I did it. I popped my writing conference cherry with the mother of all writing conferences, AWP. Unfortunately, the 17 pounds of books I purchased got lost in the mail. Ugh. I’m still waiting to see if the post office finds my books, magazines, fake tattoos, and business cards in their dead letter office. They actually call it the mail recovery center now, as opposed to the dead letter office. I suppose the connotation of dead letter didn’t bode well for customer confidence. I’m going to break this reflection down into four categories in an attempt to capture it all, which I probably will not. And that’s okay. Before I start my categories I’d love to send a quick little thank you to my Rosemont family and Carla Spataro for facilitating my AWP badge and helping me acclimate to the conference process.
The Famous People
Let’s get this topic out of the way first. I regret not stalking Amber Tamblyn. Word on the literary street is that she’s pretty rad and so is her writing. I’m not usually a celeb stalker in that I have mostly experienced regret after speaking to my idols. I once pulled my lip back fishhook style to reveal a missing tooth to a super famous king of emo/punk after plying him with questions about his constant use of teeth in his song writing. Yeah, so. Since then, I try to keep my mouth closed in several ways when I am among the famous. That being said, let’s talk about the famous people at AWP! I mean, it was in Los Angeles.
James Franco was not there, but his face was in the form of a creepy mask.
Somehow I missed the “From Page to Screen: Exploring Successful Adaptation with Industry Insiders” panel that was full of famous people even though a friend of mine went, told me she was going, and said the name of the panel. Whoops. I think it was because I took my schedule day-by-day and didn’t pay attention to the names of the panelists, just the relevance of the panels to my own writing life, which is why I almost missed all of Cheryl Strayed’s panels. Almost.
I left a panel on what lit mags want to see in submissions. See complaining and cat references in section on panels below. I had four panels selected for the next time slot. Rookie mistake or positive thinker? I’m still trying to figure that one out, but fate stepped in for me. I looked up from the schedule on my phone and thought, oh that woman looks familiar and then my brain kicked in, OHMYGODTHAT’SCHERYLSTRAYED! There she was, walking in a crowd, smiling, talking, acting like she wasn’t a memoir goddess. I asked a girl in line about the panel. It’s the memoir panel with Cheryl Strayed she tells me. I then promptly took my place in line. Did I pull a chat and cut a la Larry David? It is highly possible. I don’t remember. What I do remember is sprinting to the front of that giant conference room to secure a seat in the second row. And then, I had the best experience of my entire AWP life, and not just because of Cheryl Strayed. The panel, “You Don’t Know Me at All: The Creation of Self as Protagonist in Memoir,” was the most insightful, structured, informative, and inspirational panel of all the panels I attended at AWP16. The four women panelists offered solid advice on how to find the real story in your memoir story. I left feeling armed with the tools I needed to finally write a piece I’ve been struggling to write for years.
A word on Roxane Gay, okay a few of them: I feel like a jerk talking smack on this woman. Breaking the girl code. I am not doing it to be mean. I swear. There is something about her that boils my blood up super thick. I can’t figure it out. Is it jealousy? Maybe. Or maybe she doesn’t live up to my expectations. Sure, you can say I don’t know her. How can I have expectations of her? Because she wrote a book. Because she got real famous and she’s really outspoken. And that’s actually pretty rad. Go her. So why can’t I be outspoken about her? The thing she did that really got my goat was tweet about losing her AWP badge.
Here’s the tweet: “Left my conference badge in an Uber and now I have to pay $50 for a new badge? To participate in my panel tomorrow?”
That’s some elitist bullshit right there. You were irresponsible and now you want to
a. bitch about it and
b. get something no one else attending the event would get?
