Last month I attended AWP’19, the annual conference run by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. It was my first time attending a conference about writing, and thankfully it did not disappoint.
At least not for me… someone inspired by a thumbtack on the floor.
Sure, it was overwhelming in scale. It required talking to lots of strangers and spending money towards a craft that doesn’t pay much to begin with. And I didn’t have a finished book to promote (a manuscript-in-progress I mentioned for sure).
But as a writer trying to make it my business, the world’s biggest huddle of writers and publishers seemed like the right place to go. I went seeking advice on content, craft, and industry knowledge about publishing, as I continue working to get my narrative right.
My current revision process incorporates a lot of supplemental work that AWP supported: discover the work of others, research the place and culture I’m highlighting, and join conversations about the complexities of my chosen content.
Thankfully, I got what I was looking for out of this year’s conference. I found new writers and many panels that debated issues I debate internally during every editing session. And I found some competitive titles, new research on post-colonialism, and books set in the greater region of the South Pacific.
Yes, I went through my conference notes and made them public, because otherwise how will I remember?
Sharp Sharp Women I Want to Know (and Read)
Among my new list of writers I admire is Terese Marie Mailhot, author of Heart Berries: A Memoir, and speaker of such casual wisdom as: “Bring language back to the Earth, where it came from,” and “You create ceremony out of the beauty of your life.”
Also on that list is Summit County native Pam Houston, author of Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country. She shared that a story can be a way to best express grief and anger, because in real time it can be hard for some. True for me, indeed. I rely on writing as a means of processing the extreme (and subtle) emotions I feel but can’t verbalize. While I’d love to be quick as a whip, I operate as Joan Didion describes: “I don't know what I think until I write it down.”
Everyone who eases in memory’s waters drowns a little.
Industry People Who Perked My Ears Up
The one panel I attended on revision drew a colossal crowd, but thankfully I found a corner where I could squat down on the floor to listen. When I say my ears perked up, I mean I couldn’t see the panelists, but one voice kept saying things that resonated with me, followed by, “This is Maria.” Maria Gagliano and the rest of the agents introduced themselves every time they spoke for the room of people who couldn’t see them above the hundreds in the front. Maria spoke about looking for books in which the reader can see themselves. Books that are about the reader as well as the memoirist, that allow them to see their own stories in a new way. Now that I write it now, it doesn’t sound monumental. Too distracted to take notes as I crouched with a sandwich, I guess. She just seemed approachable, caring, and cool. I checked out her booth later and purchased some issues of her beautiful glossy: SLICE Magazine.
Travel Talks That Sparked New (and Forgotten) Thinking
Writing the Limits of Cultural Exchange got me thinking about frustrations I had for many years, that feeling of expectation (by others, of yourself) that you’re supposed to have a prescribed experience in a place, the reason I was annoyed by Venice and Paris and any place whose reputation looms larger than itself.
Steven Dunn said something about scale that I’d not thought of before when writing about or within place: refusing to follow the travel tradition of using a panoramic lens. And Caren Beilin reminded that form is a tool for writing responsibly about travel, such as the incorporation of other perspectives beyond your own.
If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.
This panel made me want to reread some of my “Conceptual Travel” pieces in which I used to write about the “irony of travel.” Bourdain was very good at challenging some of these norms in his voiceovers and articles. I like that there is a growing sect in travel literature focusing on representation, complicity, entanglement, and decolonization. Speaking of…
Decolonizing the Travel Writing Canon needed a full day or seven. It was the start of a very important conversation I’ve been seeking for years. The title of the panel made me think we’d walk away with a book list, a new canon of works not dominated by Cahill’s and Theroux’s and Bryson’s. I didn’t leave with a new syllabus, but I did learn of journals and publishing houses that are not only changing the content and style of travel writing but the access to readers, the cultural make-up of the masthead, and a wider definition of “travel.”
I love to go places, and I love to write; however, travel writing lost its appeal when I realized most travelers get so much so wrong, that we’re often [sub]consciously harking back to a sordid past when we think we’re seeking timeless experiences, that we sink comfortably into the past when we should be evolving with time and innovating as much as any other art form. In my personal work to understand the inherent colonial nature of [most] travel, I backed away from that industry feeling like it was a competition in which I didn’t want to take part. I had already made too many personal mistakes that I feared making more.
