AWP 2018: Consider the coffee

30 March 2018 on Blog, Storystorm   Tags: ,

Every year, just in time for the zombie-like resurgence of winter in New England to bury all transportation in snow, twelve thousand writers spill into a cavernous convention center to mingle, read, exchange bound volumes, and test their capacity for continuous social interaction. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference is hotly anticipated, all the more so when it takes place in Tampa on the tail end of several frozen months. There is seduction in the relentless blue haze over the polished boats in the bay, in the lazy toss of palm fronds far above the sidewalk to the convention center. And for those who have been to AWP before, there is nostalgia in the familiar rituals: the acquisition of a tote bag, the scanning of yellow rows of panels in the schedule, the scrambling down hallways and up staircases to find Room 132, the sporadic movement through the breathless expanse of the book fair.

Be apprised, though, that the book fair auditorium is massive and disorienting, filled with wordless murmurs and the dazed wanderings of people who are jet-lagged or sleep-deprived or both, and that choosing to stand in the Starbucks line is the equivalent of choosing to enter the on-ramp of an LA freeway at 5 pm. The ratio of coffee to writers is perpetually skewed. This critical shortage could have been predicted by anyone who glanced across the biography section of a literary journal. Many writers, myself included, take advantage of any opportunity to mention coffee. They complain about not having it, joke about drinking too much of it, remind each other that friends don’t let friends drink Starbucks and then stand in the Starbucks line anyway when there’s nowhere else to go. I suspect coffee comes up frequently because coffee, like pets, is the low-hanging fruit of small talk. There are fairly good odds of finding common ground with a similarly exhausted stranger—“Oh, you like being awake? Well, wouldn’t you know it. I like being awake, too.”

Twelve thousand people is approximately half the population of my current town. And chances are decent that much of this particular crowd is made up of introverts who are simultaneously thrilled and drained by the relentless, aggressive community that AWP provides. It’s easy to absorb the bustle and fluorescence and stimulation of the outside world, to privilege social pressures and external schedules over individual needs. It’s also easy to forget that a single meaningful conversation with just one of those twelve thousand people could make the whole thing worthwhile.

This, to me, is the fundamental weirdness of AWP: it takes people who spend much of their lives working alone, throws them into the same space for three days to talk about that work, and then sends them back into the world to work alone again.

I don’t mean to suggest in any way that writing is not an act of community. I have no desire to perpetuate the notion that being a writer means laboring alone in a garret. But I do think being a writer means that most of what you write goes unpublished and unread. For every story that breaks through and finds an audience, there will be ten others that nobody knows about except you. And even the story that does break through might have spent years buried in the anonymity of a flash drive or a notebook. There is significant loneliness involved in both the process of writing and the process of searching for readers.        

How to respond to the visual revelation of thousands of other writers swarming the book tables, most looking far more chipper than you feel, all immersed in the intensive process of seeking readers for their work? Consider the following strategies:

  1. 1. Run screaming from the book fair auditorium, hole up in your hotel room, and switch on Friends. Bonus points if you rant about the toxic masculinity in Friends.
  2. 2. Decide that everyone in that auditorium is a better writer than you are, and there’s clearly no hope for you, so what are you even doing there, etc. etc. etc.
  3. 3. Decide that everyone in that auditorium is a worse writer than you are, and so why are they getting published and you’re not, and look at how unfair the world is, etc. etc.
  4. 4. Attempt to “hustle” and to “network” with only the vaguest understanding of what these things mean.
  5. 5. Wish to be holed up with a notebook alone, even though a week from now you will look back and miss the reminder that you are not, in fact, alone in what you do.
  6. 6. Remember that the people in that auditorium are there because they love words and books and stories. Listen to snippets of conversation and realize they’re talking about the things you care about. They are your people, and chances are good that many of them are just as daunted as you are by the task they’ve set themselves, but here they are and here you are and isn’t it a privilege, after all, to be able to talk to each other?
  7. 7. Stand in the Starbucks line. Introduce yourself to someone you don’t know. You’re going to be there a while, so you might as well make a friend.


Kaely Horton is Barnstorm's fiction editor. 

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