Takeaways from AWP 2023
Our staff just got back from AWP 2023, a huge annual literary conference that was held in Seattle this year. To start with, here are the equivalent of 9,000 words in pictures from AWP itself, especially the book fair and offsite events which we were most involved in:
Three of us were able to go: Frederick Meyer (Director), Sean Glatch (Administrator), and Brookes Moody (Marketing Associate). Brookes also coordinated Writers.com’s presence at AWP, and our lovely offsite event with instructor Nicole Hardy and the book signing at our booth with instructor Lisa Taylor—thank you so much, Brookes!
Below are reflections from each of us on the experience, with takeaways for your writing. We hope to see you at the next one!
Reflections from Frederick Meyer
This was my first event of its kind, and I was most struck by the people. To me, they seemed introverted, with a strong but inward relationship to beauty, spirit, or the divine. Press a flashlight to your palm, and see the glow through the backside of your hand: the people seemed to glow that way. Many of them had good personal style, too, which I’m not used to at conferences (most of my conferences have been in web development—uh, no offense).
You would love AWP or a conference like it if you have a strong passion for literature: deep, considered, meaningful self-expression through language. It wasn’t as much a place, in general, for genre fiction, self-help, or anything less oriented toward writing as high art.
AWP would be dynamite networking for you if you are considering pursuing an MFA or similar degree, or want to meet the publishers of literary journals or presses where you might submit your work. Beyond that, the offsite readings, and even some of the scheduled events, were truly beautiful, and were very diverse and creative in format—especially Nicole Hardy’s offsite at a wonderful Seattle publisher called Chin Music Press, which explored writing freely across genre boundaries using, as source material, a delightful illustrated book on pie.
I enjoyed AWP a lot, and I strongly recommend it to you if you’re looking to connect with the literary heartbeat in the United States.
Reflections from Sean Glatch
While good writing is hard to accomplish, many writers struggle with something much harder to teach in the classroom: community.
Our best writing simply cannot happen without community. Yet finding it is rarely easy. Some folks find their people in schools, whether it’s their MFA programs or the classes they took with Writers.com. Others find their people at writing groups, literary readings, social media, or a friend of a friend, etc.
When you’re just starting out being a writer, it can be incredibly lonely. What’s more, it seems like the entire writing world is closed off to you. The conversations people are having and the spaces they’re creating don’t seem open to new people. How can we fix that? And how can new writers overcome that?
I learned a lot paying attention to this at AWP. Here are some takeaways:
1. Most writers aren’t aloof, they’re just introverted.
It might seem hard to meet new writers. Speaking from experience, a lot of the folks I meet in writing spaces tend to be slightly withdrawn or cautious when I first start talking to them. But (with a few exceptions), that’s not because they’re aloof, or that they think they’re better than you. It’s because most writers are just introverted.
This was certainly true at AWP, even for people who came up to talk to Writers.com at our booth. But starting a conversation is the hardest part. Once I asked questions about the person’s writing, their interests, their struggles, and the things we’d both read in our lives, it was much easier to build a relationship from common ground.
You already have something in common with every writer you meet. If they’re friendly (and most writers are!), you can build a connection with your shared passion for the written word.
2. Don’t take the aloof writers personally.
Of course, there are writers that aren’t necessarily kind when you talk to them. Don’t take it personally.
Most writers are juggling a bunch of things in their head. I like to say that my brain has 80 tabs open at any given time. At AWP, folks were tired from traveling, from networking, and from the long pile of emails waiting in their inboxes.
This can be true at any given time. Most writers who are unkind or aloof aren’t trying to be that way, it’s just that being a professional writer is hard. Most of us have full time jobs, many of us freelance, and we’re all a bit behind on our emails, writing projects, etc. Not to mention, we’re all trying to protect our energies in an industry that can be chaotic and downright draining. Writers are often preoccupied. The problem isn’t you.
And if a writer is mean and aloof, do you want to be in community with them anyway?
A lot of people think they need to put up with unkindness, particularly if it comes from a writer who’s in an established, elite space. This didn’t happen to me in AWP, but it happens a lot where I live in New York City, a place with a lot of ivory tower folks trying to step over one another to be The Next Big Thing.
I’ve learned not to sweat those gate-keeping folks with elietest attitudes. They’re probably not going anywhere, anyway. When you find your community, the people who were unkind to you become a lot less important. It’s your community that shapes your writing journey, not the people who said you couldn’t make it as a writer. (You can!)
3. All writers are looking for community.
I had so many fantastic conversations with writers and instructors at AWP. Many of them have books, writing and teaching gigs, even tenure. Many of them wanted absolutely nothing from Writers.com or from me, they just wanted to meet and make a connection.
