After finishing my summer Stanford course in Short Stories, five of us decided to form a writing group and continue to share our writings with each other. Until last Wednesday, none of us had met in person. That changed when three of us attended AWP 23 (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) in Seattle, Wash. Angela had been a number of times before. Tracy and I signed up based on her recommendation.
AWP meets once a year, always in a different city. It attracts writers, poets, students in MFA programs, teachers of Creative Writing, MFA programs, small publishers, and independent bookstores.
The Seattle Convention Center at Pine and Ninth St. is brand new or so I was told. There were 10,000 attendees (again so I was told.) The convention center has five floors and every meeting room and ballroom on every floor was full of presenters and an audience. The basement level was a Book Fair the size of a Costco store.
I had no expectations. It felt like an adventure. I was so glad not to be sick, to meet my Zoom writing friends, and to be surrounded by WORDS. With a few exceptions, the writers at AWP won’t be found on the NYTimes bestseller lists. These are writers pouring their hearts and passions out in manuscripts, so grateful to find a publisher and see their book in print. I’m guessing 99% of them will always need another job.
Many of these writers spoke on panels. One morning, I went to a presentation called “The Sentence is the Story” with five panelists, all teaching creative writing courses. Four panelists had fiction books published, and one, Matt Bell, has written a How-To called Refuse to be Done. My friend, Angela, had the book with her. She told me it has been so helpful and got it signed by the author who, like George Saunders, turns out to be a generous person, teacher, and colleague.
I went to another Presentation of five writers, all who had left the former Soviet Union: Totalitarian Traumas: A reading. Each woman read from published poetry or prose. Two of the women were of Ukrainian origin. I attended because my grandparents had fled Ukraine in 1909—long before the stories these women were telling but still….I found myself wanting to know more and more about Ukraine’s history. One of the women guided me to the stories of Sholem Aleichem and his book Tevya and his Daughters. Those stories became the Broadway Show Fiddler on the Roof. The beauty and sadness of these poems and stories were deeply moving.
Four teachers who teach both weeklong writing workshops and semester-long courses in MFA programs were asked to list the pros and cons of each in another event. I was struck by the thoughtfulness and care with which each of them considers a student or participant’s needs. On the panel was Samantha Chang, author of the The Family Chao(2022), who I had met in Paris last summer when she came to the American Library to talk about her book. She is director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Each day, I attended three presentations. I then wandered the aisles of the Book Fair talking with the editors of various Journals and Reviews to learn what kind of submissions they are each looking for. By the end of the second day, my eyes felt like those colorful spinwheely things that we used to play with on the fourth of July. Every table was giving out pens, buttons, bags, or bookmarks. All were carefully labeled so that we’d remember the name of the booth we had stopped at. Me, with my need to accept any gift that is free, was laden down with all sorts of “stuff”. I was saved from buying many books because there is only so much I can carry back to Paris with me. On the last day, I bought two slim books on baseball published by Invisible Press. They were very happy to meet a baseball fan!
Poor (rainy and windy) weather was predicted for Seattle but we lucked out. It was cold but we managed to avoid rain when we were outside. Our AirBnB, which the three of us rented, was a quick fifteen-minute walk from the Convention Center. A great way to start the day and somewhere to run to when in complete overload.
What is the likelihood that three women, thirty-eight, forty-nine, and seventy-five, who’ve met on Zoom, shared unpublished writings and poetry, and exchanged feedback meant to encourage better writing, would get along in person for four days? Pretty good it turns out. No high-maintenance personalities, lots of laughter, and much cheerleading to be braver in our writing and in our sharing of writings. They kindly let me control the kitchen in exchange for making delicious simple meals. Angela brought a storytelling game that prompted us to remember and share stories from the past. Always a good way to get a good story going and then put on paper. I was so enamored of this game that Angela gave it to me so that I could show it to my Paris writing group.
And now I’m back in Oakland, California with wonderful memories of being with writing group members whom I completely trust to give me honest and critical feedback on my writing. And of being a part of a gathering of writers, would-be authors, and everything associated with getting a piece of writing from paper (or computer) to crossing the finish line – a book we can hold and cherish.
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