Monday, February 23, 2009

What a Difference a Year Makes: Reflections on AWP 2009

I returned from my second AWP conference exhausted, laden with lit journals and assorted swag, and feeling a mixture of inspiration and disappointment. I promptly took a long nap, and only after I woke up the next morning was I able to properly begin processing the 4-day hurricane known as AWP.

This is not to say that this year's conference was somehow more tiring than years past--AWP is always a hectic weekend full of readings, panels, drinking, and dancing, but this year's conference came with many added dimensions for me: responsibilities.

I attended the 2008 conference in New York City as a student--a Publishing student, no less. I had nowhere to be other than the panels and readings I had painstakingly circled in the official program. In my free time, I perused the Bookfair, but I was quickly overwhelmed by all of the smiling lit journal editors asking "What do you write?" It's a seemingly simple question, but for me, it's always been a loaded one. Having attended Emerson, where the dual-focus writing program is both a blessing and a curse, my identity as a writer has gone through more than a few crises. Since students in the Publishing program are not widely regarded as writers (most MFA Creative Writing candidates forget the "& Writing" part of the "Publishing & Writing" concentration), I tend to deny that I have any kind of writing talent. When too tired of responding "I write nonfiction," and feeling like a liar (though I do write, I do so primarily for myself), I would head back to the hotel I shared with 4 other Emerson students or go for a walk around the block to see where I could find the cheapest sandwich Midtown Manhattan had to offer (it wasn't always the least sketchy option). I saw readings by Joyce Carol Oates, Jonathan Safran Foer, Billy Collins & Frank McCourt, and Mary Karr.

This year, I flew to Chicago to attend AWP in a more official capacity: the company I work for paid for me to go, to represent them at the bookfair. We publish college textbooks, and a first edition creative writing book, Creative Nonfiction, had just published a month ago. In addition to my official post at the Bookfair, I was to take the author to dinner and meet with one of our freelance contributors to discuss a project.

Beyond my official capacity, it was my first AWP as a Fringe editor. Though I wasn't able to represent at the Fringe table, I dutifully schlepped a duffle full of swag (shot glasses, samples, pins, magnets, and the banner) to Chicago and back to Boston, and stopped by the table as often as I could.

I was surrounded by friends and colleagues, I was representing my company, and I was part of a literary journal I believe in. But I left AWP this year feeling somehow less inspired and less part of the literary community. Why was this? I collected my fair share of free pins, journals, and temporary tattoos; I attended every dance party; I signed up for a subscription to Gulf Coast, bought a back issue of Barrelhouse, and subscribed to Paper Egg books. I chalk it up to a combination of things: I didn't attend a single reading, I was working the bookfair the entire day with a smile pasted on my face, and I got more than a few scorned looks from people walking by my table. I was there representing "the man," despite the fact that many of the conference's attendees are professors who use our books to teach classes and the panel offered on textbook writing was so crowded that I had to sit on the floor.

This post is pretty disjointed. A week later and I still can't quite decide how to feel about AWP. I am also suffering from a nasty case of the dreaded "post-AWP plague," so my head is foggy with cold medicine and congestion. I don't know if I'll be in Denver for AWP 2010, but if I am, I hope to find a balance between representing "the man" and myself.

*Cross-posted to Vernacular*


Cat said...

Jill, I don't find your post disjointed at all. In fact, it made perfect sense. The whole outlook on MFA Creative Writing students vs. Publishing & Writing students is new to me, but I'm not surprised by the outlook on textbook publishing. (FYI, I work at the same place as the J-ster.) Some are so quick to judge our specific industry when they forget that they once used textbooks (some they may have even liked) or that they may even teach with them. And at time I feel conflicted by some of the amazing things we do and produce and the sensation of "working for the man" by working for such a large company.

But seriously congrats on your networking and on hosting the author. Sounds like an amazing opportunity that you made the most of. To quote Flight of the Conchords, "I'm not surprised."

Cindy said...
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Cindy said...

I've never gone to AWP, so lucky you that you have been twice, and furthermore that this your attendance was funded by your employer. Those glares were probably misguided jealousy, but I am sorry you didn't get to attend a single reading. No wonder you're left holding a half-empty glass. Next year see what you can do to make a priority to attend a couple of readings that will mean the most to you. Cheers!