I put up a quick note this morning about successfully arriving in Washington despite the terrible weather country-wide; so now, much later in the day, I thought I would share some news and reflections from day 1 of the AWP conference. This will prove to be my most session-heavy day, I'm sure, and by design. There's a diminishing returns quality to a massive conference like AWP. Too many sessions and your brain turns to jello. So while I'll still be at the conference, tomorrow and Saturday will likely be a bit lighter in terms of my session involvement.
Today's sessions, I'm happy to report, were all fine. Early on, I attended a session on encouraging and enabling the use of multi-media strategies for students' storytelling. As one speaker remarked, this subject is urgent. The literary landscape is changing under our feet, almost by the minute, as innovations like the iPad fundamentally alter what reading means. Anyone who wishes to write in the literary landscape of the future needs to be fluent in multi-media. Even if this idea is disheartening to a former curmudgeon like myself, I can't deny that it's also probably accurate. I also attended a really fascinating session on the use of monsters (liberally defined) in literary fiction. While the conference, because of massive travel problems caused by the Big Storm, has not been nearly as crowded as in the past, this session was jammed. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. After all, the tremendous--and growing--popularity of supernatural fiction can't help but be felt, and reiterated, by AWP conference goers. And that's not a bad thing. The presenters named some titles that really sound intriguing and that I need to read, especially given that I taught a Special Topics course at UCA last fall called "Supernatural Realism."
I attended two other sessions today. One was a pedagogy forum session featuring short papers on the teaching of writing fiction and drama. The session went fine--I heard some wonderful approaches for teaching specific aspects of craft--but before the session got underway the moderator announced that starting next year AWP will no longer include pedagogy forum sessions in its program. The rationale behind this decision was supposedly a desire to increase AWP's commitment to pedagogy as a subject matter, a statement that I do not believe and that makes no sense. Whatever becomes of pedagogy at AWP, I will regret the loss of the pedagogy forum. It provided an important entryway for graduate students and y0ung instructors to come to AWP and present. It also is the only part of the AWP program in which the acceptance of one's proposal is based solely on its individual merits and not on whether it was included as part of a shiny-glamorous panel configuration.
The last session I attended was a very enlightening session on contemporary Jewish-American fiction, featuring several expert voices, including Margot Singer, Anna Solomon, and Erika Dreifus. A friend of my wife's spotted me there and we chatted afterwards. I'm afraid my attendance confused her. "Are you Jewish?" she asked. No, I assured her, smiling. Her confusion was perfectly understandable. After all, the audience was almost entirely Jewish. But in fact my roots are pure Irish Catholic (or at least as pure as someone's can be whose last name is Vanderslice).
Sitting through today's sessions, I realized that I've adopted a Code of AWP Behavior for myself, a code meant to make the conference more useful and less stressful. To end this post, I'll share some items of my Code. Rule 1: No forced networking. For networking to be profitable it also has to be genuine. Forcing yourself into conversation with someone for no other reason that to stick your name in their face makes you come across as bumbling, illiterate, and possibly mentally retarded. Just go to the sessions, learn what you can, ask questions when you feel like it, and don't feel compelled to talk to a soul if you don't want to. Don't worry about making any specific number of contacts. Just enjoy. With so many writers floating around, you're bound to fall into conversation with one of them anyway--a more natural conversation, that is. Rule 2: Leave the conference hotel for meals and as often as you can. Any conference as big as this one will drive you bonkers after a while and surely mess with your perspective. Get out. Cross the street. Realize that there is sub shop over there filled with people who don't all want to talk about their just completed sonnet sequence or the novel they are trying to find an agent for. Normal people still exist. Rule 3: Avoid the how-to-publish-your-book-sessions or any variation thereof. These sessions reek with desperation and oneupmanship. They will curdle your soul and make you doubt the benign nature of humanity. Besides, rarely does one ever learn anything new in them. How many times does one need to be told how to compose a letter to an agent or that the traditional market for fiction is dwindling to nonexistence? Rule 4: Write while you are here. Most people will tell you that it's impossible to write at AWP--but that's a flat out lie. If you call yourself a writer and you "can't write," then shame on you. Go to the bar and compose a few flash fictions over a pint or two. Skip a morning session and draft a story in your hotel room. Grab a lobby seat for twenty minutes and jot down a poem in your notebook. So what if the efforts aren't your best ever? That's not the point of this Rule. The point of this Rule: For a writer, writing tames your soul, lowers your blood pressure, puts you in equilibirum. It's what you do. It's who you are. It's why you are here. Good to remind yourself of that from day to day when faced with so many people urgent for that next job or book contract. Finally, it's the writing that matters. And it's the writing you have to love. Otherwise you're in the wrong business.
If I think of any other Rules in the Code, I'll let you all know.