AWP 2012: Writers in the Windy City

AWP: your yearly chance to spend too much money on too many journals you’ll never read; to drink in proximity to C.K. Williams (who more or less travels with the AWP Conference, moving from camp to camp and collecting potable rainwater in discarded totebags); to make sure the editorial board of the journal who rejected your story or poem three times is at least fairly unattractive, physically; to, above all, not feel quite so weird telling the person next to you that you are, in fact, a writer.

The Association of Writers & Writing Programs’s annual conference, the largest of its type in the country, pulls writers of all ages and genres away from their laptops, notepads and typewriters (ugh) and toward a new city every year. This year saw the return of The Conference to Chicago, site of the 2009 conference and an all-around welcoming city for artists. This year was the biggest yet for AWP, with 10,000 writers descending on Lake Michigan for four nights of panels, readings, and business-card-handling. But the (not-so) secret of AWP is its ability to feel at once overwhelming — it becomes hard to tell, when surrounded by so many, which mustache is sincere and which is ironic — and entirely intimate, as if you’re surrounded by 9,999 potential lifelong friends.

After all, we’re all in this together. We all deal with the strange looks, the sympathetic pats on the shoulder, the barely contained smirks — the marks of announcing yourself as a novelist, or an essayist, or (good God) a poet. Even with the sort of backbiting and competitive bloodlust that goes hand in hand with being a writer, you can practically hear the collective sigh of relief once registration opens for that year’s gathering.

This year, AWP seemed less reading-oriented and more panel-focused than last year’s conference in Washington, DC (although I am, in full disclosure, looking at the conference as a fiction writer, not a poet or nonfiction-er). Last year, the bench was stocked with a staggering line-up of heavy-hitters: Jhumpa Lahiri, Amy Hempel, Junot Diaz, Gary Shteyngart, Jennifer Egan, Joyce Carol Oates, Sapphire, Rick Moody, Joshua Ferris, Ben Percy — I could go on. This year, though the keynote by Margaret Atwood seemed a major draw, fewer marquee names showed up on the bill. I may love Dagoberto Gilb more than any other writer I just listed, but his audience is admittedly smaller than that of an Oates or a Hempel, as well. However, as I’ll reveal later (this is an example of the literary technique of “foreshadowing”), any disappointment I may have felt upon first scanning the names of those writers booked for Chicago proved unfounded. The 2012 Conference was, in my view, an unqualified success.

So, about those panels. Here are a few sample panel titles, some taken from McSweeney’s “List of Rejected AWP Panels” and some real titles, taken straight from the Chicago brochure. See if you can tell which is which.

— How to Explain to Your Parents That Your Novel Is Not Based on Them

— Random Conference Hookups: How to Deal With the Awkward Morning After

— Fedoras, Beards and Skinny Jeans: How to Look Like a Writer

— I Love Your Use of Narrative Exposition: Dating Writers 101

— So You’re the Person Who Rejected My Story: Proper Editor Etiquette

— Drinking (and Puking) Like a Writer

All right, fine, all of those are from the McSweeney’s list. But I’d be surprised if the writer of that list had to stay up all night to come up with these six punchlines. (If he did, he could always try finding the transcription of AWP’s panel, “The Art of Writing a Joke”.) Many of the entries filling AWP’s conference schedule every year practically beg for this type of parody, either seeming too broad to ever have any hope of providing useful advice (the yearly “The Difference Between a Short Story and a Novel” panels, the endless “What Do Journals Really Want?” variations) or so niche-within-a-niche specific as to seem practically parodic already (“The Function of the ‘To Be’ Verb within Lyrical Poetry of Victorian South Side Chicago”).

Of course, this is an academic conference. And AWP has to cater to 10,000 attendees. What’s appealing to me may not be appealing to others, what makes me roll my eyes might fill someone else with a life-affirming, bubbling joy, et cetera. I get it. In fact, all of this whining is a roundabout way of getting to my point: the panels this year, or at least the ones I attended, were mostly wonderful. I left feeling refreshed, motivated, edified. These are not feelings I’m entirely familiar with in my daily life. I’m almost certain, though, they are nice feelings.

