NOTE: What follows is a hastily composed, mostly unedited account of this year’s AWP from my perspective. I don’t claim that it’s representative of anyone else’s experience.
Up at 7 am CST on this, the final day of AWP ’15, and already contemplating next year in Los Angeles, when I’ll hopefully have some new publications to make me feel like less of a poseur—I greeted what turned out to be a breakfastless morning (no supplies, no time to order) on which my shower and shave and tooth-brushing feel positively Sisyphean, a beautiful cloudless day in Minneapolis, warm enough to make you sweat on your walk. By 8:30 am CST, Kalene and I have quit the room.
We split up in the Convention Center, heading to different sessions and, in my case, a pit-stop for a caffeinated beverage. The line for coffee snaked around corners, the people surly and red-eyed and territorial; do not come between writers and their coffee, lest you put your very life at hazard. No thanks. I stopped by a food kiosk for a Diet Pepsi, a 20-oz. bottle consisting of what appeared to be plastic, not gold, but which nevertheless cost me four dollars.
My 9 am CST session consisted of a panel of editors discussing what made a submission leap off the slush pile and into their magazines—or the trashcan, depending on the piece. They shared a lot of advice, much of which can be boiled down to this: “make sure your story/poem/essay fits my personal taste.” They talked a lot about finding your unique voice, being “surprising”, and the like. Of course, those sorts of nebulous, subjective areas are really life-long projects for any writer, and so much of it seems to come back to luck—getting the right piece in front of the right person at the right time. The editors weren’t able to give much insight on how to write a piece that would necessarily appeal to any subjective criterion—who could give such advice, and what would it be?—but they did provide a lot of helpful hints on things like following guidelines to the letter, being professional in any contact, and so forth. They also hinted at trends that writers might not be aware of, such as how they are seeing so much dark content that humor—even dark humor—stands out these days. Good to know. I enjoyed this session very much; the editors all impressed as knowledgeable, passionate-about-literature people with whom you might enjoy sharing a beer.
I was particularly gratified when the editor of Juked discussed how tired he was of stories that begin with the protagonist’s waking up for no particular reason and going through a typical, boring routine before anything happens. He also hates personified body parts, which I can understand, given how many times my recent students have written things like “He gave a sigh” (how? Did he wrap it up in a gift box and send it by UPS?) or “The smile crept onto his face” (where was it before? On his leg?).
After that, I skipped out on a session I had planned to attend and hit the Book Fair, where I scored some copies of journals to show my classes.
Next, “Marketing Your Small Press Books,” a session I really need, so maybe one day I can sell more than fives of copies at a time. (Have I mentioned that The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light is available through fine online retailers everywhere?) This session was a blast. The panelists shared a lot of great practical device and a good deal of humor. I’d tell you what they said, but I’ll probably be using some of the techniques quite soon, so you’ll get to experience them first-hand. You can thank me later.
Back to the Book Fair for one last pass and a few more journals. I was hoping to chat up some more editors from small presses, since I’ve got a second collection of stories that I haven’t placed yet, even though most of the tales therein have been published in various journals. Of course, around 2 pm on the last day, said editors and staff are more interested in selling their books (for the press’s sake, for the authors’, and for the aching backs of those who have to lugged the unsold tomes back across the country), so very little of said chatting up was accomplished. Still, I grabbed a few more journals for classroom use (and my own reading pleasure, naturally).
Here, a bit of editorializing. When you know a lot of writers, and especially when you get a boatload of them in one place like you do at AWP, you hear a lot of understandable grousing about journals and presses and editors and agents and publishers and how they’re all out to get us and ruin our careers, either by tanking the publishing of our work or by not taking what is obviously brilliant in the first place. You also hear a lot of equally understandable griping from publishers and editors about how not enough people are buying their books and journals.
I think both sides need to remember that we’re in this together. I’m in a slump myself, so I know how hard it is to have your work rejected, especially when you honestly believe in it, when you KNOW it’s good. Rejection sucks. Lots of rejection sucks a lot. But I don’t think for a minute that there exists a cabal of editors who have a list of writers they automatically reject. Whether we’re talking a single poem or a book-length work, we have to remember that “quality” really is a subjective term, and what one person loves, another may feel indifferently about or even hate. It doesn’t mean one is right and the other is wrong. If someone passes on our work, it doesn’t mean that they themselves suck or that we have no talent. It just means they don’t see the connection between our work and their journal/press, even if we do.
On the other hand, editors/publishers who rant about sales should remember that writing literary works and teaching are not clear pathways to riches. It happens, but it isn’t what you’d call easy or common. Many AWP attendees are graduate students who share rides and pile a half-dozen people into a hotel room. Many others are adjuncts, who are criminally underpaid, or tenure-track professors at places that can’t or won’t pay what the professors are worth. Others are starving writers who don’t have a teaching gig—the writer/barista, the writer/construction worker, etc. In short, you can’t assume that everyone who comes to AWP carries with them a truckload of disposable income that they’re just hatefully withholding from you.
Plus, you can only buy and ship so many books at once. A lot goes into buying books at an AWP outside your home city. It is unlikely that many attendees aren’t buying your books because they’re out to get you.
I think we can all be better to each other.
We stopped by the UPS store to ship all our books home and there finally met up with our friend Robin Becker, fiction writer extraordinaire (check out Brains if you haven’t already). We hadn’t seen Robin since she left LSU ahead of us, way back in the early 2000s, so we had a snack and a beer in the hotel bar. The chat was lovely, the company awesome. I’m only sorry that I had to spend half the time on the phone, fighting with the world’s least helpful and most sarcastic customer service representative. “Superior” Shuttles my ass. This is the last time I use that company.
A one-hour nap later, we met my good buddy Ash Bowen for one more meal and a couple rounds of Guinness at Brit’s Pub. We had a great time and talked about our pasts, art, our lives today, art, food, art, and why making art in a world that devalues it hurts so much. Ash, thanks for your encouraging words. I needed them.
Back to the room by 8:30 pm CST for some grading, packing, and writing this dispatch, and the time is now 12:47 am CST. In eight hours, we will rise, finish packing, eat lunch, and head to the airport, and then it’s home to Las Vegas and, perhaps, one final dispatch.
AWP, AWP, AWP—we’ve all been there.
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