A Lollapalooza for Writers – What I Learned at AWP in Seattle

seattleawpimagesI just got home from AWP in Seattle. For those who haven’t heard of it, AWP is this massively huge swarm of writers that descends on a different city each year. This year, AWP took over the Washington State Convention Center, an Annex and the Seattle Sheraton. Someone told me that the total number of people registered was 14,000. Unless you count music festivals like Lollapalooza and Coachella, I’ve never been around that many people in such a concentrated space.

There are oodles of writing-related panels. In fact, for every time slot, there are, oh, I don’t know, twenty or more different offerings. And then there are outside events, readings, contest winner announcements, drinking with some vague literary theme in mind, and then more panels. There’s also a bookfair, which is huge. This one was split into two separate rooms, that’s how huge it was. Booths everywhere. Books everywhere. Writers milling around booths and looking at books everywhere.

I was a total AWP virgin, open to all kinds of impression and experience.

So, here are some things I learned over the last three days:

10. Personality Type

I am incontrovertibly an introvert. Being around that many people, even if I don’t know them and don’t necessarily have to interact with them, tires me out.

Myers-Briggs, or whatever you call it, would definitely agree.

9. 14,000 is the Loneliest Number

It’s a little like being in New York City. If you go by yourself, you are surrounded by people and yet you are alone. It’s not the kind of place where you meet close new writing friends. A lot of people already know each other, and a lot of the conversations with people whom you don’t already know are happenstance and in passing. I’ve been to other writers conferences where this was different, and I think it has to do with the number of people. In a workshop, you interact directly for days. And in smaller conferences that are non-workshops but smaller than AWP, you see the same people around and you do make good writer friends.

I was okay with the city anonymity feel because I really am an introvert and it was a little nice not to have to talk to all that many people.

8. Location, Location, Location

If I go again, I would definitely stay at a nearby hotel. It was great to stay at a friend’s house to save hotel costs, but it was about a forty-minute bus ride to and fro. The ability to nap would have made a world of difference.

7. Writers in Real Life

Lidia Yuknavitch is really beautiful in person, and she has awesome hair. Also, her reading from Dora blew me away.

6. Writers in Real Life – The Other Side

I am a chicken shit because I was too scared to talk to her. Literary fangirl jitters are a real thing.

5. You’re Never Too Old for Naptime

There really should be a napping area, because without that option, I just had to leave at some points because if I stayed I would have passed out from exhaustion. And every time I left the convention center, I felt immediately…well not energized but like I could cross the street without fear of passing out in the middle of a crosswalk.

4. The Difficulty of Being at Multiple Panels at Once

There is no way you can get to everything you want to get to. It’s just not possible. And I don’t just mean because oftentimes there were several tantalizing panels going on at once and I don’t yet have the ability to split in two (or five) to attend them all at once, but that even if you star a specific panel for each time frame, you still won’t get to all of them. You just won’t. And you may totally fuck up and miss Lidia Yuknavitch’s talk on Full Disclosure, which you had triple-starred and really meant to go to. Also, your stars are subject to change. Half the time, I ended up going to a talk I didn’t initially star. Whatever schedule you make, it is a living, breathing, changeable, evolving entity.

3. Screenwriting is the Bastard Child that they Want to Pretend Never Existed But Can’t

Not one panel on screenwriting. And I get it, to an extent. AWP is a literary gathering, and as my screenwriting professor is known to say at least once a class, a screenplay isn’t a literary document, it’s a blueprint for making a movie. But still, it’s writing, it’s creative, and learning the techniques of screenwriting can help with so many other forms of writing. Screenwriting teaches you to hone your storytelling skills, to tell a story visually, to employ image more precisely, to write economically, to use white space, to craft better scenes, to show what should be shown, to create scenes with more impact (the whole “arrive late, leave early” helps with that), to hone dialogue. So, I would’ve liked to see screenwriting included. You know what I noticed though? There were no panels on the subject, but at just about every panel I went to (except one that was just readings), the panelists mentioned screenwriting, movies, anecdotes about directors, and so on. I was cataloging all the references to screenwriting and movies until I lost track.

2. Altitude Sickness

It’s kind of like suddenly landing in Denver or Flagstaff or Aspen or Leh (in Ladahk, in India). The air is thin, you can’t get enough oxygen, and you should probably train for the altitude adjustment. I don’t know, spend several hours in overcrowded shopping centers or something for a few days before the conference, because, just like when you’re in a mile-high city, endurance does build with time. I actually felt least drained on Saturday, the final day of the conference.

1. It’s Worth It

All the exhaustion and overcrowding and way too many people in one place and finding out you really are a chicken shit and navigating your way around several floors of three different buildings, and the forty-minute commute each day and the altitude adjustment type feelings and the overwhelming feeling of being so tired you might pass out, it’s all worth it.

By the first few minutes into the first panel I went to, about the use of past vs. present tense in creative nonfiction, I already had insights about what I needed to do with my manuscript for Moonchild, which has been languishing on my computer, mostly untouched for the last six years. And it wasn’t just about present or past tense (though I got some insight about that too). I suddenly knew where it should end, what large sections could be dropped from the last chapter, and from the front section of the book.

As the days went on, I was constantly composing in my head. I knew what I needed to add to an essay I wrote three years ago about Grey’s Anatomy, an essay which I struggled with even after I figured out what the essay was really about. Same goes for an essay I wrote about home and geography. And another piece about an old relationship. And I figured out, somehow, that I have so much music in Moonchild not just because I love music but also because part of my struggle that year when the book takes place wasn’t just with myself as a person with albinism, and a person with my family history, but also as a grunge girl, a person who had been saved, in a way, by a type of music that was dying. I’m still not sure about all of it (and there’s some fun in that too, means there’ll be some discovery for me along the way), but I know that it’s important even if I don’t know why, that holding onto something that’s slipping away. I figured out more things to add to that manuscript and more things to subtract, more lenses to see it through.

