Monday, March 12, 2007

Conference Report: Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Annual Conference and Bookfair

AWP 2007, the annual meeting of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, took place in Atlanta, Georgia February 28-March 3. It had more than 250 conference sessions for the 5,200 registered attendees (2,300 of whom were students), and a book fair with 50 booths, 323 tables, and over 400 participating organizations. According to the AWP, it was their largest, most successful and diverse conference ever.

Who attends AWP? Writers and writing teachers; the published, the wanna-be-published, and the publishers (small and/or academic); poets, fiction writers, and essayists; MFA programs and writing retreats; literary magazines and an agent or two; and a few who don't fit into those categories (like me, a librarian-cum-journalist). They were younger and older, more female than male. The dress was college-campus hip-casual.

The sessions were nearly all panels, and they ranged in topic from the practical (how and what to write, how to get published, what to write about) and the cultural (minorities' writing) to poetry and fiction readings. The book fair had dozens of book signings every day, as well as candy, contests and give-aways (although not so much of these). My favorite was the Quick Fiction table. I had never heard of "quick fiction," but it is a genre of condensed writing -- stories and narrative prose poems under 500 words. The had a map of the U.S. displayed, and were trying to collect a quick fiction piece for every state. First come, first served. It looked like they mostly had the East Coast covered the last time I went by.

AWP is the place to be for literary publishing -- small runs of artful work, not publishing on the level of Stephen King or Dan Brown (although I'm sure no one would protest should a book sell at that level). If you want to be a literary writer, there is a recognized path to take. Get published in literary magazines, and agents will take notice. Get an agent and write a novel. Have the agent shop it around, get published. When at AWP, make sure you make the rounds at the book fair, introduce yourself, get your face known by those literary magazine folks. It might help for them to put a face to a name. They don't care if you have an agent or not, they just want to publish good writing.

For those who want to work on their writing, there were sessions to attend. Anecdotes abounded about how particular writers do their writing and got published for the first time. (Most of them have specific recommendations for writing, and you could find them contradicted in the next session you attended.) Many MFA programs had booths at the book fair, but they did not seem busy. My guess is that most of the folks at the conference were already in or a graduate from an MFA program.

The Bottom Line
I found AWP quite interesting. I didn't know anything about the literary publishing world, so everything I saw and heard was a learning experience. I also found it rather inspiring; it made me want to get an MFA and become a writer as a profession. (This was a temporary effect, I'm happy to report.) I loved hearing Walter Mosely, the biggest name author at the conference, talk about his new book on writing coming out in April, This Year You Write Your Novel. After listening to Mosely, who thinks everyone should write a novel, I was almost convinced. Novel writing is an exercise in getting at the truth, he says, and the experience of writing one would make everyone more literate. But when he was asked how to begin, he said he just starts with a riff, and he rattled a sentence off the top of his head that would have been a fine start to an Easy Rawlins novel. Detailed and evocative, it left me wanting to hear the rest of the story. Wow. That's the real thing.

I was impressed with the amount of poets and poetry at the conference -- "a preponderance of poets," as my friend said. It was nice to meet them as well and see that they are regular people, not just mad scientists of the word. In addition, it was fascinating to listen and watch what was going on around me. At one session, a girl with pink hair wrote notes to herself, like "why don't I write more?" On the escalator, I overheard one fellow telling another he was going to skip the afternoon sessions to work on a chapter. "I've only written two pages, and I have so many notes!" I believe he meant he had submitted it somewhere and had to revise his writing. I was also amazed at the number of people (no less than five, I'm sure) who got up at Walter Mosely's talk who had finished one or more novels.

The book fair was small compared to other venues I have attended (the American Library Association, the Miami International Book Fair). It was a crowded affair on the basement level. The booths and tables were low-key, with very little adornment. There was little being give away, although one could have collected tons of free issues of literary magazines (nobody wanted to carry them home). Many, but not all, publishers cut their prices to move books on the last day.

I saw a lot of networking going on, and I made a few connections myself. ("Hi, I'm a book reviewer, can I give you my card?") I met an interesting woman whose day job is as a database analyst. She comes to AWP ever year because she loves poetry and it's a great place to get books. I also met a teacher who was still scarred by her MFA experience after ten years. It's not easy being a writer, and I got the impression that a lot of MFA programs are partly a hazing experience.

If you are an aspiring poet or writer, you could do much worse than go to AWP. It's reasonably priced ($205 on-site for a non-member of AWP) and a great networking opportunity. It's a place to get tips and inspiration, as well as spend time with other folks with the same aspirations. And who knows, you might write that novel next year, and you just might meet someone who will help you get it published.

Cross-posted to Blogcritics.

No comments: