Monday, February 13, 2017

Hope as a commodity: an AWP conference trip report

Having taken more than enough digressions into diverse matters, I'd like to get back to the raison d'etre of this blog, which has something to do, I guess, with establishing a universal esprit d'corps with authors struggling to get published and all the manifold psycho-dramas that come with that struggle.

I've read in a few places that writers' conferences are de rigeur if you're serious about being a writer. Attendance proves you're a professional and you take your writing seriously. Over the last few months as I've been trying to navigate the murky process of getting a novel published, I've read recommendations that you can hook an agent by writing a query letter that starts something like "We spoke at LitCon2016, and I was really intrigued by the creepy way you groped my shoulder as we talked. I'd really like you to represent me with my first novel."

My first conference

I attended the 2017 Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in D.C. this past weekend. What is the AWP ? I actually didn't know the answer to this a month ago. It isn't a union; it's just a professional association. It promises networking for writers and professional guidance for writing instructors. I went for three reasons: 1) Somebody I know had a booth there, 2) Somebody else I know had another booth there, and 3) It was close. The AWP conference is in a new place every year. This year it was in D.C.

What I saw

There were hundreds and hundreds of booths on Saturday, the only day I attended. A rough guesstimate would be that half of them were occupied by MFA programs. Given that this blog is half-dedicated to the proposition that graduate writing programs are a huge waste of money, it wouldn't be hard to guess I walked around the AWP with a bit of skepticism. Many of the other booths were literary journals, including some local ones that only showed up because a backyard conference fit the budget.

The venue seemed to me a little glitzy, but maybe that's because I'm such a Philistine. It was in both the Washington Convention Center and the Marriott Marquis, which are connected underground. Walking through the lobby of the hotel, it took two seconds for me to realize I could never afford to spend a night in it.

Looking around at many of the people there, I couldn't help but think many were in a similar circumstance. There were an awful lot of upper-teen/younger-twenties-looking folks there, full of hope, ostentatiously reading paper books here and there on the margins of the event.

Perhaps many had been sent by their respective MFA programs, and therefore had their rooms and board paid for. In return, perhaps, they manned the booth, showing prospective MFA students the young face that proves what a great idea joining such a program is. To the school, it's well worth paying for an influencer student to stay downtown for a few days if that student can help land one well-heeled student to drop 40K on an MFA. And what better place to find a well-heeled student than a place that almost takes someone well-heeled to even get in?

Because even if you live close to the event like I do, it's not cheap to go. I got the $45 Saturday-only pass, the cheapest way into the show possible. If you wanted to go for the whole four-day affair, it was $200 if you were an AWP member, $300 if you weren't. (A one-year membership is $75, so it obviously pays to get get the membership. In return, you get "opportunities for publishing and networking, services for finding jobs, and a lively exchange of ideas about writing and teaching.") I guess for those who weren't there on the school's dime, if you could afford to take three days off work, maybe you could also afford the entrance fee easily enough.

But maybe not. I'd guess that tucked in among the masses were dreamers spending their precious few discretionary dollars on the hope that the conference might help them in some way to make headway with becoming a professional writer. Whether it was drawing inspiration and tips from some luminary (Rita Dove! Ta-Nehisi Coates!) or networking with publishing houses, there were doubtless hundreds or thousands there hoping the week(end) would provide some kind of breakthrough by osmosis.

A lot of the presentations were directed at writing instructors, true to the "Writing Programs" part of the AWP's name. These tended to have an academic flair to the titles, such as "Magical Realism as an Agent for Social Change," which hoped to show writing instructors "how to guide student use of the genre to confront inequalities of their time and locale."

Many of the lectures sounded an awful lot like something I'd have gone to nearly 20 years ago when I was still in academia. There must have been at least a dozen sessions that dealt with "queering" something or other.

The politics were clearly anti-Trump. Although one seminar featured writers from Appalachia who hoped to tell appropriately complex stories about the "angry, marginalized, and stereotyped" working class people from back home, for the most part, resistance to Trump was assumed.

