Monday, April 30, 2018

Surveying the Field: An Undergraduate at AWP

The annual AWP Conference can be an overwhelming experience for even the most seasoned attendees. For a first-time attendee, it can also be inspiring.  ♦ 
Back in March I attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Tampa, Florida, for the first time. Not only was this a welcome, sunny escape from the freezing college town I left behind, but it was the perfect peek inside the workings of the larger literary world as authors, editors, and publishers from across the country gathered to celebrate a mutual love of reading and writing. Geared primarily toward MFA-level students, professors teaching in university creative writing programs, and professionals working in literary publishing, AWP offers a wide variety of seminars and readings that cover topics from character-building to working in genres to the state (and future) of literary publishing. For graduate students and industry professionals, the value of these opportunities is clear, but I’d venture to guess that my experience as an undergraduate at the conference was even more valuable. I wasn’t sure what to expect from AWP as an undergrad taking in the somewhat overwhelming event, but I found that it helped direct my career focus and exposed me to different facets of the industry that have since changed my perspective on both publishing and literature.
   I’ve always known that I wanted to work with literature in some capacity but could never quite decide on the specifics, until I attended AWP. Through the many interactions that I had with writers, editors, and publishers, I was able to learn about different functions and responsibilities within each position, some of these practical and some more philosophical or aesthetic. People welcomed questions from an industry hopeful, and my undergraduate status seemed to coax a mentor-mentee relationship from those with whom I came into contact. I learned as much from the panelists as I did from the attendees, and I’d highly encourage all undergraduates to seek out similar opportunities for professional growth and fulfillment of curiosity. But for those who couldn’t attend this year’s AWP—or, for those undergraduates unsure if the conference would be useful for them—here’s a little of my own experience as an undergrad taking on AWP 2018, and just a little of what I took out of it.

The Mind of a Writer

On Thursday, March 8th, I bolted out of the Embassy Suites bed at 7:30am, overcome with an unadulterated excitement that even Tampa’s humidity couldn’t stifle—the conference had officially begun. After getting ready and making sure my conference-mandated lanyard was properly secured around my neck, I strolled out of the hotel and into the first seminar of the morning: Defeating Writer’s Block.
   The panel of published authors—which included novelists Jean Kwok, Mira Jacob, and Sari Wilson; memoirist Elizabeth L. Silver; and short story writer Juan Martinez—took my breath away with their successes but even more with their relatability, as they openly discussed their struggles in writing and how they often felt like they couldn’t produce anything of substance. (Even famous authors experience writer’s block!) In this panel, I took on the mindset of a writer and tested the limits of my own creativity by cycling through my own mental narratives that might get in the way of my work. I jotted down all the tips of the professionals discussing their own struggles in an effort to stimulate later creative output. The most impactful of these tips, and the one that I’ve thumbtacked to the bulletin board above my desk, can be summarized as follows: write something, anything. It can be about your day, your lunch, your left shoe, but as long as it’s something, the wheels will begin to turn. This tip came from Juan Martinez, author of the 2017 collection Best Worst American, but it was echoed by the rest of the illustrious panel. As I tested out the identity of a writer—really, as I gave myself permission to call myself a writer, and to believe it—I took this advice close to heart.

The Mind of an Advocate

The second panel I attended shook off the authorial mentality and instead substituted a critical, watchdog identity in its place. The subject of this panel was accountability in the literary world, and it was the most profound and impactful experience that I had at the entire conference. Sponsored by VIDA (an organization that monitors the number of male and female bylines in notable publications), this seminar explored issues of sexual assault in the literary community, the ethics behind publishing, and the moral implications of perusing works by authors with worrisome or controversial pasts. In this role, I became a keen surveyor of the literary marketplace, watching for oppressive and domineering behavior by authors and publishers alike.
   The experiences and illuminations provoked by this seminar could take up an entire article on their own, but the overall theme was one of authenticity and responsibility for one’s identity and, simultaneously, for one’s non-identity. The intersections that an individual stands at (i.e. race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.) allow him or her to tell certain kinds of stories in certain kinds of ways. Understanding the implications behind this power or disempowerment is crucial to cultivating an industry that aligns with ethics in both writing and publishing.
   Thinking about these complex issues in the mindset not just of a potential writer, editor, or publisher but from the perspective of an advocate—and as a member of a generation who’ll help decide what the future of publishing will look like—was an empowering experience, and one of the most formative I had at the conference.

The Mind of a Publisher

A third influential panel that I attended allowed me to step into the mentality of an independent publisher. Focused on hybrid forms and the presses that specialize in them, this panel hosted Rose Metal Press and opened a dialogue regarding the possibilities that independent presses allow for unconventional work. Kathleen Rooney, the press’s co-founder, spoke about her process for acquiring new works and the ways in which she uses her press to cultivate a dialogue of hybridity. It was at this seminar that I felt most at home and finally identified the career goal I hope to occupy one day: acquisitions editing.
   Enabling authors to be heard and stories to be told seems an enchanting dream, and Rooney’s passion for her work—publishing beautifully designed and rendered experimental narratives, the kind of books that might not always find a home in commercial publishing—pulsed with every word she uttered. Stepping into her mindset allowed me to understand the nuances of the independent press and its mission, with an intimate perspective than cannot be replicated without face-to-face interaction. That AWP allowed me this access and understanding as an undergraduate student, and still young enough to tailor my academic plan around an eventual career in literary publishing, was an amazing opportunity.

Future Attendees

An undergraduate at AWP has the chance to step into the mindsets of all kinds of industry positions. From artist to advocate to publisher, I was able to try on hats of all sizes and learn an immense amount about literary publishing while considering my own future within it. I cannot recommend enough the incredible, transformative power of this conference and highly encourage anyone interested in literature to attend.
   Before attending AWP, I was an English student hoping to continue my relationship to literature. After AWP, I am an informed and determined editor-in-training with aspirations to work in literary publishing. And as for the conference itself, I’ll absolutely be back—as a student again, I’m sure, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself sitting in on one of my own panels some day in the not-too-distant future.
  • About the Author
    Cassidy Sattler is a sophomore English Literature and Professional Writing double-major at Miami University. Her work has appeared in Happy Captive Magazine, The Femellectual, and Miami Quarterly Magazine – for which she serves as section editor and copyeditor – and has earned the Gordon and Mary Wilson Scholarship and Robert F. Almy Award in Critical Writing. When not writing or reading, she loves to watch documentaries and eat too much Chinese takeout, often at the same time.

    Share this article :


    Post a Comment