Because here’s the thing. When you get 14,000 people together who write, who care about writing, who read, who care about reading, some sort of alchemy takes place. Just being around all those people who are thinking about writing and literature is enough to spark all kinds of things. There are so many words in my head now, and the challenge now is make sure I get it all written. The words are there though, and that? That’s everything.

I would so do it again.

~EJ

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12 thoughts on “A Lollapalooza for Writers – What I Learned at AWP in Seattle

    • I don’t think I’m 100% I but it’s always unequivocal. And strong. But my strongest is N. No S for me. For the last two, I go either way bad am always right in the middle.

      ~EJ

  1. Oh wow, it sounds fabulous. Think I’d better start saving for the air fare so I can join you next year! I’m naturally shy, but not so much so if I’m surrounded by people with similar interests.

  2. I’m so glad you went and so sad this was the AWP I missed… and this is the post I’ve been waiting for from you! Um, yes, to all of the above. Even for those of us who land somewhere between intro- and extro- vert, the meeting is overwhelming. Because there are a LOT of egos walking around, and the need for folks to ‘know; each other is huge (we writers, such an insecure lot).

    But yes, the energy AWP supplies last weeks. The inspiration. Last year, in Boston, I managed to get to half-a-dozen panels (the rooms were too small, another story), and I got something out of each one. I DID speak with Joyce Carol Oates and Elizabeth Strout in DC’s AWP, yet found myself too chicken-turd to talk to Richard Russo In Boston. Though I did hang out with Andrus Dubus at a Literary Death match in Cambridge last year. But I still get the flutters around writers, they are our celebrities.

    Anyway, love this post, love how you call it a tribe, and I know you’re into all the science now, my friend, but so glad you’re dipping feet again in the writing waters. Peace….

    • Hi Linda!

      It’s so great to hear that I’m not the only one! And that the literary jitters may not always be present with every cool author.

      I also only made it to a few panels, about six. But each one was SO worth it. Next time, I’d try to go to more. The one that I probably got the most out of was one I almost didn’t go to, called “Planning for Surprise in CNF.” And there were others I really wish I got to, one was a panel by The Sun mag (and there was a concurrent one put on by The Rumpus which I would’ve also liked to go to), and another was about the literary legacy of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain.

      I didn’t encounter the ego problem (I expected to), maybe b/c I was so overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and didn’t really talk to anyone. I did spend some time with a writer I know from Orcas, and she introduced me to some people but they were all really down to earth. I can only imagine though.

      I never did make it to the event you told me to go to. That was the first day of the conference, and by about four in the afternoon I was practically comatose so I went back to my friend’s house for the day.

      Maye we should plan to go next year, stay at the hotel so we can take naps when needed, and get as much as we can out of it. You know what else I like about AWP that I forgot to mention? It’s really affordable. Much moreso than other conferences. With the student discount for registration and staying at friend’s house and packing some food, I only spent about $200 on registration, food, and travel to and from the conference. And even the full price w/o the student deal is really reasonable.

      Ah, science and writing, how to find the balance may be a lifelong struggle, but I’ve come to realize over the last year that writing is non-negotiable. I was thinking about going into grad school in chem, and there’s a lot of reasons why I came to the conclusion it’s not write for me, but the fact that I pretty much wouldn’t be able to write for those five (or more) years was the ultimate dealbreaker.

      ~EJ

      Maybe we need to plan to go next year.

  3. Yeah, the N is strong with me also. I get frustrated trying to communicate with ppl who don’t see things in terms of patterns. Especially in political discussions. Ppl will approach discussions of a generally decentralized and horizontally organized economic/political system, as if they were changing just one factor in isolation and everything else remained constant. Like in The Honeymooners, where Ralph is gloating over his latest get-rich-quick scheme: “Norton, when I’m a rich man, I’ll have a telephone on the fire escape, so I can carry on my big business deals when I have to sleep out here in the summer.”

    • Hahaha never seen The Honeymooners. But I vaguely recall reading somewhere, probably sometime in the ’90s that the band Alice in Chains got their name from a line in that movie.

      I also get really frustrated when people can’t see patterns. I have to admit that I don’t know a lot about what the N and S mean, only that I’m an extremely strong N. Is pattern recognition part of that? I have that frustration in a lot of situations, some like you’re saying are about seeing systems as a whole and not as isolated parts, or seeing patterns throughout history and recognizing present-day events as part of patterns and cycles. I also sometimes have that frustration when tutoring science, esp. organic chemistry, because so much of it is about patterns (people think it’s about memorization but if you try to memorize everything, that’s not going to help when presented with a new molecule or a new NMR spectra). A lot of the critical thinking and a lot of the art in organic chemistry all comes back to patterns. But some people just can’t “see” that way, even if you go over it again and again, and really struggle with seeing what’s going on, and thinking critically about it.

      ~EJ

      • Yeah, the N thing is hugely about patterns, and extrapolating data points into three-dimensional systems. The big theoretical system builders in history, like Marx, were probably NTs. Dialectics — seeing each part in terms of its function within a whole that’s changing over time — is the ultimate NT approach.

        • Interesting. I still don’t know if I’m T or F (or P or J for that matter) because I come down right in the middle.

          I wonder how the pattern-recognition thing plays out in people’s psychology too, personal lives. We all play out certain patterns unknowingly, but I wonder about people who play out really obvious patterns, over and over, and can’t seem to see it even if it’s pointed out. Is that because they just don’t recognize patterns? That maybe they really perceive each thing as new and individual?

          ~EJ

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