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Monday, March 11, 2013

What AWP taught me

This is going to be an unusually personal post - I went to AWP (the massive, twelve-thousand writers in a single event space dance-with-your-editor party that the Association of Writers and Writing Professionals puts on annually in various cities). First let me say that it was....amazing.  There were thirty panels for every time slot - each one hour and fifteen minutes long. There were six official time slots in a conference day, for three days. Do the math. You could spend a whole session just debating what panel to attend--!  Simultaneously, there was a two-floor book fair at which indie presses and literary magazines, MFA programs and writing retreats all had their tables. Down there, you were likely to run into people who did readings with you, who attended your grad school, or who had been standing in line for the bathroom with you for fifteen minutes the day before. In other words, those two floors were all about socializing and making connections. As if that's not enough, there were evening receptions (up to ten on-site per night) plus a score of offsite readings and social hours, dance parties and dinners.  It was...amazing.

So let me get personal. I am, first and foremost a mom. A writer. I just spent two whole minutes deleting one and replacing it with the other. I honestly don't know which I am first. If the kids need me, I'm definitely a mom first. But if they are at school, there's not a chance in hell I will choose voluntarily to create a felt-board so they can learn their spelling words if I'm in the middle of a writing session. So what comes first? Whatever needs me most, I guess. And yes, there's guilt in that.  But that's not what this blog post is about.

I also balance running Pen Parentis with the writing and the momming. And at AWP I realized that a lot of the time, I place the Directing higher on the scale than either of those things because it feels like a job. It can get tedious. It can be frustrating in an administrative "we just ran out of ink in our printer and need to put up flyers for tomorrow's event" sort of way. And it gives us the kind of pride that only a job can give you: a sort of legitimacy in the universe.

And what's hideous is that it means that even I, who run this organization, tend to subconsciously negate parenting and writing as legitimate. And I'm crushed about that, because it's preposterous.

If you could have seen the work that was being done at the conference to learn and innovate, to get inspiration for the next page, the next sentence - the people sitting on each other's feet (quite literally) to be able to fit into a very-full panel discussion on Traditional & Nontraditional Structures in the Novel, or Surviving and Thriving without an MFA or Borrowing from Literature to Create for the Screen...you too would have said, these people are not being self-indugent (a criticism I often hear about writing as a profession--yeah, it irks me too). I doubt any gastroentereologists at conferences at the Hynes Convention Center would stand through a whole session with one elbow in someone else's face and another on the water cooler, just to see a panel speak about a new surgery technique. Maybe they do, I've never been to a medical conference. But I have seen the suits that doctors wear to their conferences, and that sort of high-end costume doesn't encourage crowding.

But not even every large-scale literary event is this exciting. The difference between this conference and the BEA (Book Expo America that happens in June in NYC annually, and is the publishing industry conference) - is where the passion lies. At BEA, it is passion for the book: as a product, as a collaboration of author, agent, editor, publisher and distributor, and as a valuable, thrilling piece of art (or at the very least a valuable, thrilling commodity that sells like hotcakes). There are a lot more suits and a lot fewer panels, and nearly all those panels feature powerpoint. At AWP, the conference celebrates WRITING. The creation. The editing. The decision to sell or sell out or change or not. The teaching of writing. The collection of writing into anthologies. The transformations of writing both style and content. The impetus to write and the things that block it or fund it. This conference is all about the craft.

What did I learn? I learned that I actually wear three hats; which isn't all that surprising, given that my nickname in grad school was "Chapeau"... Here are my three hats: when I'm a parent, I feel guilty I'm not writing, but also I feel like I'm doing the exact correct thing by giving my all to my kids. When I'm a writer, I feel guilty I'm not doing more for my kids, though I feel personally most fulfilled. (I was surprised to discover that when I accomplish something great in writing it gives me a huge amount of personal, if fleeting, pleasure and makes me feel like yes, I've made the right choices.) And when I'm the executive director, all the doubts and fears and guilt fall away, to be replaced by hope and encouragement and I find myself acting like that tree in The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein. You know the one? "And the tree was happy..." When wearing the hat of founding director, I will scrape bottom to ensure that every writer/parent who is pushing to keep a writer hat on -- even part-time -- while wearing their parenting hat the rest of the time, gets rewarded and encouraged. You guys -- and you know who you were -- who attended that conference bringing along your kids? You were my heroes. I could see the suffering you felt as others looked askance "really? you couldn't get a sitter?" -- and wanted to shout on your behalf: it's frickin' impossible to get a sitter for four days!! And then I want to give a public shout-out to the many, many writers who are devoted to their craft, are working full time day-jobs and/or just don't have the funds to go anywhere for four days with or without their kids. They deserve celebration as well.

(as a side note, our Writing Fellowship for New Parents was created specifically so that you people whose only impediment to attending conferences or residencies like AWP is a financial one could finally do so. It's open for application until April 17--do spread the word, please.)

I kept thinking, between panels and meetups and waiting in coffee lines, that there were 12,000 "literary"-genre writers that attended this event, but that meant that there were probably a million writers who were actually WRITING while the rest of us were taking in panels, not to mention the writers in other genres who have other conferences to inspire them! That's a pretty miraculous and astonishing number of people who are faithful to the word as an art form, and I hope that all you guys, the guys who stayed home as well as those who made it out to AWP, I hope that you all find inspiration in the livetweet feeds, that blog posts, and all the Facebook posts and articles that resulted from this massive conference. Also I hope that you all keep writing and fighting the good fight. Give your all; change hats as often as you possibly can. Hats are awesome.

I'll likely write some specific things that I picked up at AWP on my next post. I attended a huge number of panels, and why not spread the wisdom? We can all be better at what we do - but for now, what's important is to remember to also enjoy it. A bestselling author on a panel about getting your book into the world says that she still to this day has to remind herself every day that it is amazing that we are able to do what we do - the work is hard, but oh, is it ever rewarding.

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