At the Biggest Writers Conference in the World
Hospitals, Hotel Bars, and remembering why we write
They come to mingle with other writers and editors and publicists and agents. They come to drink overpriced wine at the overcrowded Hilton Hotel bar. They come to shut themselves in their rooms for a few precious minutes of solitude, refreshing Twitter and Facebook feeds because even though they are alone they also don’t want to miss out on what’s happening.
There are many reasons to go to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference, the largest gathering of writers in North America. But I’m willing to bet that most people don’t intend on visiting an emergency clinic on the last day instead of walking around the gigantic convention center, stopping every few feet to say hi to someone they know only through social media but want to give a hug to, anyway. This is my first AWP, and what a way to end it.
As I hop from my hotel room to the elevator on one leg, all I can think is this will make a good story. The doors open and a young couple, at first lost in conversation, notice something is wrong.
“Are you ok?” the guy asks me. I burst into tears.
I am an emotional person in my everyday life, but combine that with three days and nights of constant socializing, fitful sleep, and an unexpected injury while enjoying a morning run, and it’s understandable that I’d go from sensitive to a mess in the blink of an eye.
Earlier that day, I put on my black stretchy pants and running shirt (how New York of me—my boyfriend refers to it as my Ninja outfit) and my iPhone earbuds. I run with no plan, following the sidewalk over the highway and into a residential area. The terrain is pleasingly flat, and for the first time in a long time, exercising feels effortless. I pause at a crosswalk as I near the hotel, waiting for the light to change, enjoying the warmth of the sun. Out of nowhere, while running in place, a sharp pain shoots up from the bottom of my foot. I collapse and rock back and forth on a patch of grass that dogs have recently used to relieve themselves. After a few minutes, it goes away and I’m able to run the quarter mile back to the Hilton. I shower and go to the subpar restaurant to order a Caesar salad with salmon. When I stand to get up, I realize that it really hurts to walk. Fuck.
Back in the hotel room I’m staying in with my friend, the writer Bethanne Patrick, I call the front desk and ask for a bag of ice. As I elevate my foot, the pain increases—I have to go to urgent care, dammit. All my friends are at the convention center, enjoying the last day of the conference. I want to be there with them. When you’re traveling and something happens to you, loneliness is amplified. Hundreds of people I know are a text or phone call away, but I don’t want to ask for help. I don’t want to be needy.
You are a modern woman, Michele, I tell myself. You can take care of yourself.
At the urgent care center, I accidentally go to the Emergency Room instead of the clinic. I don’t realize this until after they check me in. An orderly wheels me over to the place I’m supposed to be, and the very pleasant receptionist takes her time filling out the necessary paperwork, and brightens up when I tell her I’m in town for a writing conference.
After getting X-rays, I find out that it’s probably tendinitis and/or a sprained ankle, and I get crutches and a post-op shoe and head back to the hotel. It’s early evening and I am ravenous for conversation.
I’ve been to conferences before. I know what it’s like to walk the show floor at the Javits Center during Book Expo America, sweaty after the long haul from the subway in the early summer heat, regretting the choice of fancy sandals that dig into my shins. I spent seven years as an events coordinator for independent bookstores, and BEA was always a place to grab galleys (although less and less over recent years, as it turns out), visit bleary-eyed and hungover friends as they put in mandatory hours at publishers’ booths, and find out about the big books of the fall season.
AWP’s focus is quite different. It’s less about the business side of writing, and more about the craft. It’s a gathering place for Bread Loaf alums and MFA graduates and weirdos like myself who never went to graduate school but have managed to make a career out of being a writer, anyway. Bestselling authors walk the same floor as writers who are just starting out.
This year’s conference, held last week in Minneapolis, included a bookfair with over 700 booths dedicated to writing organizations, small presses, and literary magazines. Almost 12,000 attendees turned out to go to some of the hundreds of panels and readings, both on-site and around the city.
The passive-aggressive tweets and Facebook status updates start a few weeks before the conference as those who aren’t going or who strongly dislike large gatherings share their disdain. More than one person talked about how they would be writing instead of attending the conference. I understand the desire to stay in your own cocoon, but for me, time around my tribe offers inspiration, validation, and sometimes leads to valuable friendships.
On Friday afternoon, I’m feeling hungry and parched (a bottle of water from the convention center is exorbitantly priced—we’re talking Disney World prices), but instead of finding food, I make my way to the top level and enter a packed room. It’s standing-room only for “Breaking the Body: Women Writers Reconfiguring Creative Nonfiction Forms.”
The panel is moderated by Melissa Febos, and I’m there because Lidia Yuknavitch is a goddess to me. Earlier this year, I read her memoir, The Chronology of Water, and it’s the kind of book that opens up your lungs and spins you around the room: her words are crucial, vital, electrifying.
Halfway through the panel, she stands up to greet the room.
Melissa starts out with a short talk or battle cry for those who write about themselves. She rejects those who talk about personal writing as navel-gazing. “Personal writing and intellectualism are not mutually exclusive…tell me about your navel,” she says.
When it’s Lidia’s turn, she steps up to the microphone.
“I’m not here to deliver a paper. I’m here to recruit you.”
