Adventures in writing conferences: AWP 2018

Last week I went to Tampa for the 2018 AWP Conference. For those of you who aren’t familiar with AWP, it’s the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and each year they hold a huge conference in a different city (next year is Portland!).

It’s an exhausting three days full of craft talks, discussion panels, many offsite readings and parties, and a huge book fair (almost as big as the exhibit hall at a Star Wars Celebration, if you take out the giant AT-AT and X-Wing models). Writers, publishers, and editors from all over the US and Canada convene to talk books and writing and collectively drink all the alcohol in whatever city we’re visiting.

A stack of books.

My book and literary journal haul from AWP.

In years past, especially when I was an MFA student and felt that I ABSOLUTELY HAD TO FIND A PUBLISHER FOR MY BOOK RIGHT THE FUCK NOW, I spent a lot of time wandering the book fair talking up publishers and trying to sell them on my manuscript. Let me just say that is not the best approach to enjoying AWP, not to mention ineffective. But it’s what all the writing advice articles say, so that’s what I did.

Here’s the thing, though: I write weird books, and even selling a normal book is hard. I believe in my work and I believe it will find the perfect home as long as I keep putting in the leg work. So this year I decided to take everything a lot less seriously.

And unsurprisingly, the conference was a lot more enjoyable without all that self-imposed pressure. I stayed with a friend from Chatham, and we may have drank an entire box of wine. Maybe. And we may have also dyed our hair purple (which has sadly mostly washed out already).

Because I stepped up as a coordinator for the VIDA Count, I worked directly with more of our team, and had the pleasure of meeting many of them in person for the first time. I also had a blast catching up with some of my professors and former classmates from Chatham at a private reception with an incredibly serious bartender who was probably wondering if all writers are over-excited alcoholics (we’re not).

I also spent more time in the book fair just talking to people. I discovered a few new journals that I’m excited to submit to, caught up with my friends at various presses and mags, and hopefully made some new friends! My favorite part was meeting the editorial staff at journals who’ve published my work. Plus I came away with a huge haul of journals and a few books that I’m incredibly excited about reading. Look for reviews of those in upcoming posts!

The downside to all this excitement at all is that I’ve had a migraine for the past five days (Pittsburgh weather isn’t helping). I’m starting to feel better today (and perhaps some coffee before work will help), but I haven’t even tried to work on my novel this week. Oh well! It’ll be there next week, and I’m excited to get back to it when my temples aren’t throbbing.

Relaxing and having fun is notoriously hard for me (just ask my partner, who complained to me last night that I always want to do productive things after dinner when he wants to relax and you know, spend time with me). I consider it quite an accomplishment that I had so much fun I triggered a week-long migraine cycle.

And hey—I even learned a few things, too.

Flight ritual

The Allegheny Mountains with a dusting of snow from 30,000 feet.

If I were a character in a Warren Zevon song, I’d be Suzie Lightning. I wrote a story about her, though that story has yet to find a home (it was a finalist in a Glimmer Train contest, though!). Every time I fly, I have to listen to that song.

“She only sleeps on planes / She’s tired of going nowhere …”

I listen during takeoff, because I like to watch the earth shrink below, especially if it’s still dark. And once the plane climbs to cruising altitude, I write.

“Suzie Lightning” is a song about a girl who only sleeps on airplanes, and I like to joke that I can only write on airplanes. It’s not true, really—I write mostly every day—but flights always seem to break my writer’s block or just force me to stay in my seat and write without distractions (I’m not paying for internet, guys).

As I write this, I’m on a flight from Pittsburgh to Tampa, where this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference is being held. Before I wrote this blog post, I wrote an essay about waiting to read the last book in a series because you don’t want the series to be over. I had planned to work on my novel, but I neglected to grab a copy of my outline for off-line use, and I need past Kelly’s help on the next scene (I know, I know, it’s an excuse, but I’m going to have many hours before I can check into my hotel, so I’ll work on the novel then, I promise.)

This habit of writing on airplanes began nearly ten years ago, when I flew to San Francisco to visit a friend and attend National Novel Writing Month’s Night of Writing Dangerously. It was mid-November, and my novel’s word count was seriously lacking. Instead of reading or sleeping on the plane, I decided to write. I made up my word count, and got ahead on the flight home.

Years later, while working on my master’s thesis and being stuck on one particular story that didn’t want to congeal, I flew down to Arkansas to visit my best friend Ele. Pittsburgh to Little Rock is a long flight with a few layovers and transfers. I wrote for several one-to-two-hour bursts, and got that story finished.

I’ve written countless other bits of novel, short stories, and journals while on flights here and there. While everyone around me listens to music or reads magazines, I am being So Productive, which allows me to feel vaguely superior (even though at times I am the magazine-reading, music-listening passenger).

Plane writing is also a pretty good discouragement to keep people from talking to me, especially if I’m drafting by hand. My seatmate right now is wearing a Cleveland Indians hat, complete with racist logo, so the only thing I have to say is “Your hat is fucking racist, dude.”

We’re beginning our descent, so I’ll leave it at that. TL;DR—I get a lot of writing done on airplanes.

Do you have any rituals or habits when you fly?



Dream writing

Blurry black and white image of bare trees.

Image by Michele Moreau. Used under a Creative Commons license. Click to see more of the artist’s work.

Often at night my mind races. Half awake, half asleep, I write entire essays and stories in my head, revise them, erase them. I never get up to put these pieces down, and by the morning I’ve usually forgotten what they were about, or that I wrote them at all.

This isn’t a loss. I don’t think I believe such a generative process could ever be considered a true loss, even if I forget those exact words in that exact format. I view these night-time screeds as akin to dreams. They are my conscious and subconscious minds coming together to work out kinks in my writing process, blocks I didn’t realize were there, angers and hurts hiding beneath the surface. And who knows? Maybe they are dreams. Maybe I’m asleep after all.

I used to think every word was precious. I thought that if I didn’t chase every story idea I was failing. I clung to everything I wrote, and inevitably arrived at a place where I rewrote and rewrote and never moved forward. Writing an entire novel and never touching it again was unthinkable to me. The idea that a story could just be practice offended me deeply. Now I know better. I’ve got three novels that I never plan to touch again sitting in an actual drawer, and who knows how many short stories sitting in various states of completion on my hard drive.

Those novels and stories aren’t failures. They’re lessons. I wrote them, and learned from the process. I got so far as revising two of the novels, and learned from that process also. That’s enough. That’s more than enough. The process is its own reward.

It’s the same with the writing I do only in my head, when everyone else in the house is sleeping and I’ve finally put down the book I’m reading. It’s not meant to be inspiration or brilliance or a finished masterpiece. It’s a process. My mind composts thoughts and ideas, turns them into fertile soil. And in the morning, when I come to the page, I almost always find words growing rich.