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.

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.

A brave new world

Last month, I quit my job at the library and dropped out of library school. I want to talk about what happened, and I want to talk about it honestly and fairly, without malice.

I’m not sure I can do that yet, because frankly what happened is shitty and unfair, and because I don’t want my words or actions to harm anyone who still works at the library. And I don’t want you, potential library-user, to feel any sort of weird bad feelings toward the library, because you should absolutely not (which reminds me that a few of my books are a day late…)

So instead of detailing the events that led up to me quitting my job, let me talk about what I’m doing now.

First, I am teaching fiction writing classes at the Community College of Allegheny County, in the community education (non-credit) program. I’ve always enjoyed teaching, but got scared away by endless adjunct tales of woe and the need for affordable health insurance. Thankfully, I’m in a position now where I don’t have to worry about health insurance quite as much, making part-time teaching a possibility.

And I have to say, it feels good to be sharing the thing I most love doing (writing fiction) with people who are excited to learn. My students range in age from around my age to retirees, from judges to hydro geologists, and I am learning as much from them as they are from me, I’m sure. I’m going to give teaching a trial run for a year, and if I find at the end of the year that I still love it, I’m probably going to apply for PhD programs (creative writing PhD in Hawaii? Yes, please) to up my chances of getting a “real” teaching job (and also because I want to write an ecofeminist dissertation on Star Wars, but that’s a tale for another time).

Second, I am working part-time at Riverstone Books, a new bookstore in the North Hills that will open later this week. In addition to working the floor, I’ll be working on the store’s social media as well. Right now the main focus is on getting the store up and running for the grand opening tomorrow, but I’ve got lots of content ideas percolating, and I’m really excited about the store and this opportunity.

Third, I am freelancing, which is something that had to fall by the wayside while I was working full-time and taking classes. So far I’ve had work published in The Millions,, and Next Pittsburgh. Where will my name pop up next? Who knows! I missed writing nonfiction, so it feels good to dip my toes back into the business of facts.

Journalism has always felt like an odd side appendage I don’t know what to do with—I know I’m not really interested in hardcore investigative reporting, but getting to write about topics I’m passionate about (food! writing! migraines!) for more than my blog is only a good thing.

Fourth, and most importantly, I’m writing more. My writing sessions don’t have to be limited to fifteen- or thirty-minute sprints before I head into the library. My mornings are open, so I can write for one hour. Two hours. Even three hours. I am still giddy with delight at this bounty of time. So I am shopping my short story collection, revising a small collection of flash fiction, and plotting a serial novel for NaNoWriMo next month.

What’s more, my partner’s fears that I would just play Pokemon Go for eight hours a day if I quit my job have not come true! I still only play for a very moderate average of one hour a day!

This is all still new, and still a little scary, but ultimately, I’m hopeful that good things will come of this brave new world.