Dispatches | January 28, 2011

AWP is coming, AWP is coming.

Yes, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs is holding its national conference next week, and for many people, this annual event brings excitement. For others, dread.

As the conference explodes in growth year after year, I seem to come across more people who either have vowed never to go again or who treat the conference as a sort of necessary suffering. The complaints are many: writers sucking up to bigger-name writers; writers sucking up to journal editors; every smile or laugh weighed down with opportunism;  long lines for hotel coffee and lousy pastries; all those tortoise-shell eyeglasses.

Don’t get me wrong, the conference is overwhelming. I’m always glad to get back to my hotel room at night to decompress. But here’s the thing. Ten years ago, I was living alone in a tiny apartment in Metuchen, New Jersey. I had been working steadily on a novel for about three years. The novel was awful. I didn’t personally know a single other fiction writer. Not one. I owned a bookshelf full of novels and had started reading craft books. All my efforts to improve as a writer—and they were considerable—resulted in making the novel slightly less awful.

At some point I noticed that the biographies on the back covers of some of the books I was reading mentioned that the authors had received their MFAs at various places. I looked online (this was the late 90s, and I’d just gotten a super-slow dial-up connection to the internet) to see what an MFA stood for, and I learned—to my astonishment—that there were graduate programs where you could go and surround yourself with other writers. Actual people. 

In addition to the novel, I had written a few short stories over the years. I reread them. They ranged from terrible to sort-of bad. I wrote a few more, and chose what I thought were the best of the bunch for my application. Because I had been a music major in college and had graduated years earlier, I didn’t have any professors who could write letters of recommendation on my behalf. So I asked the lead singer of my band to write one. No joke.

A year later, I moved to the Midwest to start my MFA program. The creative writing faculty must have seen a glimmer of potential, I guess, because my work surely wasn’t ready for prime time, or even for the late, late hours when brawny men sell juicers.

My point is that standing in the middle of the AWP bookfair, in the midst of five-hundred publishers and three thousand writers, is nothing compared to that first meeting at grad school when I came face to face with twelve other students and six faculty members who all shared my strange and intense desire to write—and not just to write, but to work on writing. To figure stuff out and get better. A year earlier, it didn’t seem possible that there could be eighteen people on the planet who were anything like me. Suddenly we were all in a room together. I felt overwhelmed, and I couldn’t believe—still can’t believe—how lucky I was.

Complaints stemming from the overabundance of writers at AWP is the complaint of the privileged, the complaint of those, like me these past ten years, lucky enough to be in the proximity of other writers more than once a year. Yes, one of the defining aspects of being a human being is our propensity to become irritated. And there will be moments next week that will irritate me. I know that. Many of us are natural introverts, after all, and we don’t do extroversion very well.

But I also know that the people all around me at the conference—unlike the people outside the conference—will understand implicitly my aspirations and fears and preoccupations, because they share them.

For that I’ll stand in a line thirty deep for a hard, tasteless scone.

Michael Kardos (michaelkardos.com) is the author of the story collection One Last Good Time and co-director of the creative writing program at Mississippi State University. If you’ll be attending the AWP conference next week, he would love to meet you, and can be found at the Press 53 table on Thursday, Feb. 3, from 2-3 p.m.

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