTION CENTER TO ROAM MY OWN CITY
At PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art), I dipped multi-colored carrots in fancy hummus and peeled a tangerine while enjoying a confusing tribute. Sometimes people were performing the poems of Keith & Rosmarie Waldrop, and other times they were reading from their own books published by the Waldrops at Burning Deck Press. It wasn’t always clear which was which and nobody ever said their own name. In front of me, a kid who was maybe four licked her hands and did her best imitation of a cat. It might have been a dog, though. I’m not great at telling animals.
At Powell’s, I sat between two beloved friend-geniuses, Wheels Darling and Moe Bowstern, for a queer reading called Femme Force: Wendy C. Ortiz, Amber Dawn, Barrie Jean Borich, Larissa Lai, Ariel Gore, and SJ Sindu. I loved this event so much that I can’t really talk about it yet. My devotion is wild and untranslatable.
On the giant tour bus used as the AWP shuttle, I completed two 90-minute loops, running into 11 hotels on each loop to check if somebody was getting on. Usually nobody was. The driver and I talked traffic. The sun was out; I was moving. For this volunteer work, I got the whole conference for free.
At Mother Foucault’s Bookshop, I sat where I like to sit, on the stairs. Books in Arabic were stacked by my feet. I thought about looking at English and seeing only lines and shapes. I thought about myself as a stack of books, sitting on a staircase. The poets from Nightboat Books came on. Allison Cobb described the trees of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn as a net of breathing. Eleni Sikelianos talked about poems as unsearchable engines, a secret hiding place where we can still put things and keep them private. jayy dodd asked us to say HERE and then say NOW, in between each poem, and it turned out I really liked doing this. She wore an amazing purple cape and read a poem that did tremendous things with its hands.
At the Doubletree hotel, I met up with my poet friend Judy Halebsky for the last time. We dipped into the reception for our MFA program and caught up with the only person there I still knew. It was nice to be remembered. Then we went upstairs and sat outside her room, where we could listen for the crying baby while we talked. You can see Mt. Hood & Mt. St. Helens from up there. We could see all the way to 1996. Walking home, I had giant orange sky until the end. I couldn’t tell the difference between the poem/story part and the part that was just human life.
Alexa Weinstein writes, edits, and teaches in Portland, Oregon and can be found online at alexaweinstein.com. Her writing appeared in Essay Daily’s “What Happened on June 21, 2018” project. She has performed her work at Dominican University, Portland Poetry Slam, Northwest Magic Conference, and the Independent Publishing Resource Center (zine release party for XTRA TUF 6.5) and is currently working on a book of essays for live performance.
So I Went to AWP: Now What?
April 2, 2019 § 3 Comments
By Bonnie Martin
“Okay, I will have the chicken option please,” I say to the woman at Marukin Ramen, a ten minute walk from the Oregon Convention Center. I add, “And can I—or I mean, may I—”
The woman laughs, and looks at the AWP conference badge hanging by a blue lanyard around my neck. One that thousands of others are sporting in Portland this weekend.
“You must be from that writer’s conference,” she conjectures. “You’re the sixth person today who has corrected themselves in this line for saying ‘can’ instead of ‘may.’”
Now we both laugh. However, in my head, the other conference goers are saying something far more sophisticated, like “Can I—or I mean, may I—add fried leeks to my ramen order?” versus what I ended up saying… “And can I—or I mean, may I—please have a fork?” I peered around the small shop on Ankeny Street with my eyes widening at the chopsticks in view, imagining the scene of noodles flopping from bowl to table, me unable to use the sticks.
And that’s a pretty accurate summary of how I felt at my first AWP conference. I was a fork in the midst of a bunch of chopsticks, taking a stab at what it means to be a writer, a reader, and a good literary citizen.
It took me a few hours of being asked by vendors in the book fair what I do before admitting “I guess I am a creative nonfiction writer.” (I realized a three minute description of my path to AWP was too laborious and stale for anyone–including myself–to endure anymore.) It took sitting in on three author panels before I realizing these writers’ advice might truly apply to me, that it was more than hypothetical, nebulous learning in which I was partaking.
This conference was truly a dizzying experience for me, and I have been processing it since, trying to figure it all out.
