Wednesday, February 29
Writers in general tend to be solitary beings, which is why a gathering of almost ten thousand writers at this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs Annual Conference in Chicago is slightly (okay, very) overwhelming for me.
Ten-thousand is a lot of any kind of people, but ten-thousand writers feels manic. There’s something electric about the way people are gathered alone or in small groups on the stairs, constantly scribbling in little black notebooks or bright yellow legal pads. There are also a lot of good-looking and well-dressed people around, which invigorates and intimidates me at the same time. There are so many similarly wired brains squashed together in a relatively small space.
This is my first time at AWP. When I first looked at the schedule I thought I must be reading it wrong just because of the sheer number of panels and events. There are up to ten panels scheduled during each of the six one-hour fifteen-minute blocks in the day. And in each block of time there are at least three or four panels I’m interested in going to. Making decisions proves difficult.
And I looked at all of this before I even stopped by the book fair, where the mental and visual stimuli is almost excessive. Hundreds of booths for different organizations; anything from lit mags to schools to writer’s retreats. Some booths are deserted and others are crowded. The McSweeney’s booth is crawling with youngish hipsters with septum piercings. I recognize shaggy-haired Patrick from 826CHI, a nonprofit I’ve volunteered for that was also started by Dave Eggers. But the book fair goes all weekend, so I walk by without stopping for now.
Even though I haven’t even attended any panels today, I drink two coffees, just in preparation.
Thursday, March 1
I’ve only been able to make it to two panels today. The first was a fiftieth anniversary alumni reading for Interlochen Arts Academy, the private fine arts high school I attended. The readers included bestselling authors Marya Hornbacher and Doug Stanton. It was a warm reading. That’s the only way I can think to describe it, the feeling that came from being in a room with a hundred people who all know what it’s like to go to art boarding school in the middle of the northern Michigan woods.
Being an alumna sabotaged my day because, after the reading, I spent way too much time visiting with people I knew from high school. My friend Ines, who I hadn’t spoken to in several years, was there, and we had a number of lengthy conversations about college and also revisited high school memories that still seem like they happened yesterday.
Later, after I attended one more panel (Black Women Writers and the Evolution of the Short Story, during which I took more notes in my journal than I did all last semester), I went with Ines to another alumni gathering, this one off-site at the Sweetwater Grill on Michigan Avenue. It was like a miniature AWP in a glass-walled room, except with less quiet listening to panelists and more booze. But the experience was essentially the same, if less academic. I had willingly surrounded myself with writers and like-minded people. Isn’t that half the purpose of big conferences like AWP? To be able to have the kind of art and writing-centered conversations we were now having in the glass room, however admittedly lubricated by a few glasses of wine?
Friday, March 2
Because I’m spending my last semester in college studying screenwriting and adaptation for the screen, I got up early today to make it to The Hollywood Stint: Prose Writers and Writing for the Screen. This panel took place in a hall that was entirely too large. The Red Lacquer Room was all deep red wooden panels and an unnecessary number of chandeliers. And in keeping with the feeling that I had just walked into a very “old money” kind of ballroom, I also felt like I had walked into a Boy’s Club. A White Boy’s Club. AKA what I have to be prepared for in Hollywood.
I was immediately struck not only by the fact that all of the panelists were white males, but also by their similar appearances. All were slightly pudgy, in some state of baldness and facial hair, and wearing black-framed glasses. I almost felt like I’d walked into the twilight zone. Or a practical joke. There were a handful of women in the audience, and one other black woman besides myself. I found one of my old teachers from Interlochen, Lesley Tye, who’d taught screenwriting classes, and sat down next to her. By the look on her face I knew she’d also noticed the lack of ovaries on the panel.
“I should go up there,” she murmured to me just before the panel began.
After introducing the panelists, the moderator briefly and awkwardly acknowledged the absence of females (though not the lack of color) on the panel, citing a rush to put it together (so apparently the only screenwriters he knows immediately are white men).
Maybe Lesley should have been on the panel. In fact, she definitely should have been. The eerily similar men were decently knowledgeable and there was an informative, slightly dull and repetitive dialogue on writing for the screen. At the end they took audience questions. One of the few women asked the panel about academic texts that could be helpful to her in her journey to write a screenplay. Only one of the panelists answered with the name of one text, but Lesley clearly had a lot to say on the subject, so she raised her hand and listed a slew of book titles for the woman. One point for womanhood.
The irony of the Red Lacquer Room and its schedule was that directly after The Hollywood White Boy’s Club there was a panel called Beyond Stories of Race and Representation by African American Writers. I stayed and watched the audience change drastically in the red paneled room. The occupants went from two people of color to almost exclusively people of color, a great number of whom were women. And it was a much smaller audience. Not as much money to be made in African-American literature. However, folks actively took notes and maintained a spirited dialogue. The panelists barely missed a beat in answering questions or creating discussion. My encouragement factor, which had crashed after the Hollywood panel, had been renewed.
I had a similar drastic audience change later in the day when I went from a panel on American Indian Education (there were nine people there including me) to the National Book Critics Circle reading (hundreds, a full house in the mammoth Grand Ballroom). AWP turns out to be a conference that is as broad or as specific as you’d like it to be for you, depending on which panels you choose to attend. My experience has felt like an accordion so far—very broad to very specific and back again. The volume of people and events (and smokers outside the front so that leaving the Hilton is like walking through a cloud of smog) are making me feel like my brain is exploding, but being around so many writers is shaping up to be re-energizing, too.
Today I woke up late. Or, rather, I woke up on time but my exhaustion led me to choose the snooze button three times in a row and eventually push my alarm back two hours. This meant I missed several panels this morning that I’d planned on attending, including the Indigenous Writers Caucus and a panel on preparing short story manuscripts for submission.
This has been the nature of this conference. Nonstop and exhausting. And no matter how carefully I make my plans, they always seem to shift to bend to the will of the conference (or my tired eyes).
To make up for missing the Indigenous Writers Caucus, I attended a reading that featured poetry by authors included in an anthology of Indigenous and Aboriginal poetry called “Sing.” This was the first poetry event I’d attended so far at the conference, but it left me feeling like I should have attended more. The audience consisted of only about fifteen or twenty people, but everyone was so tangibly moved and emotionally affected by each poem read that the room felt very full.
Later, I complimented ZZ Packer on her hat. There were so many more opportunities for discussion, having just watched her speak on a panel entitled Writing About Race in the Age of Obama, but I was struck by her delicate black felt hat with the flower, and so I told her I liked it. She smiled and was immediately deluged with questions and comments from some of the other people who had wandered up to the front after the panel, but I think she appreciated it.
I did notice more than ZZ Packer’s hat during the panel, to be sure. It turned out to be one of the most engaging of the conference. Not only was the discussion about black writers, but also about Asian, Hispanic and Native writers and the pan-racial writing experience. The excellent thing was that I didn’t even know that ZZ Packer would be on the panel; I simply walked in because I’d liked the title. So after all my exhaustion and feeling guilty for skipping the morning panels, there had still been a pleasant surprise in store for me.
I met people and created a network of other writers that I can carry with me wherever I end up across the country, which is a rare opportunity. I also feel like I’ve worked up the ability to sleep for two days straight, an activity that will commence immediately.