Ugh. The follow-up tweets were all about annoying fans. This is what I want from Roxane Gay: self-awareness. It was the thing missing from Bad Feminist, the thing missing from her elitist AWP attitude, the thing missing from her tweets. And guess what? She got a new badge. Delivered to her no less. If anyone else had lost their badge (especially not famous panelists because there were PLENTY of them) they would have had to pay the $50. I get it, real life sucks sometimes, but hey, I managed to keep my badge for the three whole days I needed it and I am a hot mess of a human being so…Ugh, you’ve made me use an ellipsis, Roxane Gay. Damn you. I’d also like to point out that a week later she called Amy Schumer entitled for speaking out on the plus size label Glamour gave her. Glass houses. Stones. Tea Kettles. I’m done.
The Literary Death Match I attended at the Ace Hotel theater (oh my god, it is so gorgeous and dripping with red velvet) was full of famous people. Cool ones. Rumor had it that James Franco was living in the hotel. Again, I didn’t spot him. I had my just finished copy of Palo Alto with me in case, but alas it remains unsigned. One of the geeks of Freaks and Geeks was there though, Haverchuck himself. Heart emoji. My love for Martin Starr is stronger now after seeing him perform a rap and hearing witty comments spew forth from his beautiful mouth. But I digress. I also discovered some more awesome people I feel like I already should have known about. Earlier in the day the movie, Dear White People, came up in a panel. I was intrigued. And then, boom, the producer Lena Waithe happened to be one of the judges. She is hilarious. I also saw this as the universe telling me to go forth and watch her movie immediately. You can rent it or watch it on Hulu, fyi. Zach Woods filled in for a missing Adam Scott, which turned out to be a happy accident because man alive that dude is brilliant. His quick wit and self-effacing humor trumped everyone. Everyone that is except for my new favorite poet, Danez Smith. If you ever get a chance to see this man read, Go! Or you know, use the internet like this: “Dinosaurs in the Hood,” or like this: “Dogs!”
I also got to meet one of my teenage idols, Francesca Lia Block, author of Weetzie Bat, a book that got me through my late teens/early twenties. For fear of making a fool of myself, I said very little when I approached her table. She asked what I was looking for and when I told her she was indeed what I was looking for, she said to me, “Oh I hoped you were one of mine you look like one of mine.” Swoon! I bought her new book of poems, had her sign my copy of Dangerous Angels, and managed to tell her how important she is to me without showing her any of my teeth, missing or intact. Success!
The Panels (in order of attendance, not importance)
The first panel I attended was the absolute ideal way to start my AWP panel experience. Not only was I in California to attend AWP, I was also there to travel. “There and Back Again: Writing from the Road,” was the perfect inspiration for both traveling and writing. There I discovered the Carlson-Wee brothers and their book, Mercy Songs, a book I cannot stop raving about. I even wrote about it in my first ever column on Literary Mama.
My next panel was fun, though felt rather thrown together and inexperienced. It was interesting none-the-less and provided me with some new music and books to indulge my senses. “From New Wave to Punk: Musical Influences on Latino Literary Aesthetics” gave me a look into a world I knew little about. After the panel, I bought one of the panelist’s books, The Spitboy Rule, and had her sign it. It is currently lost in the mail. Fingers crossed it makes its way back to me.
On Friday, I started my morning by hopping around from panel to panel trying to find one that fit. I didn’t. I stayed for the second half of “You Sent Us What?” It was a panel of literary magazine editors discussing what they look for in submissions. It was a pretty terrible panel in that taste is subjective and most of their suggestions were common sense. Plus, the one guy on the panel got annoyed about having to read bios that included the number of cats people own. Perhaps this upsets me because my bio mentions my cats, but here’s an idea, don’t ask for a bio if you don’t want one. Maybe people talk about their cats in their cover letters instead, I don’t know. Cats are awesome. Shut up, sir.
I already mentioned my favorite panel above, but let’s talk about it some more. Shall we? We shall. Here’s a list of some of the quotes I managed to scribble down and then managed to read later. There are a few indecipherable scribbles. Frowny face. Here’s a photo of the brilliant authors to go with their brilliant words.
L-R Eileen Cronin, Cheryl Strayed, Leigh Stein, Laurie Lindeen
Some of my favorite quotes from this panel (the ones that I managed to scribble in my notebook anyway) include the following: (Sometimes I didn’t write down the speaker, which is what happens when you are trying to write down almost everything because it’s all so brilliant.)
