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Dispatches from AWP (or, Three Days of Melodrama)

melodrama [1]Do you know what I love? Writing conferences. They inspire me. They invigorate me. They connect me with other writers who are as passionate about words and stories as I am.

Do you know what I dread? Writing conferences. They terrify and overwhelm me. They make me wonder why I spend thousands of hours with people (i.e. characters) who don’t technically exist. Writing conferences make me phone my husband, mid-conference, and cry, “As God as my witness, I’ll never be hungry write again!”

A few weeks ago, at AWP, I found myself in the throes of this conference-induced, Oscar-worthy melodrama. Come with me, and I’ll share some highlights . . .

Thursday @ 7:30 a.m. The first full day of the AWP Conference: I spend the morning making my kids’ lunches and half-listening to them practice their violin. Trying to look professional but not preppy, writerly but not weird, I try on roughly thirty-seven outfits before settling on a casual dress and a scarf that can hide or reveal (audience depending) my cross necklace. Uncomfortable-but-funky shoes. Black tights.

Now running late, I yell at my kids who are moving at the speed of sloth. I hug my mom when she arrives to stay with the kids. I gather my notes for the panel I’ll be sitting on. I remind my son to get his soccer stuff in his backpack and his basketball stuff in the car. I remind my daughter to talk to her music teacher about choir and her soccer coach about a new jersey. I remind them both to eat their fruit because I don’t pack that stuff in their lunches for my own amusement. I text my husband: I CANNOT DO THIS ANYMORE, THE JUGGLING OF WRITING WORK, PAID WORK, AND MOM WORK. I hug my mom again, and run to the bus stop. Already my tights are falling down. I am trying not to cry.

8:15 a.m.  On the bus however, I attempt to inhale peace and serenity. I’m better, I text my husband. Thx 4 supporting me. Upon arrival, I feel cheery-ish. Optimistic. But I’m at the conference for only ten minutes when I find myself locked in a stairwell. For what feels like hours, I pound on the door. I start sweating. I worry I’m going to miss my panel, my dinner date with writing friends, my children’s graduations and weddings. I choose to focus not on the fact that I have a cell phone and could simply phone one of my writing friends. Rather, I imagine how, fifty years from now, someone will discover my skeletal remains, my AWP badge still hanging around my bony neck.

But hark! The sound of a door opening. The jingle of keys.

“Hello?” I call. “Help! Hello? I’m locked in this stairwell!”

A man emerges, eyes me suspiciously. “How’d you get in here?”

I point to the door. “There should REALLY be a sign on that door if we’re not supposed to use it!”

He’s still eyeing me, almost as if I’m an AWP terrorist, so I move my scarf to reveal the cross necklace. I hope this will help (not hurt) my case. “I was hoping to get some cardio,” I say, trying to smile. “By taking the stairs.”

Still wary, he pulls out a key and frees me. My hand hurts from pounding the metal door. Sweat marks stain my dress. The crotch of my tights is around my knees.

8:30 a.m. Pulled mostly back together, I attend a fabulous session where I learn the importance of plot structure.

9:30 a.m. Pulled 100% back together, I attend a fabulous session where I learn the importance of ignoring plot structure. Yes! Instead, I’m to focus on Character, on Subtext, on the Hum and Beckon of the story. These panelists are all at least 100 IQ points smarter than I. I have never heard of them or their books.

10:30 a.m. I sit on my panel where I try to offer something to the lovely audience members who have chosen to spend 75 minutes with us. Really though, as the only unpublished panelist, I can only offer humor, humility, empathy, and, I hope, hope.

12:00 p.m. Buoyed by post-panel endorphins, I sit my introverted tush on a comfy, semi-hidden couch, eat my home-brought PB&J and satsuma oranges, and try to find the Plot AND the Hum and Beckon of my work-in-progress.

After an hour, I’ve found neither. 

Plotless and Humless, my hands sticky from satsuma juice and strawberry jelly, Ron (the mean-voiced, not-real dude who sits inside my head and whispers mean stuff), starts in: Why are you even here? Why are you trying to be a writer? You can’t even keep your tights up!

1:00 p.m. In the restroom, I wash stickiness from my hands and give myself a pep talk, after which I hike up my tights and head to the Book Expo where hundreds of smaller publishers have their beautiful books on display. Wandering the aisles, it occurs to me that some day I might have a book on a table. Enter Ron. Really? You think you can ever be an author? Look at how many books there are! You think someone’s going to notice your book?

Apparently Ron sneaked past security without a green lanyard and badge. 

I tell Ron to go suck it. I remind myself that I want to talk to several publishers who might be a good fit for my books. I hand Ron a poop-flavored lollipop and a copy of The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe so he’ll be silent for a few hours, and off I go.

Some editors are kind and savvy, people I would trust with my books. When they ask to have my agent send my work, hope pushes green sprigs through cold, wet ground. Editors want to see my work!

But other editors act like I’m chewed gum on the bottom of their shoes. They don’t care that I have an agent. They think I’m not edgy enough. See these funky shoes? I want to tell them. Tell me these aren’t edgy! But the hipster-editors have gone back to studying their iPhones. 

I, an edge-less shmuck, wander until I arrive back at my semi-hidden couch. Hiking up my sagging tights, I hear it, the gentle whisper of not-Ron: Go listen to writers reading their work. 

Oh. OK.

I do. I listen to Amy Tan and Erik Larson and Janna Cawrse Esarey. To Karen Finneyfrock and Peter Mountford and Bonnie Rough. These are writers who believe that Story is holy, a necessary part of being human. Hearing their words helps me remember why I have chosen this profession. Their voices help me trust I will find Plot and the Hum and Beckon of my work-in-progress. I will.

Isn’t that what’s most strange and exhausting about writing conferences? That we can experience an hour of fist-pumping gratitude and excitement, followed by three hours of terror and whelm?

Or maybe I’m the only one.

But based on the faces of many conference-going comrades, faces that look like they’ve been buckled into a three-day roller coaster, I don’t believe I am the only one. And for that I am grateful. It is terrible to be alone in a locked stairwell, but it would be far worse to be the only drama queen at a writing conference, the only one with saggy tights, with changeable emotions, with a penchant for melodrama.

Now you! How do you successfully ride the waves of writing conferences? Do you struggle to juggle presence at a conference with presence on your home front? What’s the best thing that’s come out of attending a writing conference? Please share!

Photo courtesy of Flickr’s Kirby York [2].


About Sarah Callender [3]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.