The Rising Rollercoaster of AWP

AWP! Each year that you attend this massive conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, each year you crack open the wallet and plunge for the airfare to another city you’ve never visited, your emotions are taken on a wild climb, dip, and climb. For those of you unfamiliar, the thing that briefly took over the writerly corner of Twitter this week was an annual conference held in different cities each year for writers and all their ilk. It includes back to back panels led by publishers, agents, and writers, as well as a massive bookfair in which every literary magazine and MFA program under the sun has booths, tote bags, cheerful interns, and endless swag. It’s an exhilarating time for writers, particularly because we are a solitary lot, and it provides a time for socializing, boozing, and a healthy dose of motivation.

I’ve been twice now, and it can feel a bit like a ten-year high school reunion that’s held every year. The first year, in Boston, I was barely out of my MFA program and somewhat terrified at the idea of talking to anyone. I couldn’t imagine nosing my way into a conversation or confidently speaking about my work. I had business cards made up but ended up giving them to no one. The panels were informative but I don’t think I was fully ready to absorb much of their advice. What a change a few years makes!

Now, a couple of years later, in Minneapolis, I could feel the difference in myself the moment I stepped into the stadium-sized bookfair space. I looked around and saw my own tweets about AWP up on the jumbotron; in nearly every aisle was a magazine I knew, a person I had befriended, or a magazine that had accepted a story of mine. I went up to people and shook hands. I thanked people for publishing my work. I eagerly devoured the advice given on panels and in keynote speeches.

As I mentioned earlier, though, every AWP has its own bumpy narrative, its own roller coaster of emotion. One of my favorite panels, “Fail Better”, captured this feeling brilliantly. A panel of award-winning writers, writers whose success I crave, spoke of the near universal feelings of jealousy, hostility, and self-loathing that can come over all of us at times. When we don’t get that acceptance or that prize, we are suddenly plunged into the lowest deeps of ourselves; we question our calling, we wonder if we are writers at all, if we can keep hacking it. The answer to these doubts is only two things: everyone feels this at times, even the Pulitzer Prize winners, and you have to keep going. That second part is the most important part, and it’s really the only thing that distinguishes the successful writers from the almost-beens or never-was. 

Walking through the bookfair can feel like a parade of rejection; you walk by the happy colorful booths of magazines you admire, magazines that have politely said no to what you thought was your very best work. In our most petty moments, we play the age-comparison game: I’m younger than ___ and ____. At that age, _____ hadn’t done this or that yet! Writing can become a constant game of mental comparisons — but if you let that game take over, you’ll never get anywhere. The good news is that AWP can also feel like a walk of fame; there were many booths I could visit this year who praised my work, who thanked me for my stories. There were fledgling magazines who wanted to work with us here at Two Cities Review. In short, the future is bright — but it is only reachable with the solid, solitary work.

AWP is a chance to re-connect with the writers you’ve met who are strung out across the country. It’s a chance to receive a yearly dose of validation, of support, of refreshing like-mindedness. It’s a regular vaccination against despair.