AWP: In Love with Words, at a Loss for Words

By Daria Radler

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Writ­ers are a spe­cial breed. Con­stant­ly shift­ing through their per­cep­tion of the envi­ron­ment with detailed atten­tion, they store and ana­lyze any piece of infor­ma­tion on the end­less shelves of their flour­ish­ing mind. Every­thing is of val­ue. The way the grumpy barista was hold­ing the pen as he scrib­bled their name on their cup of take-away cof­fee; the momen­tary silence before a daugh­ter answered her moth­er, assur­ing her that she would be home in time for din­ner; the way he brushed her cheeks ever so slight­ly, trac­ing the out­line of her cheek­bone with the tip of his thumb as they sat on the park bench next to each oth­er, their eyes drink­ing in each oth­ers’ presence.

Writ­ers are like magi­cians. They turn to the world for inspi­ra­tion to cre­ate a uni­verse of their own, using a hand­ful of words to lat­er engage their read­ers. They feed the pages of a satir­i­cal play, a lost romance, or a spec­tac­u­lar crime. I’ve always found writ­ers fascinating.

When I came to Amer­i­ca as an exchange stu­dent in the spring of 2015, I was burn­ing with curios­i­ty but rather shy of expec­ta­tions. Lit­tle did I know that the U.S. would be my lit­er­ary haven. 

I spent the semes­ter read­ing fic­tion for Bluestem, a lit­er­ary mag­a­zine pub­lished bian­nu­al­ly by the Eng­lish fac­ul­ty at East­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty. All of a sud­den, I was giv­en a voice — one that poten­tial­ly deter­mined whether or not a sto­ry would be pub­lished. Then in ear­ly April, yet anoth­er sur­prise: As part of the Bluestem read­ing staff, I was offered a tick­et to AWP — an annu­al con­fer­ence of The Asso­ci­a­tion of Writ­ers & Writ­ing Pro­grams. One glance at the sched­ule of this four-day event made one thing very clear: It was the place to be for writ­ers from around the world.

 

Now, one writer may be intrigu­ing. 12,000 writ­ers are down­right scary.

 

Togeth­er with the edi­tor and a fel­low read­er and friend, I drove from Charleston to Min­neapo­lis in nine hours. Not only was I giv­en enough time to re-eval­u­ate my open­ness towards doable road trips accord­ing to the Amer­i­can way of life (the same dis­tance would have eas­i­ly allowed me to vis­it sev­er­al Euro­pean coun­tries), but also the time on the road worked mag­ic on our antic­i­pa­tion and excite­ment, which seemed to grow fur­ther with every mile we left behind.

The con­ven­tion cen­ter in Min­neapo­lis was like a bee­hive. Dili­gent­ly but with a strange spark of excite­ment in their eyes, peo­ple set up the tables, fanned out fly­ers and post cards, hung up posters, and hand­ed out free­bies. By the time the doors were opened to the pub­lic, I found myself in the mid­dle of a par­al­lel uni­verse. At the book fair, our duties involved two major tasks: sell­ing mag­a­zines and get­ting peo­ple to par­tic­i­pate in our post­card-writ­ing contest.

“Hi, have you heard about Bluestem? We pub­lish poet­ry, prose, and non-fic­tion at EIU in Illi­nois,” I would blurt out to ran­dom strangers so fast that I some­times didn’t under­stand myself. With hun­dreds of peo­ple walk­ing past hun­dreds of tables, you had to get their atten­tion quick­ly. Exhaust­ed, over­whelmed, but utter­ly hap­py, I lat­er made my way to pan­el dis­cus­sions and read­ings. I lis­tened to pub­lished writ­ers talk about the dan­ger of exploit­ing stereo­types when fac­ing top­ics that are not our own, became mes­mer­ized as I took notes on Michele Morano’s com­pelling read­ing of her essay “How to Cross a Street in Mum­bai,” and fol­lowed the dis­cus­sion of male dom­i­nance in trav­el writ­ing despite the momen­tary suc­cess of works such as Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.

Tired and at a loss for words, I fell asleep that night, dream­ing of books and let­ters and post­cards and pens and writ­ing pro­grams and con­tests to sub­mit to. At a con­ven­tion where every­thing seems so tempt­ing, it is impos­si­ble to see or do every­thing. In the evening of day two, it some­how became impos­si­ble to focus no mat­ter how much cof­fee I had put into my sys­tem. While sev­er­al peo­ple and numer­ous online arti­cles had advised me to cre­ate and fol­low a clear sched­ule, it seemed down­right impos­si­ble to keep up. There was so much to do, so much to see, so many excit­ing peo­ple to talk to or even be in the same room with.

But I won’t lie. AWP wasn’t all rain­bows and but­ter­flies. At one point my self-esteem dropped to the point where it was pret­ty much nonex­is­tent. Among all these peo­ple who seemed like uni­corns step­ping right out of my favorite fairy­tale, who knew how to talk books and lit­er­a­ture in a way that I couldn’t pos­si­bly keep up with, my per­son­al insignif­i­cance became clear­er than ever. It was excruciating.

 

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But I con­nect­ed with strangers who all shared this deeply root­ed love for words; strangers who float­ed, swam, and strug­gled in the same uncer­tain waters of this mes­mer­iz­ing pool of sto­ries. At the end of the day, we were in it togeth­er — 12,000 fish in the pond that was AWP. At night, we went out for drinks and danced and lis­tened to read­ings and cel­e­brat­ed each other’s suc­cess, which might still be a long time com­ing. We love to write — that’s all that mat­tered at that moment.

One day, I’m sure I’ll be back for more. Maybe I will be less over­whelmed and more pre­pared the sec­ond time around. Maybe I’ll have a man­u­script to present to edi­tors or a degree from an MFA pro­gram to rely on. I might even have a sched­ule and know how to phrase my opin­ion on the lat­est work of under­rat­ed author X in a way that peo­ple will look at me with admi­ra­tion and bob their heads approv­ing­ly. Then again — maybe I won’t.

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