For four days, I dove into the AWP national conference in Chicago. AWP stands for Association of Writers and Writing Programs. I've been to writing conferences before, but never one of this scale. Thousands of us beseiged the Hilton on Michigan Avenue. At every turn were badges hanging from royal blue lanyards, and a high percentage of whimsical eyeglasses (which I coveted, I must add.)
It was not unusual to see hundreds of people attend a panel discussion, and that didn't even count the "marquee" events with readings by Marilynne Robinson and Charles Baxter, for example, and the keynote speech by Art Spiegelman. I'm a little embarassed to admit I missed all these big names, and mostly that was a function of exhaustion.
I've attended conferences, but this was the first time I'd participated, and that's a whole new level of stress and emotional energy expended. I'm sorry, Big Names, I didn't see you, and I apologize to the fans of Big Names for missing out, and I'm sure I did miss out.
Over the next few days I'll share my impressions of the panels I did manage to attend, of my own first public reading (with other Literary Mama editors) and the first time I was the one behind the lectern. I'll tell of the new writer friends I made (that singular joy of conference attendance) and of my solitary Sunday in Chicago.
Here's just a taste of my experience on that first exhausting Thursday after getting up before dawn to catch a train and then flag down a cab (and getting chastised by my cab driver for allowing myself to be hustled out of a dollar in the process) to get to the hotel.
I attended a panel featuring C.J. Hribal, A. Manette Ansay, David Haynes, Lan Samantha Chang and Susan Neville on being a Midwestern writer. They were all delightful, though Susan Neville was by far my favorite, as she felt like a kindred spirit. I couldn't scribble fast enough to get all of her quotes down, but here are some of the best.
"Being a Midwesterner defines me and sometimes that makes me feel invisible and that is to my lack."
On writing about the Midwest: "It takes a kind of ferocity, or stupidity, depending on your point of view."
On the perception of the Midwest as a bleak series of cornfields: "There are Midwests everywhere."
And during my favorite bit of her talk, she pointed out that when a Midwestern writer doesn't fit the mold, that person is not identified as such. She rattled off a huge list of examples, but the two most notable names I scribbled down: Toni Morrison and the late David Foster Wallace.
I'm too recently a writer to be pigeonholed as a Midwestern writer. I'm still a bit stunned to find myself an author at all. But it's good to know that Susan and her fellow panelists are out there to say, "Hey look, we don't just write about cornfields, people."
Tomorrow: writing about the forbidden (in two different panels) and my first public reading.