‘Coven Up’ and 7 other things a Newbie learned at AWP

When the largest literary festival dropped into town last week it seemed ridiculous to not go. I was a newbie to the AWP Conference and Book Fair though I had heard about the Association of Writers and Writing Programs since my days in undergrad.

I wasn’t quite prepared energetically to mingle with the reportedly 15,000 people that descended on the Oregon Convention Center for three days but I did my best, survived and even thrived in the heady atmosphere with all the superstar writers, every conceivable literary journal and publishers and writing programs.  Here are a few things I learned at the ‘Coachella for writers’:

  1. Colson Whitehead is a great chef! The author of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Underground Railroad was the keynote but to the casual observer, you may have thought he’d crossed his speaking engagements and was giving a keynote to the American Culinary Institute instead. Turmeric, scotch bonnet peppers and fish sauce for chicken wings aside, about 10 minutes in, the celebrated author pulled a move switching to talking about cross-genre writing. Ah, of course, I get it. Cooking + writing = cross genre art-making.  Talk about a little bit of cooking, sprinkle in some writing pedagogy (don’t write the book you know how to write, don’t avoid writing the book you are meant to write),  finish with a call for cross-genre writing and deliver up a tasty morsel of a worthy keynote.  Yum.

2. And speaking of food, the best tip I’d give anybody coming to this conference is: Eat. Eat. Eat. This is not the time to be on a diet. Eat and eat often, because eating will ground you and give you the fuel to run this hefty marathon of three days of workshops.  With over 550 events offered over the 3 days, you could easily go to at least 5 workshops each day between 9 – 6 pm plus readings and off-site events. The first day I managed to do three workshops and fled at 3 pm. exhausted. The second day I managed to do four workshops and stayed till 4.  By the third day I’d finally figured the thing out and powered through about 6 workshops right to the bitter end of 6 pm. on Saturday. Whew.

Amber Tamblyn, Rachel McKibbens and Carmen Maria Machado

3. “Don’t lean too deep in the sorrows.” So said Rachel McKibbens the feminist author and activist (Pink Elephant) on a panel titled “This is my Throat: Women Reclaiming Voice and Body in the Age of Silencing” moderated by Amber Tamblyn, author of Era of Ignition and Carmen Maria Machado (Her Bodies and Other Parties).   Don’t lean too deep into the sorrows was Rachel’s advice about keeping up resiliency and being strong in the face of all we’re witnessing and experiencing in our fraught world.  She also offered the sage advice that we should “Coven Up.” 

4. On a great panel on structuring the middle of your novel, Nayomi Munaweera, author of Island of a Thousand Mirrors talked about the way it feels to be bogged down in the middle of your books. She said you have to become the writer who can finish the book. She likened the book writing process to being in a relationship where in the beginning you are in love with the story, in the middle is where the deep relationship stuff problems start to surface. She said books are about secrets and so you start to reveal things that are secrets in the middle. The middle is where the complicated stuff happens. 

5. Another piece of sage advice was about preserving your internal focus for the creation of your book. It seems obvious but these days with such a feeding frenzy of attention-seeking devices and demands on our time, the writer needs space and time to hear the stories inside themselves.  Thank you Laura Simms.

6. Marlon James, Jamaican author of the Man Booker Prize winning A Brief History of Seven Killings was turned down something like 70 times by publishers before his first novel, which he threw in the garbage, was finally published by Akashic Books (John Crow’s Devil). I met one of the editors of Akashic Books in the Bookfair and he told me the story of how they had been at the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica some years ago and met Marlon. They wanted to see his manuscript so he found it and the rest is history. Literary Superstar.  I love the tag line Akashic Books has for their press:  “Reverse-gentrification of the literary world.”  Brava.

7. Kwame Dawes, Ghanian born poet who grew up in Jamaica, moderated a great panel: “How to Cuss on the Page & Get Away with it: The Katherine Dunn Formula,” with Debra Gwartney (Pacific University) and Tony Perez (Tin House)  based on a craft talk by the late Portland writer Katherine Dunn, author of Geek Love, who taught with Kwame and Debra in the Pacific University MFA. Her craft talk on cussing delivered a master class on how to think about character and Dunn was on guard against “mediocre cussing.”  Kwame suggested using ‘cool’ language in times of great tension and using a curse word to reveal character in ‘cool moments.’ Brilliant.  Tin House Press has published a book On Cussing with proceeds to develop a scholarship in Dunn’s name.  Kwame ended with a note on Jamaican cursing and cussing which is in a league all of its own. It reminded me of a brilliant Louise Bennett poem “Candy Seller” (…Koo ‘ow dat deh man face heng dung / lacka wen jackass feel bad…).

AWP San Antonio, March 2020?  You’re on.

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