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.

#FridayReads: The Sea Beast Takes a Lover

cover for The Sea Beast Takes a Lover

Today I’ve a got a book review of Michael Andreasen’s The Sea Beast Takes a Lover up at the Ploughshares blog! I was lucky enough to get an ARC of this delightfully weird short story collection, which comes out this Tuesday (but I wasn’t paid or given anything else by the author or publisher to write this review). Check it out!

The Sea Beast Takes a Lover is the debut short story collection from Michael Andreasen. Through a mix of absurdism, hyperbole, science fiction, history, and fantasy, the author draws a map of washed-up American dreams and fears. His stories chart the plains of abandonment, the futility of love, and vague hopes that never solidify. From the titular lonely sea monster to the King of Retired Amusements to time-traveling third graders, Andreasen’s characters explore this map of disappointment and hardship, learning again and again what we already know but are too afraid to speak aloud: Everything comes to an end. Everything.

Keep reading at Ploughshares!

#FridayReads: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

cover for Annihilation, showing an alien-looking flowerWhen Annihilation came out in 2014, the cover caught my eye. It’s pretty and creepy! The trailer for the movie (starring Natalie Portman) ran before The Last Jedi, so I thought what the hell and put the audiobook on hold at the library.

The book is short (only six hours long), but I’m not sure that’s an asset in this case. I didn’t hate Annihilation, but I certainly didn’t love it, either.

The concept is interesting enough. A small team of female scientists is heading into Area X to do research on a supposed “environmental disaster.” Of course weird shit happens almost immediately and the expedition falls apart within days of arriving in Area X. Personally, I’d have preferred a little more buildup and actual discovery before things fall apart.

For most of the novel, I did want to know what was going to happen next, but I never felt satisfied with the answers–when answers were provided at all. Normally I love ambiguity in literature, but this time I was frustrated. The ambiguity didn’t feel like mystery to me. It felt more like the author was purposefully hiding things to get me to keep reading. That gets on my nerves, but I guess it worked, because I kept reading.

The point of view character (who is unnamed and referred to only as “The Biologist”) is a scientist, and yet does almost no science during the expedition. She relies on what she sees and feels to draw her conclusions, which is very un-scientist-like.

(But, you could argue that the weird, apparently sentient fungi in Area X make science hard, if not impossible, and you might be right, so that’s not a total deal breaker.)

The writing itself is functional and leans to the sparse side, but VanderMeer has a tendency to overuse certain words. I think “brackish” appeared 20 times in the first hour (that’s an exaggeration, but it was a lot!).

This is part one in a trilogy, so it’s possible some of my frustrations will be addressed in future volumes. And ultimately, the concept is probably strong enough to carry most people through the trilogy. Despite my lukewarm reaction to the book as a whole, I’ve already put the second volume on hold, because I really do want to know what happens.