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


Advice for the AWP Newbie from an AWP Oldie

February 24, 2020 § 10 Comments

suzane robers badgeBy Suzanne Roberts 

  1. Pace Yourself. Put together a schedule of things you want to attend, but don’t try to go to a panel in every time slot. Shoot for no more than two panels a day, and try to hit the keynote readings. I can’t tell you how happy I am that I got to see people like W.S. Merwin, Seamus Heaney, Grace Paley, and Dereck Walcott read now that they are gone.  Seeing these luminaries was more memorable than those times I went to a 26-person marathon reading in a crowded bar with bad free beer.
  2. Break up your visits to the book fair. If you spend too much time in the din of the flickering lights in the windowless book fair, you will, more than likely, lose your mind. I recommend visits to the book fair on the first day when everyone is fresh and giddy with jetlag, and they all want to talk to you and foist their free things on you (like candy and pencils). And go on the last day, when everyone has been glued to her table for three days and has turned into a zombie. These people will be staring into their phones to keep themselves from eating your brains. But it’s Saturday, and your voice is gone, and you won’t have to talk to them. And the cheap books and journals that no one wants to cart home will make up for braving the zombie apocalypse.
  3. Hydrate and bring your own food. Bring a bottle to fill with water and have it with you at all times. Also pack some energy bars, nuts, and other healthy snacks. Otherwise, you will live off book fair chocolate, hotel coffee, and cheap well drinks, and by Saturday, you will be a shaking sallow version of yourself, and won’t be able to remember your own name. You might have even joined the zombie apocalypse. Three days doesn’t seem like a long time, but in AWP-time, it might as well be forever, plus a few years. And if you can, schedule a recovery day. I am writing this the Monday after the Portland AWP. I slept 12 hours last night. It is now 4:30 PM, and I am still in my pajamas. I might take a shower and put on clean pajamas. Then again, I might not.
  4. Be like Cinderella. This one took me about 15 years of AWP to learn. If you go to the lobby bar after midnight, you are likely to say or do something you will later regret, although arguably, the person you say this in front of will be too busy worrying about her own post-midnight transgressions the next day to think about you. When you get home from dinner or that off-site event, repeat this mantra as you walk to the elevators: Nothing good comes of going to the lobby bar after midnight. I repeat this mantra to myself (it mostly doesn’t work for me, but it might work for you). And if you do end up at the lobby bar after midnight (or the VIP Party, which you would have to sneak into), here’s some advice: How to Make a Fool of Yourself at AWP. (Though be forewarned, in Portland, the VIP party was switched to a one-time event, so by the time you find out when and where it is, it will be over. It’s a secret now. Like Fight Club. This might be because of me.)picture63
  5. A word about FOMO. You are going to miss about 99% of what is going on at AWP. That’s okay. Be present where you are. Enjoy the people you are with. Look at the people you are talking to in the eye, rather than scanning the room for someone else to talk to. If you keep looking around for someone more important to talk to, the people you are in conversation with will correctly assume you are an asshole, and never want to talk to you ever again. This is not the way to make new friends.
  6. Think twice before taking on an AWP boyfriend or girlfriend. I am too old and too married to know if hooking up is still a thing at AWP, but I’m going to assume it’s still very much A THING. But remember, you and that funny way you scream during orgasm may very well end up in a poem or essay, or worse yet, a best-selling memoir. And this can prove to be problematic if you are married or otherwise committed. Remember where you are. And with whom. These are people who believe, like you probably do, that the story is more important than you are. And just so you know, sleeping with a famous poet will not magically help your verse, nor will it help you become a famous poet. You have never heard of me? See. It didn’t work.
  7. Think of network as a noun and not a verb. There are people who always complain about AWP. They say they hate AWP. This might be because they use the word network as a verb. Instead, think of network as a noun. You are part of a huge 15,000-person network of writers. AWP is a place where you can connect with your friends and hopefully make new ones. It’s not a place to meet someone who will want to publish your book. I have seen too many graduate students wandering around the book fair, desperately gripping onto their master’s thesis, hoping that the editor of Penguin/Random House will see them, rip said manuscript from their hands, and declare it a masterpiece. This is not how things work (you know that already, right?).  The people at the book fair tables are likely graduate students themselves, and in the 15 years I have been to AWP, I have never seen a bona fide representative from Penguin/Random House there looking for the next great American novel. Yet, I have met many of my dearest friends at AWP, for which I will be forever grateful. These friendships have sustained me and have made my writerly life less lonely and way more fun; these connections have enriched my life in ways a book deal never would. So, if you see me at AWP, please say hello.
    Suzanne Roberts’ books include the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Winner of the National Outdoor Book Award) and the travel essay collection, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (Forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press, 2020). Her work has appeared recently in The New York Times, CNN, Creative Nonfiction, The Rumpus, The Normal School, Hippocampus, and elsewhere. She teaches for the low residency MFA program in creative writing at Sierra Nevada University, serves as the current El Dorado County Poet Laureate, and lives in South Lake Tahoe. For more information, check out her website: or follow her on Instagram @suzanneroberts28.

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