Wednesday, February 15, 2017

What I Heard and Learned at the AWP Writers Conference

Last weekend, I spent a day and a half at the AWP conference, and because I hadn't planned things out in advance, I missed a lot I'm sure that, had I spent more time studying the program, would have been useful. I went with my gut, with my knee's pain level, and my energy and willingness to scout out a tucked away presentation room three-quarters of a mile of connecting walkways and escalators away.

As many conference attendees do, I sometimes caught the first half of a panel presentation, then ducked out to listen to the second half of another. It may be that someone, in one of the sessions I mention below, said something extraordinarily exciting and I missed it. Nevertheless, here's a potpourri of the takeaways I either jotted into my notebook, or that made their way into my brain. 

At a panel playfully called, "Nope, That Still Ain't a Story: Developmental Editing in Creative Nonfiction," two authors and their editor discussed their joint experiences. Bill Patrick, of Hudson Whitman Excelsior College Press, explained that while Amy Ryan "didn’t have a book" when she brought him her manuscript of living with diabetes, writer Anthony D'Aries "had four books" lurking in his manuscript about learning to understand his father. Ryan talked about getting instructions from Patrick about chapters she needed to write, often more personal and revealing than she'd planned; D'Aries discussed the process of locating the essence of his story, and paring away. 

Patrick also mentioned the value of "bridge chapters". These explore the less personal aspects of the main memoir topic/story, but are related and connected to the larger picture. They give the reader a bit of a break from heavy unfolding narrative, and act as a way of moving the camera from close-up to a wider angle; they can also provide context of how the narrator's story fits into the broader world.

> If you're thinking of running a one- or multi-day workshop, retreat, mini-conference, there was the panel, "Starting Small: Grassroots Workshops and Conferences". Dave Housley from Barrelhouse suggested finding a like-minded organization to partner with—like a college, arts center, etc.—that can provide free or low-cost space. Tyler McMahon, who runs the Ko`oalu Writers Workshop  in Hawaii, warned, "Don't run at a deficit; you want to break even or make money from the start." Another good tip: serve a free lunch at a session for which you want a large audience! For those seeking gigs as presenters or workshop leaders at small conferences, panelists advised developing a unique program that other writers can't offer, and/or something you've developed specifically for their audience.

> At "Opening the Doors to Discovery: The Generative Writing Workshop," panelists offered interesting ways to utilize prompts, writing exercises, and reading for inspiration when conducting one-time workshops with time for writers to produce new material. Baron Wormser (one of my MFA workshop leaders a decade ago), said he thinks of a prompt as "a quick way into the unconscious, to get at the unknown, the unbidden." It forces a writer to access some new area of thought because something must be produced in the time allotted. Another panelist advised that at one-time gatherings (as opposed to on-going workshop series), reading and sharing be met only with positive responses, absent critical feedback. Kim Dana Kupperman recommended locating prompts within a piece of published work the group reads together.

> "Essaying the Edge: Teaching Alternative Forms of Nonfiction," focused on the so-called hermit crab essay, hybrids, collage, and other experimental nonfiction. Panelists talked of sneaking in these forms without at first identifying them, so that students might simply read and like them, and decide on their own what to call them.

> At the panel, "Just Don't Read the Comments: On the Joys and Risks of Publishing Personal Essays Online," I heard just the last ten minutes, including advice from Laura Bogart to ask for headline approval and hashtag/tagging approval, pre-publication. Her awareness of this was spurred by an incident when one of her essays was headlined and tagged in a way that included Trump's four-word slogan; she asked that it be changed, and the editor/venue complied, but not before it had resulted in unpleasant emails and online thrashing.

> At an abundantly informative panel, "Beyond the Classroom: Teaching Outside Academia," I was scribbling so fast, and all four panelists were making so many useful suggestions every minute, I didn't record who said what. The following bits of advice came from Stuart Horwitz, Julie DuffyJane FriedmanAndi Cumbo-Floyd, and Gabriella Pereira.

Know what you WANT to teach (not just what you've been teaching all along). You'll earn more by teaching/leading an add-on workshop at a conference than if you are one of the general presenters. Develop packages and products to offer repeat clients/students. Offer a free something to attract mailing list sign-ups. Hand out (or offer to email) something useful following an in-person teaching event. Pitch your online or in-person class with a very specific outcome highlighted ("After four weeks, you'll have two essays ready to submit.."). Students and coaching clients want to be held accountable, so build in a deadline/reporting/accountability component. Offer tiered pricing if possible [$X for the full feedback option; $(X-Y) for a scaled down version.] Include student/client accomplishments in your promotional materials. 

> Finally, it seemed fitting that, in Washington, D.C., during the final session of the final day, I ended by listening to one particular panelist whose sincere, practical and pragmatic, encouraging talk on "How to Publish Your Book Without an Agent," made me want to stand up and shout, Nevertheless, She Persisted! That panelist was Janice Eidus, someone I recognized from Facebook and from her essays, but had never met. But by happy coincidence I'd share dinner with her later that evening (via invitation of a mutual writing friend). Eidus and her fellow panelists' stories of perseverance and eventual publication—and the sprawling Book Fair where I found at least a dozen independent traditional publishers of literary works that I was not previously aware of (and trust me, I'd already compiled a long list!)—capped off my personal AWP experience on a hopeful note.

Want more post-AWP coverage? I'll have a bunch of links to others' blog posts in the Friday link round up later this week. 


Martha said...

I couldn't be at the AWP Conference, but Lisa Romeo's account made up for it .

Lisa Romeo said...

Thank you, Martha! Glad it was useful.

Unknown said...

So many sessions, so little time! I was there for 2 full days and caught the talk with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ta-Nehisi Coates. I particularly enjoyed the sessions on screenwriting, writing female desire, triggered writing and applying for writers residencies. I think I was too exhausted to attend the session on getting your book published without an agent - though I wanted to attend!