This was the nine seconds worth of the half hour of chanting that went on in the conference center. I couldn't understand what most of it was saying, but it was anti-Trump. Okay, this is really terrible video. What happened to the sound? But trust me, there were demonstrators.

Basically, the whole event had a college campus vibe. It was also set up to be reassuring: participants were supposed to feel that they, too, could one day be up on that stage. And while it wasn't as crassly commercial as, say, a boat convention, there were plenty of products and services on hand promising to help make that dream come true. Beyond the M.F.A. programs and the presentations on how to get more oomph out of your manuscript, there were books, books everywhere! There was the unspoken belief that if one bought a book from the right person and struck up a conversation, it could open one door just a crack, and that door would lead to another and another and another.

Should you go to a writers' conference? 

Here's why you shouldn't: 

I find it hard to believe that agents really care whether you went to a conference. They want writers who will sell. If your work is marketable, you'll find a place for it. It might just take a while. I don't think you really need to spend the inordinate amounts of money these conferences charge. As a reader on a journal, I would not be the least bit inclined to accept work from someone I'd met more readily than someone else who wrote a better story. I don't even read bios most of the time before the story. Agents reading your query letters or first pages are likely in the same boat.

Writing conferences are there to make money. The venue wants to make money. Many of the presenters are there to make money, if not at the conference itself, then down the road when they get you to trust them to help you make your dreams come true. The main commodity at the conference is the hope of the attendees. Hope is the engine that turns the mills of this factory. Without hope, who would drop $200 just to come in and drop more money with the aim of getting a couple minutes' face time?

Sadly, the economics of the thing state that most of the people in attendance are hoping in vain. Nobody is going to tell you that there, of course. Writing will be treated like a self-evidently beautiful and wonderful thing to do. Of course, you must not give up hope. (If you do, no matter. A new group of the not-yet-disillusioned will arrive next time around to take your place.)

And here's why you should:

That being said, there are a few good reasons to go that I can think of:

1) To meet the editors of a local journal. This year, local journals like The Potomac Review, Baltimore Review, and Little Patuxent Review were there. They don't normally attend the AWP Conference. They only attended this year because the proximity meant the economics made sense. I went to say thank you to the editors for having published me or said nice things about submissions I've made. I believe in showing support to the journals that have supported me. These journals aren't in business to make money. Nothing about their business model is profit-oriented. Most are barely limping along. They were at the conference to get what notice they could so more writers will submit to them and hopefully give them better stuff to print. That's it.

2) If you really want to see a headliner. People pay what I consider stupid amounts of money to go to concerts. If you want to do the same thing to see a luminary of literature, and you're just doing it because you admire the work and want to be part of the energy of being in a crowd of people who feel the same, have at it. Just know that being there is no more likely to make you a writer of equal clout than going to a Metallica concert is likely to make you a rock star. Treat the money you spend at a writing conference like a bad gambler treats money at a poker tournament: you're just paying for the thrill of being there.

3) You just really need to hope. There's nothing wrong with this. Certainly, a big part of my resurgent interest in writing since I turned 40 has had to do with the nagging feeling that just working and providing for my family were, although the most important thing I have to do, also incredibly ephemeral. I needed to hope while grinding away at my profession's version of gears that the thoughts, words, and visions in my head had value outside of my own imagination.

I've made almost no money off of writing since then, but the boost to my spirits from having three-soon-to-be-four stories published can't really be measured in terms of money. On a Monday morning like today was, I'm much more able to face heading off into the wind to my I-can-stand-it-because-it-isn't-my-whole-life job because I know I have a little something else going on the side.

But it is on the side, where it will be for 90-some percent of the aspirants who show up at any conference. Don't lose track of that when calculating the cost-benefit of going.


  1. "I've made almost no money off of writing " Really? So you've made some money from your writing? Do tell.