I am not attending next week’s Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference, and I feel fine.
I went last year, writing both a pre-crimination and reconsideration about the experience. I’m not going this year, not out of any kind of protest, but because I’m not on any panels (didn’t apply), and as NTT faculty, I do not receive institutional support for conferences. Even sharing a room, lodging, travel, meals and conference registration would conservatively run $1000.
AWP is shockingly controversial/polarizing. The lower the stakes, the bigger the grievances, I guess.
Some people see it as a great way to make new friends, reconnect with old ones, learn fresh approaches to writing and teaching, be introduced to new books and authors, and listen to old masters.
As last year’s ruminations hopefully make clear, I stand in between these two groups, though much closer to the first than the second.
Many of the people who are enthusiastic about AWP are among the kindest people, most dedicated teachers, solidest literary citizens, and talented artists I’ve ever known. They are my friends and mentors and my life would be impoverished without them. Any opportunity to spend time with them, or meet new people who share their spirit should probably be seized.
But…even with another year of hindsight, I renew my qualms about the AWP conference as a “non-ideal” distribution of the finite resources of time, human capital, and money.
While all of the virtues the conference’s champions outline are undeniable, I believe them to be obscured by the less savory aspects of the process. 10,000 attendees with 450+ panels (20+ per time slot), is simply too large to create community. The energies of the conference are almost wholly directed at each other, “a collective, boozy self-hug” as I put it last year, rather than taking those 10,000 people and the several million dollars involved and channel them towards spreading the message of literary art to the populace at large.
Additionally, while there are many many people of great sincerity and goodwill, my experience (emphasis on the my) is that the primary lingua franca of the conference is a combination of posturing and sucking up.
This is true even in the panels, which are frequently great, but which also often involve (often from an audience questioner) sentence formulations of “When I was studying with (insert august literary personage) at (insert prestigious program or writers conference) we talked about…” where the only reason the august personage and prestigious conference/program are mentioned is so the rest of us understand that this is someone who deserves to be listened to.
As someone who is editorially involved with an entity that carries some cache in this culture, I have been subject to some truly epic sucking up that was mostly pleasurable, right up until the moment they made it clear they’d be expecting some kind of quid pro quo of “extra” consideration the next time they submit. Perhaps there is a code for the “insiders” yes?
I’m certain that I am also guilty of these things. It’s tough to be surrounded by so much status anxiety and not succumb to it. The problem is that whatever dislike I might feel when others engage in this particular kabuki turns into self-loathing when I realize I’m doing it myself.
While there are always good times to be had at AWP, the end result is me feeling crappy about the things I care about: teaching, writing, and teaching writing. The conference feels to me like it turns passions into an industry, and unfortunately, the conference itself does very little to mitigate against these effects.
I also am, apparently, temperamentally unsuited to brush these things off, which suggests the problem is not so much the conference, but me. I notice that it seems easier for attendees in more secure positions (tenure, reams of books published) to acknowledge, but then be able to blow off the unfortunate byproducts of the conference. I think it’s much easier for them to focus on the parts of the event from which they gain additional sustenance (an energy bar, if you will), as opposed to those who arrive hoping to figure out a way to scrounge their next meal. That much desperation, especially if you feel it rising in yourself, will wear a person down.
I have friends, who I won’t name, that insist the key to a “good AWP” is to never go inside the conference hall itself, and they’re probably not wrong.
Not going to the conference is probably a not very smart career move. I (like hundreds of other writers) have ambitions to do things like teach in a low-residency MFA program, something that is much easier to achieve when you get to meet people who already work in these programs face-to-face. Even writing about my objections has the potential to be a dumb move.
But as I’ve come to learn, a career must first consist of doing the work. If I want to sustain the energy to keep teaching, and writing, and teaching writing, I first have to pay attention to those things that nurture that drive, and be careful about exposing myself to the things that don’t.
I wish all attendees the best of times next week. I will miss you, but not completely.
Know what I mean?
Bracing for the blows this time: