Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Conference Wrap-Up or, What I Learned and Did (and didn't do) at #AWP18

Everything I do lately seems to have multiple purposes. I read for pleasure, to observe what other authors do on the page, to learn, to find fine examples to share with my students. When I cruise social media, I'm cheering on other authors with books about to publish, looking for great short essays to read and share, keeping up to date about the writing world (and the world!), having a bit of social fun, working here and there on some presence for my upcoming book. And when I'm at a writers conference? The motherlode of multi-tasking! All of the above!

For the mammoth annual AWP Conference two weeks ago in Tampa, I headed down with at least four (not exactly competing) items on my to-accomplish list: Talk to folks about my forthcoming book, Starting with Goodbye, and hand out/sign advance reading copies. Meet in person the literary folks I only know online, but really like. Read from, and meet follow contributors to the anthology, Flash Nonfiction Funny. Attend break-out sessions and other formal activities that piqued my interest, to continue learning.

I did all that, and more. 

Having ARC's of Starting with Goodbye was thrilling. To be in the AWP bookfair with those in my hand...well, I can hardly describe the feeling as far-flung writing world friends stopped by to have a look, take a book, and sincerely wish me well. I wanted to hug them all. Come to think of it, I did hug them all!

AWP's bookfair is a sprawling, two-football-field sized maze and can often feel like a bit of a cold place, filled with pressure to accomplish something, to meet someone, to have the right conversations. Last year though I seemed to crack through my own personal shoulds, relax and look at it differently: as a place to find, meet, and talk with writer friends I interact with online, editors who have published my work, former students, and my own fellow MFA alums, and also a place to explore, meet new folks, and not worry one whit about what may come out of those interactions.

While I did attend a few stellar break-out sessions this year, I spent fewer hours than usual in those, opting instead to continue meaningful conversations rather than dashing off to make it to a chilly meeting room exactly on time. Those in-person meet-ups now feel like a more urgent part of any conference experience than before.

One session I especially found interesting was focused on creative nonfiction chapbooks, which I reported on here for Assay Journal; there you'll also find reports on many more AWP 2018 panels. I picked sessions to attend mostly based on what I'm curious about now, including: an excellent panel on narrative medicine (coinciding nicely with an upcoming community teaching gig I have to help those recovering from injuries to write their health stories); one on how authors can collectively help one another on myriad levels; another on effective online teaching methods; and one more on mastering digital book promotion.

Because I had family in the area to visit, and my knees can only take so many hours of hard floors, I missed what I'm told was a masterful keynote by George Saunders, and some other evening events. Time was, I would have been upset about that. Now, I'm taking the long view. There will be other big conferences (AWP in Portland, OR next year?), and other gatherings nearer and smaller.

At my first job, a mentor once advised that if you can leave any professional conference having made at least three satisfying new connections, learned a couple of key strategies you can put into practice, and not come home sick or injured, that will have been a successful outing.

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