But this session presented five admirable women working to represent a different narrative in travel literature, and they got me excited about it again, particularly:
Dr. Anu Taranath, a professor and an author of an upcoming book I’ve pre-ordered: Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World, Between the Lines, 2019. When asked if she believed this shift in writing about travel could shift the nature of trips and travels, she wasn’t optimistic. I appreciated her honesty as she reflected on her experience working with study abroad students. She too felt that the dominant perspective today still perpetuates poor or misguided behavior abroad and that this isn’t going to shift dramatically for many years to come.
Amy Gigi Alexander, a travel writer, explorer, and the head of both Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel and the recently-launched Panorama Publishing. She spoke with humility and intention about working to decolonize travel publishing and was quick to laud others who are working in parallel. Perhaps the most stunning thing about Amy was the fact that she engaged in a conversation with me online a few days after the conference. I regretted not speaking to her after the panel, but she gave me time and attention to share who I was and what I was working on. I’m not sure who originally said this quote but Amy’s delivery of it encouraged some deep thought about my own bookshelves.
Show me your bookshelf, and I’ll tell you who you are.
Faith Adiele, a name I have heard many times in the last decade and who has always felt one degree away from my network and yet stratospheric in her unreachability. She read to us a powerful piece I wish I could find online, one about African safaris. And she reminded everyone that travel often has a narrow definition that leaves out those who cannot or must travel. She pointed out that our language with which to describe foreign words is limited, much like our cultural lens through which we look at those worlds. And as the mediator, she described the panel title in terms of her worry that the writing happening now by BIPOC will not make it into the classroom as works carefully studied in crucial lessons on history, culture, and language. I can’t wait to read her memoirs.
I didn’t get to see or meet Bani Amor at the conference, but they were mentioned multiple times in both travel sessions above. Their articles on decolonizing travel culture pack a punch, and I can only assume the travel memoir they’re editing right now will have the same effect.
Decolonize the self in order to be able to decolonize the work.
—(I don’t remember who said this… maybe) Faith Adiele?
From the Keynote
“Read and read to find out what kind of writer you want to be. Then, write and write to find out what kind of writer you actually are.”
The Writer Who Struck a Chord Personally
In the panel Empathy & Exploitation on writing about vulnerable communities, Dr. Max Rayneard spoke of veterans as symbols often used for every political agenda. He spoke about The Telling Project, which helps provide vets a public platform and writing/theatrical support for sharing their combat and transition stories to their home communities on stage.
I’d never heard someone speak so clearly about our society’s rejection of veteran trauma responses, about our status as a country at war and what that means to us as citizens unwilling to see this or complying with it, living in our own bubble and shocked when the battle makes its way to us. He brought up an interesting point: for vets who mentally imagine the battlefield within their communities stateside, are they really that far off? Are they actually seeing our combat status [as a nation, as citizens] more clearly than we are when we rest assured the battlefield is thousands of miles away? It was a thought-provoking line of rhetorical questioning that reminded me our society is filled with vulnerable populations, veterans and others, and our perspectives can and should stretch to understand theirs.
And then the Book Fair…
The list of panels were so interesting that initially I didn’t plan for much time to wander the book fair. What a big mistake that would have been. I changed my schedule and meandered the aisles looking for competitive titles, books from the South Pacific, and engaging with writers and industry people to learn what I didn’t know.
Now, the sea of publishers and journals out there don’t appear to me like one big blob. I see how each small publisher has its niche, how many university presses tend to concentrate on academic content, and how and when I might approach one of them to submit my content.
I held myself back from buying everything I looked at—knowing I wouldn’t be able to make time to read everything—but here’s what grabbed my attention:
Will McGrath’s Everything Lost is Found Again (Dzanc Books, 2018)
Lilian Howan’s The Charm Buyers (University of Hawai'i Press, 2017)
Kenny Fries’ In the Province of the Gods (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017)
The last one listed was the first one I purchased, a signed copy by my first advisor at Goddard. I was visiting Japan when he told me his “Japan book” had found a home, so it had significance for me.
Will I go again?
Next year’s conference is in San Antonio in March, and I’m on the fence about going. I really enjoyed it and obviously gained a lot, but I also tend to consume a lot of information and fail to make time to use it. I need to finish my manuscript and continue to create content online that establishes an audience interested in such work. Perhaps AWP’20 will be a reward for a job well done.
Also, I hear the tamales there are excellent. That may be reason enough.