One of my professors remarked, regarding the place of prescriptive advice in writing, ‘I’m not going to tell you what you should do. I’ve tried to strike the word “should” from my vocabulary. Whenever I say it, whatever follows often sounds dubious on reflection.’ Better, I suppose, to offer an observation and let the reader decide for herself. The same professor didn’t think much of the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference. Though he never said, you shouldn’t go. He may have observed that his students often failed to learn much from the panels they attended, and that their reading and writing fell off during their conference stint. Writing happens when you’re alone in a small room buried within a big city, in the midst of manuscripts piled under ashtrays and brown-crusted coffee mugs. So the story goes.
The conference typically features 550 readings, lectures, panel discussions, and forums, as well as hundreds of book signings, receptions, dances, and informal gatherings. More than 10,000 writers and readers attended our 2012 conference, and 600 exhibitors were represented at our bookfair. AWP’s is now the largest literary conference in North America.
From March 6th through the 9th, the 2013 AWP Conference & Bookfair was held at the Hynes Convention Center & Sheraton Boston Hotel. On the 7th, I waited with a group of suspiciously bookish travelers for my Boston-bound Megabus on 34th Street between 11th and 12th Avenue while thin rain wet my glasses and my paper-wrapped Italian sub. I thought about all the writing I wouldn’t be doing for the next few days, the expense of the hotel room, and my professor’s observations about AWP. Had a friend not booked me into his hotel months ago, I would have bailed on the whole venture. Bad call on my behalf?
On Friday March 8 at 3 pm, I attended one of the Conference’s featured panels, “Don DeLillo & Dana Spiotta: A Reading & Conversation” sponsored by The Center for Fiction. In an auditorium that seated hundreds around a cinema screen, two of the writing world’s heavyweights appeared before us to read their works and discuss their careers. Apart from a briefly insightful conversation about the triptych structure and temporality of DeLillo’s Point Omega, the panel was typically stilted and conventional. Moderator: “Dana, do you wake up in the middle of the night and write down a brilliant idea?” Dana: “No…” Moderator: “Don, do you wake up in the middle of the night to write down a brilliant idea?” Don: “Yes. Do you do that Dana?” DeLillo, a true literary genius, wasn’t exactly checked-in when the topics touched on the mundane and autobiographic. Both writers had, stereotypically, lived in New York City, in small apartments near Murray Hill. They had both struggled for four years with their first novels. Then suddenly their books were finished, and they were successful. Poof. Just struggle alone in a small apartment, surrounded by your manuscripts and ashtrays. Didn’t I just leave a small apartment, surrounded by manuscripts, and ride a Megabus to Boston?
(Of course, some of my fellow conference goers told me about exceptional panel experiences. In the past, at the Washington D.C. AWP in 2011, I also had one.)
Professionals, in every field, report diverse sources of inspiration – their field’s masterworks, their students, their correspondences, and their jogs in the park – but they don’t often say that working alone helped them carry on. DeLillo and Spiotta surely have stories about reading their favorite books, staying up all night talking, and receiving crucial institutional support. What was it like for them to attend a friend’s first book release party? Talk craft with a respected literary figure? Listen to a powerful reading by an unknown writer? For many, all of these inspiring, community-based events took place at this year’s AWP. (In between and after the panels.)
Conferences gather individuals by virtue of their intellectual and professional passions. For a few days, conference attendees live in a world shaped entirely by their interests. Thursday, I attended a bookstore reading for recently published Arizona State alumni. Friday, a friend released his first collection. Saturday, another friend read from her award-wining book. Although these sorts of events hardly draw hundreds of panelists, those involved are pretty excited to see their contemporaries shine. Afterwards, conversations follow about authors, translations, and the writing life. This isn’t networking – talking to people in order to advance your career, or pitch your project. So we don’t work hard at AWP, or discover genius on expert panels, or get a lead on a new job. Where is the value?
Sometimes its better, for me and my writing, to get out of my little New York City apartment and talk to other people who share my interests. The AWP Conference allows me to do this. (Just an observation.) I doubt that writing conferences differ much from those in other fields. So, as an undergraduate, should you make it a priority to attend conferences? It’s not for me to say. If you’re looking to get work done, maybe not. But if you’re trying to figure out what to do with the rest of your life, where to commit yourself, a conference might not be a bad idea.