But that’s the point of it all, isn’t it? A recurring theme in many of the panels I attended hinged on meaning. We write to create meaning and order in our lives. For ourselves. For others. And that’s why I started down the path in English literature years ago in my undergraduate career. A floundering student at a Big 10 university, I was desperate to create meaning in my college career. And through a series of choices which might be called planned happenstance, I landed in the English department, where meaning is made, is written, is explained.
It’s through this same planned happenstance I made it to the AWP conference. A professor suggested I join a graduate certificate. She mentioned in passing there was a travel grant for a writing conference at our university. I followed down this path out of curiosity and ended up in Portland.
And I ask myself “now what?” I went to AWP and what will I do next? Well, my tools may be different than others, using my metaphorical fork instead chopsticks, my nontraditional career trajectory instead of the traditional creative writing MFA, but I will do what I know how to do best: attempt to create meaning. And acknowledging such, and writing this down thus far, is just the beginning.
Bonnie Martin is a graduate student and writer in the Midwest. Her work has been published in Orion’s The Place Where You Live column. Outside the classroom, Bonnie enjoys refinishing furniture and a good cup of coffee.
Why I’m Not Going to AWP: Justifications of a Homebody
March 26, 2019 § 17 Comments
By Jennifer Niesslein
I’m not a hater of AWP, but if you say “Montaigne” three times in the mirror, I’ll appear and scratch you.
- “AWP” stands for “Association of Writers and Writing Programs,” although the vibe the conference feels, to me, more geared toward writers in writing programs. I’ve never been enrolled in a writing program and I don’t teach in a writing program. The AWP schedule is pretty packed with sessions titled with “re-” prefix (“rewriting,” “reclaiming,” “reimagining”) and other academic speak. There is probably a ton of value for some people in these talks. I’m not one of them.
- It’s expensive. I’ve been a presenter a few times, and they’re the only times in my life I’ve had to pay for the privilege of giving my time for preparation and speaking—and more. Last year, I flew to Tampa where AWP hosted a conference. I spent over a thousand dollars between airfare, registration fees, taxis, meals, and the hotel. I didn’t have anyone to comp me for this; people involved in writing programs do, from what I understand. I ran into a good friend at the airport who’s a Big Deal. Someone was paying her to fly first class. On the plane, I passed her with my clunky carry-on luggage I bought at TJ Maxx. “I’ll be back in steerage,” I joked. Kind of. I wrote the expense off on my taxes (and we’ll see if that’s legal anymore, given the tax overhaul), but even that’s a luxury—I have the money to front.
- SO MANY GENRES! I edit and write creative nonfiction. It’s a genre relatively new to the MFA world; my own alma mater has an acclaimed MFA program and they still don’t offer CNF. So if you’re thinking you’ll sit at an AWP-sanctioned hotel bar and strike up a conversation with a stranger about craft, you might be speaking different languages; it’s not that poets and writers of creative nonfiction can’t have a nice conversation—it’s just that if you’re looking for a tribe, it doesn’t just happen organically. For that, you might want to check out conferences specifically for your genre.
- Home is awesome! When AWP-goers are taking off their shoes and shoving laptops into bins, I’ll be chilling in my slippers. When they’re waiting for an elevator that, when it finally arrives, they eye and wonder if it’s straining the weight limit, all the while contemplating their own deaths, I’ll be quietly making a cup of tea that’s not the temperature of lava. When they’re waiting forty-five minutes to be seated for lunch in what may or may not be a good restaurant chosen only because it’s within walking distance, I’ll be zapping last night’s leftovers and watching trash TV on my couch. And when they post pictures of a fabulous party filled with writers whose work I admire? There will be a twinge, a flicker of I should have gone. But then I’ll wonder who I think I’m kidding—after a certain point in the evening, the bra comes off and the robe comes out, no matter where I am in the world. I’ll go to my very own bed draped with a soft blanket that smells like my own detergent and realize that no one invoked Montaigne to me in some time, and I’ll dream the dreams of a homebody: all the places I don’t have to go.
Jennifer Niesslein is the founder and editor of Full Grown People. She also co-founded Brain, Child magazine. She’s the author of one memoir, Practically Perfect in Every Way, the editor of two Full Grown People anthologies, and an essayist. She’s on leave from Full Grown People to write another book.