Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Outside Your Literary Comfort Zone

It's been a few weeks since the AWP Conference in New York and I'm still getting asked what I thought of it. First, AWP was overwhelming – sometimes as many as 17 simultaneous sessions to choose from every 90 minutes. AWP was exhausting, without an official lunch break, and sessions, readings, panels, seminars, and other events scheduled from 9 a.m. till 6:15, then evening happenings too. And the AWP Book Fair? Don't even get me started: two huge ballrooms crammed with tables representing literary journals, writer centers, MFA programs, contests, and publishers of all stripes – small literary and specialty presses, university publishing programs and the big Manhattan publishing houses, too.

So even if I had not been eligible for the low grad student rate, and even if I was not able to hop a train and be in Manhattan in less than an hour, I still think this conference was time well spent. And time I did spend – one full day, one three-quarter day, and one half-day.

What a lot of my writer buddies wanted to know was that, did it serve me as a nonfiction writer? Yes. Overhelmingly yes. Most of the time, I felt like a writer among fellow writers and the atmosphere -- even in rooms where the combined publishing experience of the panelists was staggering -- felt collegial, open and supportive.

And here is, I think, the surprising reason: AWP was not only about nonfiction.

First, some background: My name is Lisa and I am a former nonfiction snob.

If it wasn't about nonfiction, I didn’t want to hear or read about it. That is, until I entered an MFA program 19 months ago. Once there, bumping up against poets, nonfiction writers, popular fiction students, I realized, in the space of about three hours, that one of the most important ideas I'd come away with was this: Writers are writers. I can, and should, learn from all of them, from all genres, from all aspects of craft and forms, from all types of writers and writing. So that's the attitude I took to AWP.

Nonfiction writers have so much to learn from our colleagues who are novelists, short story writers, investigative journalists, classical poets, dramatists, experimental poets, playwrights, critics, children's book authors...the list is as endless as the myriad ways the written word is artistically found alive in our world.

So, at AWP, I purposely attended some sessions that addressed areas of writing I might not otherwise have considered relevant. Important as the subject is, why sit through another debate by memoirists about the relevance of accuracy vs. emotional truth, no matter how brilliant the writers represented, if I've already heard that debate played out at four other venues over the last year – at Nonfiction Now, for example, and at my MFA residency, and at the Art of the Memoir symposium, and other events?

Instead, I took a seat at the nonfiction panels that touched either on issues that were new to me, or those that I had been curious about but had not yet taken the time to delve into. But what intrigued me more was attending sessions that on first glance might not seem my cup of literary tea.

It was sitting at those seats that I felt both completely out of my league and at the same time, more excited as a writer than usual. Ideas crashed around in my head, my hand flew across my notebook; some of it I knew I'd dismiss later as passing fancy (try a screenplay?), but more of those remembered discussions and my scribbled notes will, I suspect, feed me for months: Turn that stubborn essay with family secrets I can never reveal, into a short story? Read the work of 19th century women essayists who were then considered in the vanguard? Think about how writers' blogs can build community? What about truth in poetry?

So, if you are wondering if the trip to Chicago for AWP 2009 might be worth it for you, I say if you can budget for it, GO. While there, make it a point to attend sessions that seem a little outside your comfort zone.

And then there's this: closer to home look for other opportunities for literary cross-pollination. Write fiction? Sign on for a half-day nonfiction workshop. A poet? Check out the science fiction or essay writing panels at the next regional writers conference you attend. Local, less costly conferences are an ideal way to try on some new literary skin.

You never know, it might not be such an odd fit after all.


Lyz said...

Oh. I can drive to Chicago and I might be gainfully engaged in an MFA program then too. Count me in. It sounds wonderful.

KATE EVANS said...

I'd go to AWP next year if it were held in Honolulu or Palm Springs. It needs to be in April or May if they're going to hold it in places like Chicago. And it's not just about being cold (okay, maybe a litte)--but it's about traveling in bad weather.

I like your point about all writers learning from one another, no matter the genre.