She asks the entire room to stand up and to chant “I” for what seems like eternity, but is more like thirty seconds. I am lightheaded by the time she silences us, but in the moment, there’s a delighted energy in the room.
“That, my friends, was your ‘I’ song.” Lidia warns us that we are all too often encouraged to be quiet about ourselves, but what unifies us is our difference. “Help me write different ‘I’ songs.”
Other writers, she tells us, have “machetéd the path” for those of us who don’t want to tell our stories in a traditional way.
“You have to keep standing up and saying ‘I’ over and over again.”
At the end of the panel, we sing “I,” but this time she asks us to do it differently. We’re all less timid than we were before. We feel the “I” in our guts, in our groins, where Lidia tells us our courage comes from.
I’ve been suppressing my “I” voice for too long, from either guilt or lack of confidence or a mixture of both. But the day before, I attended an excellent panel hosted by Anna March on the personal essay and the digital age. Megan Stielstra urged all of us to ignore the trolls: people are going to write what they want to write in the comments no matter what, so give yourself permission to write about things that are important to you.
“Let’s put out some shit that matters.”
I want that on a t-shirt.
We are fueled by coffee and dreams and cocktails and books.
The first day of the conference, I walk past a long line that stretches down the hallway of the convention center.
I ask a stranger what they are waiting for, thinking it’s a panel that I must see.
I try to hug people while en route to events; I do an awkward dance of holding my latte precariously behind their backs, clutching the pen I forgot to cap while several jam-packed tote bags slide down to my forearms so that I almost drop the latte, and I almost leave an ink stain on the person’s shirt.
I never said I was graceful.
The waitress brings me a bourbon cocktail with orange bitters and Shōchū. I take one sip and pucker my lips; it tastes worse than cough syrup. I’m sitting at the bar of the Zen Box, enjoying a moment to myself before heading to The Loft for a Bust Magazine reading featuring Roxane Gay, Amber Tamblyn, Patricia Smith, xTx, Franny Choi, and Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz. I eat pork belly ramen and an entire bowl of edamame by myself, barely tasting it. I skipped lunch. A guy in a crisp button-down shirt sits next to me. I feel him glance at me once in a while. Please don’t talk to me. If I say it to myself, maybe I’ll send off the right vibes. Eating alone is one of my deepest pleasures, and I hunch over my Moleskine, hoping my body language gets the message across: not interested. It’s not that I don’t like talking to strangers. But I like my personal space, and when I need it, even more so.
Time to yourself is a rare thing at AWP. Unless you’re going to the bathroom or sleeping, almost every other minute of the day is accounted for. There are panels to attend (I try to get into the Graywolf event with Leslie Jamison, Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, and Eula Biss—but the line is out the door of the auditorium, and I give up), booths to visit (I spend a good chunk of time hanging out at the National Book Critics Circle booth because I’m a board member. It’s conveniently located in a prominent spot so that every five minutes I get to say hi to another person I know; I try out the Hemingwrite, a digital typewriter funded on Kickstarter that offers the promise of no distractions—an appealing thought), conversations about writing to be had.
There’s a delightful and chaotic randomness to the conference. I find out about the Zen Box because I walk past a friend who is with a few people; one of them is a Minneapolis native and she tells me where I can get a quick bite to eat. I join Peter Mountford and Sunil Yapa for drinks because I run into them in the Hilton lobby after getting back from the medical clinic. I order an Old Fashioned and prop my crutches against the wall. Our waiter almost trips on them. I’m surrounded by hundreds of writers and the collective sound of their voices is soothing after spending so much of the day crippled by anxiety.
It doesn’t matter if you’re just out of college or you are a successful contemporary author—at AWP, everyone mingles. This is what the conference is ultimately about: time spent among old friends and new, mentors and acquaintances. Being reassured that no, you are not alone. You are never alone as long as you are making sense of life through words. There’s a spot for you at the bar. There’s a chair for you at the table. There’s a place for you on the stage, if not this year, then next year, or the year after that. There are friends to vent to, to cry to, to commiserate with. There are people who won’t let you wallow in your depression.
“I’m waiting for your book,” a writer I deeply admire tells me. And I believe her. I have to. I want to.
I had planned on exploring Minneapolis on Sunday, but because of my injury, I get on an earlier flight. I’m wearing my new VIDA t-shirt. The girl who has the window seat in my aisle says she likes my shirt as she slides past. The man between us is less than enthused by our attempt to talk about the conference as he tries to read his book.
The person sitting across from me looks at my bandaged foot and tells me how she broke her wrist when AWP was in Boston. AWP injuries are more common than I thought.
Not long before we land at LaGuardia, the stewardess announces over the PA that since most of the people on board are writers, she has a surprise. The writer Sarah Van Arsdale recites Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Recuerdo”, and some of the writers sitting in nearby seats take out their iPhones to record the occasion.
“We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.”
The first stanza resonates with me. I’m exhausted, it’s true, but I also feel like I’ve spent the last several days staring into a blaze within myself, fed by the writers around me. I always thought the fire was outside. I feared it; I thought of what fire could do to me. I thought of how it could hurt me, how fire destroys pages and words and life. But that’s not all it does. It also ignites us. It cauterizes our innate ability to self-sabotage. It warms us. It keeps us alive.