Walking into the convention center on my first full day at AWP, I immediately felt my body tense. I was there to meet editors, buy books, and attend as many panels as possible, but I found I assessed tables on their ability to entice me, and then I ran through another round of judgement while I talked to editors. It wasn’t a question of friendliness—everyone was eager to talk—but the strange notion that we were all making quick decisions based on appearances made me uneasy. I felt a like a contestant on The Bachelor, only instead of winning roses and meeting future husbands, I was grabbing free stuff and hoping to find a partner for my short story. It all felt rushed and gimmicky, and I started to worry that if I couldn’t keep up with the fast-pace of a weekend conference, was I going to be able to make it as an author?
Growing up, I imaged the life of a writer being one of contented seclusion, only popping out of my book-lined burrow to hand over a finished manuscript and take a picture or two. I pretty much thought I would be Punxsutawney Phil, with less hair but similar bite. However, since starting graduate school last fall, I’ve learned more and more about the business side of writing, about the necessary evil of…schmoozing. I don’t mind small talk, but I’m not very good at targeted discussions—conversing with people while simultaneously gauging how we can help each other climb up the rickety ladder of success. AWP was the first time I found myself in such an atmosphere, where there were plenty of smiles and warm greetings, but also the understanding that we all want the same thing (to be published).
I could have chalked it up to being in a weird mood after visiting the Smithsonian American Art Museum (art will do that to me, especially if it’s as hypnotizing as Nam June Paik’s “Electronic Superhighway”), but even after attending a few panels, I still felt disconnected. What was I missing?
It turned out to be my people. I don’t mean that as a sleight against the everyone I talked to in the book fair, but it wasn’t until I attended one of my last talks that I felt a relieving swell of fellowship. The panel was “No Easy Readers: On the Art of Craft of Writing for Children,” led by a group of animated middle grade authors. The official moderator couldn’t make it, so the writers passed the mic along, encouraging interruptions and questions and letting out whoops of laughter in the process. I felt engaged and reassured that the purpose of writing is joy, feeling it, spreading it, and letting it guide you through the perplexity of publishing.
Shannon Slocum is one of Barnstorm's 2016-2017 Fiction Co-Editors.