Hello everyone. The big annual AWP conference is coming, and this year it’s coming to Chicago. “AWP” means “Association of Writing Programs,” and AWP is a big get-together of writers, teachers, and literary magazines over a three-day exhausamazingthon. Yes, you are allowed to use that word in Scrabble. At the end of February I’m flying to sunny, balmy Chicago, along with my friend Matt Blasi, to run the Story Quarterly table in the bookfair. If you are going, say hi. If you wanted to go but can’t, I’m really sorry (tickets sold out a few days ago, abruptly and unexpectedly).
The conference has three main draws:
1. The many panels, where four or five writers team up to give a short lecture on a particular topic. Click the link to see really how many there are. I’m especially looking forward to seeing Cathy Day speak about the teaching of novel writing, on Thursday lunch.
2. The bookfair. Here, writing programmes, literary magazines, independent publishers, strange book-related businesses spread their wares. You wander the aisles chatting to vendors about their goods, buy a suitcase’s worth of discounted magazines, or spot your hero sitting at her publisher’s table, eating a slice of cake. I saw Mary Gaitskell eating a slice of cake last year, and I ran up and gushed. She was kind.
3. Readings. Both in and outside the conference, established and not so established writers give readings and interviews. Last year I saw Gary Shteyngart and Amy Hempel give a joint reading, and the year before went to a bookshop reading by the amazing Robin Black.
Three tips for remaining sane:
1. Bring snacks. The conference’s food is so expensive even Romney would protest.
2. Take a weekend-long break from ambition and self-pity. AWP sold 9,500 tickets this year. That means that after you eliminate agents and publishers (say, 100 tickets), high school field trips (say, 1,000), magazine editors and employees (1,ooo), and crazy Margaret Atwood stalkers (c. 500), that still leaves 7,100 people milling nearby who want to be writers. Is there really room for seven thousand more Hemingways? A little voice will whisper, “It’s you or them. Kill them all.” Ignore this voice, smile, and sip a little more of your five dollar mineral water.
3. Take breaks. Get fresh air regularly, leave panels as soon as questions begin (the answers are rarely worth the twenty-minutes of downtime you gain before the next hour’s panels start), and see something of the city that isn’t AWP. Chicago sounds excellent for that. I am looking to explore a little wildly.
The beginnings of a drinking game (I will add more rules as they come to me. Suggest more in the comments, and I will add them.) Carry a flask of something strong, and drink when:
1. You ask a literary magazine, “What kind of stories would you say you are looking for?” and they reply, dully, vacantly, “We like all kinds of stories.”
2. You ask a tiny independent press, who makes beautiful tiny books, “So, how do you promote these books? How do you market them?” and they merely blink a few times in response, wide-eyed and silent, like the final flaps of a dying butterfly’s wings.
3. You spot someone respected and important in the booth for a writing programme you have always been interested in, yet cannot speak to him because a young man is hogging him, droning on in a vacuous urge to impress, or in a failed attempt to obscure the essential vacuum within. “Yeah, I just love a community, and, like, since I stopped my undergrad, it’s just been so hard to write, so I’m really glad I could tell you about my earlier teacher, who always told me…”
Drink. Three for now. More to come.