Attending AWP is akin to a Kierkegaardian leap of faith…


Poetry, Mosaic Ceiling, Washington, DC. Photograph by takomabibelot.

From The Smart Set:

When AWP organized its first conference in 1973, it became “an essential annual destination for writers, teachers, students, editors, and publishers.” Since then, the conference has grown in size to over 12,000 attendees. It runs four days with formal presentations scheduled from eight a.m. to eight p.m. and informal, off-site events at nearby restaurants and bars. Attending the conference is akin to a Kierkegaardian leap of faith. How will you as a writer react when confronted with 12,000 others, many with national reputations? Believe me, you arrive at a dark place, unsullied by your own success. Still, others feel differently, “Being at AWP inspires you to do more,” the novelist Elizabeth L. Silver told me as we walked the book fair together. “It reminds you of what you aspire to be, no matter where you fall in the literary world.”

For me, it’s a situation that forces me to confront myself. I traveled to the conference by Amtrak, knowing that the passengers scribbling in notebooks were all headed to the same place. If I’d visualized them crowding me in like this when I was writing, alone in my room, I’d never have committed a single word to the page. Once I arrived, I headed directly to the book fair, searching for kind editors to whom to pitch my work. I experienced emotions that put me at a loss for words as these editors either encouraged or resisted my offer to submit to their press. The aisles were filled with writers I admire, and I got to attend their book signings and stand face to face with them in extended conversations, as I did this year with several of my heroes, including E. Ethelbert Miller and Dave Eggers. It’s how I met the Haitian-American author Fabienne Joshaphat who has since become a friend.

It’s a situation that forces you to confront your most competitive, bitter self. Every year that I attend the conference, I experience a different range of emotions, from tears and outrage at the publishing world’s narrow biases, to elation at being chosen for publication and reaping its rewards. But to get the most out of the conference is to be free of the picture of success it offers. Publications, prizes, and awards are distractions. The real goal is to enhance your teaching and to produce beautiful writing, that which transforms people’s versions of reality and makes an impact, and that is what keeps me going back to the conference year after year.

“Reading, Writing, Chanting”, Harriet Levin Millan, The Smart Set