A Writer’s Buffet
Sometimes you have to step out on faith and out of your comfort zone. That’s what happened this past weekend as I packed my suitcase, filled my gas tank and headed to Boston for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference and Book Fair.
Although excited to attend, trepidation set in days before departure. How should I strategize? What was my purpose? In September, I attended a conference strictly for fiction writers—I planned two novel pitches for editors and agents, signed up for workshops, and paid for scheduled meals. However, 12,700 people versus 700 made a vast difference, as well as more than 100 panels to choose from and 700 exhibits to visit. At AWP, once you registered, you go where you want when you want—a writer’s buffet. (And buffets are my least favorite eatery, too many choices that aren’t always appetizing.)
The week before my adventure, my professor said, “I’m excited you’re going to the conference. That type of setting is too large for me. I heard there’s lots of information that you will come home with.”
Later, a classmate said, “Be careful, you’ll spend all your money on books.”
The following Tuesday, two days before the conference, I queried two colleagues about AWP. One suggested attending the readings and another advised networking at the book fair.
Thursday morning, two hours before leaving, I tweeted AWP for first timers. Advice: don’t attend too many panels, get out of the conference hub and see the city sights, have a purpose.
Armed, I headed off sans expectations, unlike the September conference in which I expected to garner a book contract, rub shoulders with agents, and increase my writer’s circle. (I spent an entire rent check on that conference.) My goal spend no money, collect information regarding teaching, publishing and connect with black writers. As Rev. John Simon said from the pulpit, “When you have an opportunity be prepared although it’s preferably to be prepared even if there is no opportunity.”
And in three days, I did just that. At the teachers and women’s caucus I met creative writing program directors of two-year colleges, collected business cards and potential teaching positions. I also learned that two colleges are implementing AFA writing degrees.
Thursday evening, I scoped out the conference center. The book fair was on three levels and all the panels. I’m not good with maps, so I decided to wing it. Rucksack on my back, and tote bag in hand I whizzed through the first floor book fair collecting information and observing. A good nugget is wordnik, a fun online dictionary. After the woman’s caucus, I attended a reading and discovered Word Farm a Christian Literary Publishing Company. The business manager told me about Slant, another larger company. Next, I delighted in the words of master poets Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott. I teach Walcott’s poems. Two writing tips: poems come in the silence, and let the work surprise you. I skipped the after party.
On Friday, I hit the book fair at 9:30 a.m. I pitched my fiction and non-fiction ideas to magazine editors, acquisition editors and gathered sample magazine, literary journals, press guidelines, and catalogs. This time my aim was to see if these outlets were a good fit for me. I learned that at the September conference—an editor, agent and publisher have to be a good fit for writer. I was not shy about asking for complimentary items. So many good books to buy, but I had to say no. Throughout the day, which ended at 10:30 that night, I prayed, “Lord, where do I go next. What do you have for me here.”
In the hallway, I bumped into a young woman I had met at the Women’s caucus, we exchanged emails and she encouraged me to join VONA/Voices, one of the first writing workshops for writers of color. Another writer said at VONA they get us. No explanation needed. I took her card.
By three o’clock, I had a swollen head, one editor remembered an essay I had submitted two weeks earlier, and another editor requested a query. Now, nothing may come of it; however, the mere fact they were willing to listen and not brush me off was sensational. While eating my homemade sandwich, I met Michael Warr, black poet from San Francisco. He’s working on a fabulous project about poetry and justice.
At 7:30 p.m., exhaustion kicked in. I exited the conference center and got on the Boston train. I had planned to walk the cobble stone streets, but the early morning snow morphed into slippery slush.
Saturday morning, I packed my suitcase, checked out and got lost driving to the conference center. A good thing, I ventured through the financial district, hit the seaport, and spotted a larger than life bottle of milk.
I returned to the conference. This time, I’d had enough. Three hours at the book fair and no panels was my limit. Just like a buffet, there’s only so much you can digest.
This conference set this writer on fire.