The writing world is small. There were only about 9,000 attendees at AWP this year. Of course, there are many more writers in the United States alone, but still, we’re not that big of a population. All writers are looking for community, and all writers are part of a broader community simply by being writers.
I was lucky to attend a few panels at AWP regarding writing and community. The big takeaway: we all want to celebrate our work with one another. As our Marketing Coordinator Brookes Moody says: a high tide lifts all boats.
When one writer succeeds, we all succeed. Why don’t we help each other succeed?
4. If you can’t find your community, make it.
Another important takeaway from the panels I attended: if you don’t have a community, make one.
I’ll speak from personal experience here. I moved to New York in August of 2021. It was always my dream to be a writer in NYC. Of course, when you don’t live here, you come with a lot of myths about the Big Apple, about its magic and mayhem. I learned quickly that it’s a bit more mayhem than magic.
Part of the reason I moved here was because I wanted to live in a city of other writers. So, I did what anyone else would do: I went to poetry readings, literary events, libraries, writing groups, etc. I entered spaces that seemed to align with my interests and identities, and spaces that certainly didn’t align with me, but were open to all writers.
I never really found “my people.” I’ve made some cool friends, and I currently attend some cool writing groups, but I wouldn’t say I have a space I consider “mine.”
I’ve long known that I need to create my own community. But my background, as well as the background of many modern writers, is on the internet. So I know how to send emails and get on Zoom calls. I know how to order books from indie presses and find poetry readings on Eventbrite. But I haven’t had much experience seeing communities blossom in the real world.
AWP was my opportunity to see that. Between the panels I attended and the people I met, I have a strong sense of what my own community could look and feel like in New York, and what’s more, I have an idea of how to build it. I’m much less afraid of creating a community space and not having anyone join (or having “the wrong people” join.) The people I’m looking for are looking for me, too. Instead of waiting to meet them, why don’t I take the first step?
If you’re looking for community in your own corner of the world, don’t wait to meet the right people. Create the space for you to meet.
5. Don’t be afraid to reach out.
Lastly, writing is a lonely business. I think the pandemic and the internet has, in some ways, made it lonelier. Our lives are siloed by the internet in many ways, and while I can connect with you on Twitter or hop on a Zoom call, I can’t connect in the same way as I would in person.
Knowing this, and knowing most writers feel this way, I’m less scared to start a conversation. If I like someone’s book, I might email them. If I like someone’s short story, I might follow and DM them on Twitter. There are countless opportunities to reach out and make a connection. If the worst that can happen is nothing, why should I sit around doing nothing?
Reflections from Brookes Moody
In my first five minutes of being at the Pike Place Market, I saw a fishmonger hurl a salmon to his coworker. The quintessential Seattle scene was punctuated with a cliffside view of ferries crossing Elliott Bay underneath a gray drizzle. Surely the opening cords to Nirvana’s Nevermind were only playing in my head.
Traveling and experiencing a new city is just one of the perks of the AWP Conference. Another is the many Off-site Events that encourage participants to get out of the confines of panels and rows of bookfair booths and venture into the inspirational surroundings of a novel place. Without literary magazines and small presses organizing readings, I probably would not have visited the funeral home-turned bar The Pine Box for Poetry Northwest’s event or ventured to Pioneer Square for Kundiman Presents: They Rise Like a Wave Anthology Reading.
As rewarding as it was to explore the heights of Capitol Hill—shout out to Wave Books for their marathon—I am partial to Writer.com’s very own Off-site Event. Held at the independent publisher Chin Music Press, Writers.com hosted its first in-person workshop led by instructor Nicole Hardy. Both local and out-of-towners gathered on Thursday morning in the press’s store front on the third floor of the afore mentioned Pike Place Market to listen to a craft talk, participate in writing exercises, and eat pasties. Using Chin Music Press’s title, A Commonplace Book Of Pie by Kate Lebo, Nicole walked writers from all backgrounds on how to be flexible with genre and approach writing with humor and joy. Being able to jolt down ideas and share both leads and false starts with fellow writers in a supportive environment allowed me to return to the conference with renewed energy.
Writers.com is just that: a Dot Com, a fully virtual community stitched together over the ether (or is it ethernet?) over two-hundred countries since its inception. Over all the distant, it was meaningful and generative to come together in person and brainstorm ways to perfect our craft—and maybe pick up a few books to spur on creativity. I may not have made it to the Space Needle or the Jimi Hendrix Museum during this trip to Seattle, but I can still feel the heavy imprint from where my tote bag, ladened with new books, cut into my shoulder.
Thanks for your comments, everyone. I appreciated your encouraging words abut writing conferences.
Our pleasure, Jill!
Thanks for the insights and observations!