My Time at AWP

I had never attempted to sleep in a bus station before. My mother’s anxiety told me over text messaging that “I was definitely going to get mugged,” and panicking over the thought that, no, I hadn’t brought my mace. (Something told me TSA wouldn’t let me keep it when we finally reached Logan.) The four other members of Writer’s Guild that were travelling with me were asleep in some awkward position like scattered Tetris blocks in a small six-foot by seven-foot glass cube. The bus station was closed from one in the morning to three in the morning, and we were forced to hang out in the entryway. He promised to keep the heat on, and it kicked every once and a while to keep the cube above freezing. Just above freezing.

My breath fogged my glasses as I tried to focus on the Angry Birds app on my Nook, and not the temperature or the fact that anyone could walk into this cube at any time and rob us blind (which, I’m certain, my mother was expecting).

Eventually, it was three and we were allowed back into the building. There, we gathered around a coffee machine like we were praying to it until the bus to Logan airport arrived. On the bus, once again my companions found sleep easily. But I am and was always fickle about sleeping, requiring very specific circumstances that a coach bus doesn’t allow.

For the record, I was nearing 24 hours of being awake.

***

At Logan airport, I asked a TSA agent if I was supposed to smile in the body-scanner.

The view from my seat on the plane, going to Chicago.

***

When we arrived in O’Haire, we were greeted with two things: The ugliest mural I’ve ever seen in my life, and city people who are a lot friendlier than what I’m used to. As we mulled around a kiosk of maps, trying to decipher the subway system to find the Palmer Hilton, a man approached us and helped us figure it out. Another man helped us figure out the CTA passes machine, which was different than the Charlie Card system.

He asked why we were here and we told him for a writing conference.

“You guys writers?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“What do you write?”

“Some of us fiction, some of us poetry.”

“You published?”

I said “yeah” even though that wasn’t true, because, honestly, why not? There was no way for him to verify the information, so of course I’m published, you can find my novels at Barnes and Nobles, I’ll sign a cover or two, just for you, Mr. Helpful Chicagoan. (If it’s worth something, I was at over thirty hours of no-sleep at this point.)

***

It took us three hours to find the hotel we were supposed to register at. We walked off the right subway stop, wandered for a bit and looked at maps at bus stops to orient ourselves in a city landscape. Somehow, we were always close to the Palmer hotel, but never saw it and no matter where we walked, it was always in the wrong direction.

We asked people for directions, and unlike in Boston, they gave us some. But they were wrong. By pure luck, and the benevolence of some deity’s part, we eventually found the Palmer. My heels sported two very nice blisters from my loafers that were not quite broken into, and my arm was sore from dragging around a suitcase over uneven sidewalks and puddles. We walked into the Palmer, found a little white, pale blue and orange sign that had AWP on the top and found out this:

We were in the wrong hotel.

The AWP conference this year would be held between the Palmer Hilton and the Chicago Hilton. A shuttle would come every 15 minutes between the two, because they were at least a mile apart, but only on days of the conference. We were here one day early to pre-register.

This was at the Chicago.

I considered, for a moment, rejoining Catholicism just so I could curse God out for this one. Instead, we walked to the Chicago, so used to being tired (35 hours of no-sleep at this point) that we felt energetic.

At pre-registry, I was given a name-tag which solidified the idea that I could be a writer or maybe, possibly, had it happened?—that I was a writer. A writer with a fancy nametag and lanyard that said “Writer’s Guild” underneath it like we were here on official writer-business.

Now that we were registered, we resigned to find our hostel. This was a fairly simple subway route to the Greek district of Chicago, to the Parthenon where we got our rooms as quickly as possible and collapsed on our beds. I clocked in at 37 hours of no-sleep, with a technicality of one hour time zone difference.

***

Now, I was told there were 10,000 people planned to attend AWP. But my mind didn’t comprehend the number. I felt like I was in a school of fish, navigating my little self through the throngs of people. There was a fifteen minute break between panels, and I was set on going to one each hour. I’d purchased a little notepad at a CVS before the first one, resigned to jot down as many notes as possible to aid myself in future writer-business things.

