Seeing Writers at AWP

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Though I’m a perfectly socially-adequate human being, who has little issue speaking to other people, the AWP conference still seemed to me the worst possible idea: thousands of otherwise isolated, oftentimes socially inept, or rather “quirky,” writers annually come together in a confined space to talk about the very thing that drives us into insanity. It’s an event that prompts in my mind, first and foremost, “Who came up with that idea?” and, more specifically, “Why?” I might have a very romantic idea of myself as a writer, but I see myself holed up in a tiny room, frustratingly pounding away at my keyboard, not procrastinating on Facebook and certainly not schmoozing and networking with other writers, professors, agents, editors. That’s the way it should be shouldn’t it?

Of course, my trip being generously funded by the University of Michigan’s conference travel fund sweetened my incentive to attend. But mostly, I was drawn to registering and then attending the 2012 AWP conference in Chicago, admittedly, because I had a strange fascination with myself and fellow writers. And AWP felt like one of those conferences you have to attend or you might not be able to call yourself a writer at all; like giving your first reading or teaching a Composition class, the AWP conference just seems like one of those things that you should experience, if only to tell a tale of horror later.

Before attending, knowing my great aversion to crowds, hotel lighting and the unpredictability of panel quality, I limited myself as much as I could: booked a hotel a mile away, chose only a few select panels to attend and scheduled more time for readings, intimate social meetings and quiet rest time, in which I imagined mulling over all the insightful tidbits I’d learned from the panels. From what I’d heard, after speaking to seasoned conference-goers, this approach seemed my best bet, and so far I’m delightfully un-exhausted and delightfully more enthusiastic about the conference, in general.

I mean it’s really quite a fantastic event, not even necessarily because I get to speak to or meet other writers —which is a great opportunity, especially for those who are not steeped in a writing community. But, simply on a purely physical level, the conference is amazing because I get to see other writers. Perhaps, I’m the only victim of this, but subconsciously I’ve always had a very boxed in idea of what a writer looked like. When I uttered the word “writer” what conjured in my mind was this: a close-up, black-and-white photo of a pale white man, well-shaved, well-trimmed, with black-rimmed glasses, lips loosely compressed to not look too happy, too sad, too unassuming, and, if he can at all help it, too pretentious. And I realized today that this image was problematic as envisioning God to be an aging white man with flowing white beard and blue eyes more piercing than Tom Cruise. Now wait, I’m not trying to make a comparison between God and the all-mighty writer—that might be for another blog post—but I am trying to point out how the mind can work completely contradictory to the evidence before it. Shouldn’t I, as a black fro-hawk wearing, feather-earring lover be able to see myself as a writer?  Why would I create an image that automatically excluded me?

Looking around the Hilton, it was an amazing thing to see writers: white, black, men, women, plump, thin, small, tall, glasses, no glasses, piercings, mustaches! One man had a brown mustache thick enough to cover his entire upper lip and ends so meticulously curled I could have hung my jacket on them. He was quirky, yes, but even more extraordinary, was the absolutely ordinary people: women in sweatsuits and pulled back ponytails, regular guys in blazers, some old, some young. These are my writing folk: completely normal, not all as quirky as our writing would suggest, people. And seeing regular people come together to talk about the ever-illusive craft of writing is somehow a lot more comforting than what I’d originally imagined. A name on a book cover is not as inspiring as the face that greets you when you walk into a conference room or the face sitting next you during that not-as-interesting-as-you’d-hoped-panel.

This is what I could appreciate AWP for: seeing normal people who strive to master the most maddening task of writing good work. So, tomorrow that’s what I’ll be doing, just sitting myself in the Hilton, watching writers come to-and-fro. Perhaps I’ll even speak to a few of them, but I’ll be fulfilled if I don’t. I’ll be at the Michigan Quarterly Review’s table Friday and Saturday. If anyone’s looking to put a face to my name, or a face to an intern sending those acceptance (and unfortunately rejection) letters, or a face to a Michigan MFA Fiction student, or a face to an aspiring writer, stop by our table in the book fair at the Hilton. Let’s commiserate about how awe-inspiring writers are.

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