“The truth that had to come to me was that I was remembering my mother as a fictional character.” Cheryl Strayed
“Let the bottom fall out to find the truths. Become a public person on the page.” -uncredited to a panelist
“Be able to make yourself as ugly as you make others look.” -uncredited to a panelist
“I didn’t want to be only a story. I wanted to be a writer.” Eileen Cronin
“Meet the audience in a place they are familiar with, then take them to another place.” Eileen Cronin
“Go into the darkness. Learn what the darkness has to teach you, then come out of it.” Cheryl Strayed
“Tell a story in multiple layers of maturity.” Eileen Cronin
“I wrote in present tense to make sure I didn’t have any wisdom or reflection.” Laurie Lindeen
“When you fictionalize your life you change characters to your ideal instead of the real person.” Cheryl Strayed (I think)
I don’t have an actual quote from her, but Leigh Stein spoke about how she thought she was writing a story about an abusive ex who died in a motorcycle accident, when in reality she was writing a more personal story. She said sitting down to her write her memoir taught her about herself. I mean, come on with this quotes. I think you get the idea of how eye-opening the panel was.
My last day of panels proved to be a bit of a let down. I attended “Does travel writing have a place in the age of Instagram and Google Earth?,” which ended up being more of a bitch fest about today’s youth and less about how to adapt travel writing to fit in with new instant gratification technology. This was also a good example of why panels should never open to questions within the first fifteen minutes. It lacked structure, didn’t provide enough information, and left me feeling more confused than when I walked into the room.
I then attended the panel Writing Sex in YA: Choices and Consequences. While I thought the panel was interesting, it felt more like a rehashing of stuff I already knew and included a panelist telling a room full of writers never to workshop their sex scenes in an MFA program. Nope, nope, nope. I don’t care if you have to deal with annoying people in an MFA program, which you absolutely will. Without fail there will be at least one prude among the group. Always workshop the stuff you are trying to get better at writing. Don’t censor your work because you might offend someone or create class discussion. Or maybe you’ll find that you do in fact need to tone down your sex scene after all because it involves muppets and squid ink, and well it’s just too much for your normal suburban characters and no one believes it. Most people suck at writing sex scenes and my MFA workshops, though sometimes filled with people I knew were not my ideal readers in more ways than one, forced me to rework and expand upon my own writing. The saving grace for this panel was the list of new books I have added to my to be read list, so I’ll give it credit for that. The book I’m most excited to read is Uses for Boys. I’ll keep you posted on what I think.
It was overwhelming and also super neat. Mostly I picked up business cards from journals I thought might fit with my writing aesthetic and bought too many books. 17 pounds of them, as noted in the title of this post. They are mostly missing right now and for that I am sad. Lucky for me I took nerdy pics of them for my Instagram and then used them to send to the post office begging them to find them. Here’s my list and pics. Please let my babies come home me. Not pictured below are the copies of The Normal School, Mercy Songs, and Razorcake zine.
I spent the days after the conference traveling into the desert, hiking Joshua Tree, relaxing in Palm Springs, and seeking vegan food in Los Angeles. It was the perfect way to decompress from such a whirlwind event. I kept finding inspiration wherever I went, including at a roadside attraction, in windmills, on a bathroom wall in Joshua Tree, and in LA street art.
I also spent part of my AWP time interviewing for a position as one of the Literary Reflections Editorial Assistants for Literary Mama. Spoiler alert, I go it! While at first I was bummed to have a deadline during the conference as it did cut into panel time, I think it was a good example of how to deal with both deadlines and life. This is also an excuse as to why my AWP blog reflection post is a tad overdue. Perhaps a month or more overdue.
What I learned from my popping my writing conference cherry is that I should probably plan better and insure my packages. But I also learned that sometimes the universe figures stuff out for you and you have to go where it takes you, which sometimes is in a hallway with Cheryl Strayed right where you need to be. Thanks, universe. Now give me back my damn books.