The first panel, “A Writing Life,” I will find the most helpful in all of AWP. It discussed, literally, a writing life. Discussed ways to incorporate time to write, different apps one can use to write on and how to find writing groups after graduation. Another panel discussed ways to be a “writer” in life and still have a decent amount of income.

Other panels wouldn’t be this helpful. I attended a panel about experimental fiction thinking they would be discussing what it was and some starter books for the style. Instead, one woman showed us a video of a cephalopod and told us over again, “This is not a jellyfish. This is a story.” All the while she retold the story of Jack and Jill, using the word “blue” or “orange” for punctuation points—I think. In retrospect, I should have expected “experimental paneling” from this. Instead, my notes from that panel consist of this:

What (blue) The (blue) Hell (orange?).

***

I went to one panel titled “The Tech-Empowered Writer” where the four involved told the audience to “use the Tweeter” and asked for “a tech-person” because they couldn’t figure out PowerPoint.  It was there I mastered the art of storming out of a panel.

***

In the elevators between panels, I learned that a fifty year old woman, a forty year old man, two grad students and mid-thirties poet will listen to my opinion on something. Some even agree. They either don’t realize I’m a 19 year-old from New Hampshire, or don’t care and I like that.

***

The different panels exposed me to different ideas about writing, techniques and styles to the craft. But AWP also showed me the variety that comes with the title “writer.” It was difficult to see a mass-archetype being fulfilled among the groups in the panels. Everyone displayed different backgrounds and styles, different ideas and methods. Perhaps it was Hollywood’s doing, but I’d always assumed “writer” came with a certain type of costume, in the same way “mechanic” or “nurse” might. But this wasn’t a sea of scrubs, just people that could have been plucked off of Chicago from every walk of life, with no seeming connection besides the ability to string words together in an appealing way.

Margaret Atwood, who was the keynote speaker for AWP this year, solidified this idea even more for me. She joked that she was asked to speak about the “craft” of writing, but had no idea what it is was because she herself never followed any craft. She instead talked about what it was like to be a woman writer in a time when that didn’t really exist, how she found her own way and writing. When she decided to speak about the craft of writing, she instead said:

“When slitting a throat, both in writing and real life, make sure the blade is sharp.”

The theater Margaret Atwood was speaking in.

***

It was the book fair that I liked the most. When I had a span of free time, I ventured downstairs the Palmer to the book fair that was so large it was three event rooms. I walked past tables and stopped at anything involving fiction. People asked me what I wrote, if I was interested in their books or publication contests, or if I wanted to get my MFA at their university. I bought a lot of chapbooks and subscribed to a flash fiction company called Hoot, where they mail you one piece of flash-fiction a month on a postcard.

Whenever there was a button, I stole it. I have thirty in a bowl in my dorm room now. I also grabbed cards from any kind of magazine or publisher, and have them organized in a red binder in my room.

But this is what is important. Universities were tabling as well, offering MFA majors in creative writing or specific areas of writing. They asked me what my current major was, and some were surprised that a university was offering creative writing at a Bachelor’s level. Farmington is somewhat unique in this offer, and that we have to provide a portfolio to get into the creative writing program.

We may be a small university in the middle of Maine, but we’re doing it right.

AWP has solidified this path I’m on for me. The writing part of being a writer is the easy part, it’s the being a functioning adult that’s difficult. Next year it will be in Boston, which is to say that I will not have to endure a day and a half of no sleep and perhaps more members of Writer’s Guild and UMF will be able to attend. Though I did miss four days of classes for this great opportunity, I learned a lot of valuable information that will help me immensely. But at the moment, I’m very thankful for professors who were fine with me missing a class or two, as long as I made up the work missed and provided a small (though this ended up being much longer than intended) blog post of my time at AWP. 😉

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