And what were they? The highlights came with blood and guts. “Villains and Killers and Criminals, Oh My: Representing Evildoers in Literary Fiction” blended the academic with the creative into a delightfully blood-red chum, covering the appeal of classic literary monsters like Blood Meridian’s The Judge, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find’s” The Misfit, and the father of them all, Iago, with the pixelated Nazis of Wolfenstein 3D and would-that-he-were-just-pixelated Rick Santorum covered for good measure. One of my favorite things about an AWP panel is opportunity it provides to discover new writers — when the writers on the panel have interesting things to say, I’ll usually pick up a book or look for a story or poem to read. I’d never known the work of Reese Okyong Kwon, for example, but after hearing her great remarks on this panel, I’ve loved her stories in Narrative, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. When she finishes the novel she’s writing, I’ll snatch it up.

But what was so interesting? Without trying to summarize the entire panel for you, I’ll try for an overall thesis. Evil, said our panelists, is most interesting to us in literature when it involves some element of mystery. In other words, when you can simply explain your villain’s motivations through psychology (he was abused as a child, so he became an abuser, himself) or some idea of destiny, your reader will most likely lose interest. However, when you have a character like Iago or The Judge or Christopher Nolan’s Joker, a character who complicates his or her own motives, that person’s evil feels stronger, realer, and far more frightening.

My other choice for Panel of the Year, “There Will Be Blood: Writing Violence in Fiction,” covered similar ground. The inimitable, devil-voiced Ben Percy drew me in (after having discovered him, similarly, at the 2011 conference), but his fellow panelists — Alexi Zentner, Antonya Nelson, and Alan Heathcock — all stamped their bloody footprint on my heart, as well. Here, the topic was how to write violence into short fiction or novels without it seeming like a cheap device or a conduit for melodrama. Again, if I can be as reductive as possible and give you a simple takeaway: when the action is hot, write cold. Draw back, the panelists argued, in order to avoid the overwriting that leads so quickly to melodrama. If you’ve earned the violence in the story at that point, it will seem powerful enough without your having to insist upon it with every syllable.

There were some duds, of course. “Music Writing” focused mainly on jazz, a musical genre with which I’m unfamiliar but understand to involve horns in some capacity, and devolved largely into a defense of the genre rather than a discussion of, you know, how to write about music. Apologies to PopMatters readers, then, as you’ll have to put up with my music writing much unimproved by my trip to Chicago. Still, the experience of that panel wasn’t the norm, and I barely felt the Panel Fatigue that so plagues an AWP attendee after a few days wandering the corridors of a hotel (symptoms may include: inability to laugh at Writer X’s lame jokes; desire to throttle guy in beret in audience, particularly when he takes ten minutes to ask one question; palpable desire for brown liquor).

When you do feel like another panel might drive you to ignore the prices in the hotel pub, you can always go to a reading, instead. Jennifer Egan, Jane Smiley, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Darin Strauss, and Isabel Wilkerson offered a marathon reading on Friday, each giving lively renditions of their work. Egan, particularly, seems a natural at this, bringing even more verve to her fantastic A Visit from the Goon Squad’s “Selling the General”. And, as my grandmother would say, bless Darin Strauss’s heart — how difficult must it be to read from a work as heart-wrenching as Half a Life, over and over again? Elsewhere, Dagoberto Gilb and Luis Rodriguez teamed up for a joint reading and discussion of the difficulties faced by Chicano writers, leading a rousing conversation about the resilience of racism in America, even in the (cough) ivory tower. If you don’t know Gilb or Rodriguez’s work, I’d implore you to seek it out as soon as you can.

And, finally, Margaret Atwood. One suggested to AWP staff: next time, make sure to include in the brochure the forms necessary to apply for adoption by Margaret Atwood. The Canadian treasure proved an extreme contrast to last year’s dry address from 2011 keynote Jhumpa Lahiri, as Atwood may as well have been addressing the crowd in her living room and not Louis Sullivan’s breathtaking Roosevelt Auditorium. Atwood’s speech was short and conversational; she didn’t offer mind-blowing advice so much as gentle, earnest encouragement. When you’re blocked on structure, change the opening scene. When you can’t get the voice right, change your narrator. If it was a pat on the back, it felt more like a massage. In fact, AWP 2012 had that effect, as a whole. Coming home, it was impossible not to feel renewed in dedication to my writing. Now, I’ll just make it through to 2013 in Boston, where I can refuel again.

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