When I learned that the AWP conference, “the largest literary conference in North America”, would be held this year in Seattle, only sixty-two miles from my home, I decided on the spot that I would attend. Immediately, I began fantasizing about how great my AWP experience would be. I would leave both of my sons at home with my partner and sleep uninterrupted in clean sheets for two nights (my first nights away from my one-year-old son); I would be rejuvenated and inspired by the conference offerings; I would reconnect with old writer friends and make new ones; in the remaining hours, I would write diligently and productively. This vision reveals how very little I understand the realities of a) my own life and b) what it means to gather over twelve thousand writers in a single place.
My fantasy began to collapse when, two weeks before the conference itself, my partner learned that she would need to travel for work at the end of February. But I had already registered and was determined to make good on my dream. My mother had been wanting to visit her grandsons, and so we agreed that she’d fly out in time for the conference and we’d all stay in the hotel. Since managing two young children in the city is a daunting task, we encouraged my sister to come along as well. The day before the conference started my mother came down with a massive cold; one member of my tag-team was down. Instead of writing into the wee hours and sleeping blissfully alone in white sheets, I shared a bed with my kids and listened to two grown women alternately snore, cough, and mumble in their sleep.
Over the next few days, as I rode the escalator countless times up and down the six floors of the Washington State Convention Center, the title of David Foster Wallace’s classic essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” played itself over and over in my mind. The throngs of writers startled me: people with sweaters and asymmetrical haircuts, people with black-rimmed glasses and jeans, people with shaved heads and silver rings. I never realized how much I dressed like a writer until I found myself in the company of thousands of them. I never realized how utterly normal I am until I was placed in a crowd of my own kind.
The conference itself, from what I can tell, was beautifully organized. I attended six panels, and each one featured multiple authors who had, it seemed, painstakingly prepared their remarks to offer unexpected insights. I enjoyed each individual session, and yet by Friday, I realized that whatever I was gleaning from these panels could not compete with the angst I was feeling.
Typically, when I’ve been a part of a small writing class or workshop, I’ve left each meeting with new ideas, inspired by the talent of other writers and wanting to be my best. I’ve felt like some essential organ—a kidney or a lung—to an important body. But strangely, AWP was having the opposite effect on me. If anything, AWP made me want to quit writing. It was a fleeting feeling but a distinct one.
At the first session I attended, Sherman Alexie referred to meeting his editor for the first time at a cocktail party at some Chateau, and then he mused on the word “chateau”, remarking to the audience: “See, these are the kinds of things you get to say once you’ve been published.” The crowd erupted in laughter, as they did on cue for every one of his jokes, and I sat there feeling less like an essential organ and more like a tick on a dog.
And that is why an hour after coming back from AWP, I can tell you I don’t plan to go again. I won’t say never. But if I do, I’ll pack the scaled-down versions of my hopes and expectations. And, god help me, I will spread out on a hotel bed and sleep through the night alone.