I nearly didn’t go this year – work was busy, and 2020 had already induced massive Zoom fatigue. But I was intrigued by the promise of the conference, so I registered, tested the new platform, and dipped in, and the 2021 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference was not just a silver lining of the pandemic for me – it turned out to be a platinum lining.
Let’s take a step back. I’ve been to two other AWP conferences. Seattle (2014) was my first, I was alone, and my adrenalin rushed the entire time. Navigating three hotels and downtown Seattle, I made it to two or three panels and a keynote, and spent two full, full days at the book fair (imagine: a football field full of tiny tables of books. And tchotchkes). At the end, I left my clothes at the hotel and packed books and magazines in my suitcase instead, tossing it into the plane’s overhead compartment and developing frozen shoulder that required months of physical therapy. Talk about memorable.
I brought home better souvenirs, though. That sweet, crazy sensation of being surrounded by more than 14,000 people who loved writing. Two publishers who said they’d like to see my work. I heard Gary Snyder read. And I began to work seriously on a biography that would take seven years to complete.
Then there was Tampa (2018), an excuse to visit Florida in early spring. I talked my husband into coming with me and we explored the river city at night, hearing readings in galleries and cafes. I think I saw four panels that time. We listened to George Saunders, enchanted. I had a mission to pitch my biography, but never found traction. The crowds were overwhelming and not quite as charming as the first time. Still, this time I brought home subscriptions to beautiful literary magazines, along with pins (Read Local! Today I Shall Create!) and pens and a book about how to manage the business of writing.
This year, the organizers pre-recorded the sessions and those panels remained accessible for three weeks. This one move elegantly removed my greatest AWP frustration – wanting to attend simultaneous panels. Like the other years, I selected about 25 events without hope of attending them all. I was wrong. The conference lasted five days, but the recordings are still up as I write this post. I have listened to 24 panels in 12 days, most of them all the way through, and found ten more to attend next week. It’s been like an MFA on steroids.
There’s an art to managing the online panels. I like to examine the chat history first, because both panelists and attendees often list interesting links and tools. I download the files that the panelists provide, sometimes pages of tips or booklists. Then, as I listen, I check out the panelist biographies and what reviewers have said about their books-- unless I’m taking notes on what they are saying. Or I stretch and do pushups while listening.
I’ve thanked panelists and they’ve written back! I’ve completely filled a new notebook, and certain things I’ve learned have informed how I’m going to write this new book that has me firmly in its jaws. And because there were no plane or hotel fees, I allowed myself to buy books – like, thirty of them (something I’ve never done before): poetry, essays, craft books, novels, biographies. Books that AWP panelists and attendees collectively raved about – from independent presses when I could, and from Amazon, because budget.
I also listened to conversations about helpful ways to publicize one's small or self-published book, and ways to make money in the meantime, and how to teach different groups to write. I heard from writers over fifty, and Appalachian writers, and Muslim poets, and poets who write nonfiction, nature writers, and screenwriters. . . . And I got to watch national Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s magical jazz poetry session three times, and she’s that great, that amazing.
Now books are arriving on my porch a handful at a time, a couple of new subscriptions will kick in, and I’m feeling fortified with Vitamin AWP for another few years. I didn't stay up late once, or have to find a seat in a smoky bar. When I go again in person, it will be fun, and new in a hundred different ways. But I doubt that it will top this intensive, private education -- one panel at a time, in my sweatpants, eating my own sandwiches. This was a colossal gift.