Confession Thursday: Advice for AWP#14

Dear Reader, 

For some of us, AWP is both an exciting upcoming opportunity as well as an overwhelming anxiety producing weekend we just want to end before it begins.
Welcome to the internal dialogue of many writers and poets.

With AWP one week away, I decided to offer up some advice, ideas, suggestions, thoughts, and just general notes on this conference that has gone from a smallish group of people to a massive 10,000 awkward writers running around wearing lanyards.

My thoughts on AWP--

1)  Arrive with the attitude of "What can I offer?" instead of "What can I get?"

I confess I just wrote this as my #1 irk in poetry and poetry communities, when writers are always so desperate for their take, for their piece, they don't think of what they can offer and bring to the conversation or community, but what they can get from it.

Arrive with attitude you will make this conference better by being there, not by what you take away. 

Don't be Sally from A Charlie Brown Christmas, "I only want what I have coming to me... all I want is my fair share."

See what you bring to world of poetry and writing--humor, fun, kindness, helpfulness--find what you offer and spend less time trying to figure out how others can help you.

2)  Love the one you're with.

You find yourself talking to someone you have a lot in common with, someone you really like.  Then Important Writer X walks by.  You catch their face, you verify their name on their lanyard.  It's them! You have got to get this out of this conversation, you must get to Writer X!  

Wrong.  You need to get out of your head and know that there will always be someone more "important" than the person you are talking to walking by. There will always be someone bigger, well-known, or more published coming around the corner.  

Be in the moment.  Eye contact with the person you're talking to... no secret glances at passing lanyards. 

Find the beauty, connection, magic, joy, interest, etc. in your own conversation.  

On the flipside of that, people have a lot of places to be, don't hold them hostage by telling them your sad luck story about your luggage or how your arm aches from lugging books around.  Ask people, "How long do you have?" Make good connections, friendships, and moments and then move on with satisfaction.

I confess, one of my favorite aspects of AWP is when people email/DM before and say, "Let's get together" or "Let's make a point to get coffee." To know I get one-on-one conversation at AWP is my favorite part. I'm bad in crowds, in big groups.  My favorite dinner parties have 4 people (no more) in them.  I love being with one person at a time.  That is how I thrive. Quality wins over quantity every time.

3)  Sometimes you'll gain more by opting out.

You don't have to go to every panel, reading, etc.  Sometimes just hanging out in the bookfair, talking to other readers, editors, and writers, is just enough.

Yes, it would be great to sit in a room with Famous Poet X, but it might be nice to sit in the lobby by yourself reading a book.  Or people watching.  Or going outside and sightseeing. Or doing nothing. Or having a drink at the bar with a stranger.  Or coffee with someone you just met.  

And when you don't go to said panel, reading, event, _________(fill in the blank), don't feel bad when someone tells you You missed the best _____________ (fill in the blank) ever!  (And they will say this to you.)  Because you didn't.  It really wasn't that good. And since you weren't there, you didn't miss it, instead you got what was behind door #2 and it wasn't the donkey pulling the cart, it was a trip to Seattle.  Enjoy it.

I confess, sometimes the best moments are the synchronistic ones--I just happened to be on the elevator with Nick Flynn and Kay Ryan (okay, I said nothing, but just being there was enough), I just happened to meet Wyn Cooper in the bookfair, I got to meet Nin Andrews in person. I ended up talking with the best taxi driver who told me would wait while I ran back into Politics and Prose for me because he liked my "funny run."  None of this was on the schedule.  Just let what happens, and arrive with no expectations with yourself or anyone else.

4)  You may feel lonely. It's okay.  Have a drink by yourself or bring a book and/or a few back-up phone numbers.

When I went to DC in 2010, one night all my friends disappeared.  Not like ghosts, but like writers in the night--Martha Silano was at dinner with her editor, Susan Rich was somewhere else, I had lost January O'Neill's cellphone number--so I wandered into the bar like a sad poet looking for friends. I recognized no one.

How could this be? I must know someone, right?  Wrong.  

Cliques, cliches, and impromptu groups were everywhere. Hipster poets and their messy-hair girlfriends, or possible girlfriends, or occasional hookup. Serious writers with their serious faces and bourbon. People sitting with their backs hunched, deep in conversation, in their seats and they weren't moving or inviting anyone in. There wasn't even a place to sit. I was ready to leave. This was the edge of my comfort zone.

But I went to bar. By myself.  

As I ordered a glass of red wine and sat at the bar all alone.  In my head I kept repeating the lines from Saturday Night Live, I am her mother. I am a barfly...  I thought, I am a sad human being.

A sad spotlight aimed at me, creating highlights in my hair and pointing me out-- Here is the only person at AWP who doesn't have friends.  

And then Wendy Call showed up. And Wendy brought friends. And then I was laughing and spilling my drink. Appetizers arrived. Someone handed me a Pulitzer Prize. Confetti fell from the ceiling. The ghost of John Berryman bought me a drink. And it was awesome.

I swear, I had just wanted to go back to my hotel, but it was a 20 minute taxi ride away and only 6 pm. So I stayed, despite knowing (or feeling) as if I was out of place, awkward, unloved, and completely anonymous.

Sometimes you have be uncomfortable before the magic and joy happens.  Remember that.

5)  You are wonderful, but so is everyone else.

There is no food chain in writing, in poetry, in the arts.  And if you think there is, you are looking at accomplishments and not at people individually.  People are just people (says the person who turned into Neanderthal girl because she was so starstruck when she had Bob Hicok sign her poetry book she could only say, "My book. You sign?") Okay, so maybe Bob Hicok makes me become uncool awkward girl, but really, he's still just a person.

Remember that.   We are all just humans who like to write. Who have this weird underlying desire.  We are your tribe. But don't arrange us by accomplishments and don't arrange yourself either.  You are neither better or worse for having or not having a book of poems, a novel, an academic job, a non-academic job, a booth, a table, a panel, a cute outfit, fancy glasses, combat boots, or a special nametag.

I think I'm misquoting Chuck Palaniuk from Fight Club here, but this important: 

You are not your swag, you're not how much work you've had published.  You are not the book you wrote. You're not the connections in your iPhone. You're not your f'ing lanyard title.  

Have fun.  Be kind.  Play well.

Drawing by Nin Andrews!
~ Kells
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  1. Everything you write here is spot on! Thanks for being the truth teller! See you at AWP with as open a heart as I can bring! xo

  2. Thanks Kellli! Blogger has changed so I can't post those anymore without it blurring. I just posted about your new and wonderful HOURGLASS MUSEUM--well, I just put one of the poems up. I love this book!
    I won't be at AWP this year. I had knee surgery--they damaged a nerve in surgery--so travel is not yet easy. I can't say I'm too sorry, but seeing you would have been a highlight!
    Have fun!

  3. One of your best advice posts EVER. All of these are SUCH helpful reminders as we head into the wild side.

  4. Thanks. This is great. So true- all of it. Wonderful advice that I will carry with me into the fray.

  5. Thank you so much! I loved this! I'm going to park myself at the bar in the hopes that Wendy Call comes in.

  6. Great post, Kelli, terrific reminders. I would more likely err on the side of "everyone else is more wonderful than I am" - who am I to be on this panel, etc.

    I am a human who likes to write. :-)

    Excited, yes! I haven't been to an AWP in years.

  7. #2 made me think of a Christine Lavin song, "Trading Up." Here are the lyrics:

    So much truth here. And a good kick in the butt when I'd really rather not move.


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