What I Hope for the AWP Conference of Writers This Year

This image is from the conference a couple years ago. That’s Cheryl Strayed speaking. If you look hard, you can see Philip and I on the right-hand-side about halfway back.

Tomorrow, I will load up Trapper, the Subaru, and head to DC for the annual Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference. This is probably my 15th or 16th AWP, and every time I go, I am equal parts excited and overwhelmed.  But I keep going back because here, I connect with writers I know, learn about new writers whose work I want to read, and spend a few days surrounded by folks who do what I do.  It’s a rare treat.

I don’t know exactly what I’ll be doing for the next few days there. The schedule is so overwhelming that I’m only just through the first four sets of sessions, and my chest is hurting.  I plan to attend lots of sessions and probably go to the big readings on Thursday and Friday nights.  But beyond that, a lot of what I’ll do will be decided in the moment.

However, I do know a few things:

  • I’ll be skipping almost any session if I have a chance to grab a coffee, a meal, or a conversation with someone. The sessions at AWP are very good, but nothing takes the place of talking with someone who also does this writing thing as part of their life.
  • I’ll be pacing myself. I could go to a session I would enjoy for every moment of all three days, but I know I’ll get overwhelmed that way. So instead, I’ll be marking a session for every slot but then skipping out on some when I just want to talk through the MASSIVE book fair, when I need to sit quietly in a corner and read, and when I just want to enjoy an evening in a hound dog-free bed.
  • I’ll be bolder – and more skittish – than I normally am. I try very hard to be bold and introduce myself at conferences, and for the most part, I do that well. But occasionally, like when I see Sherman Alexie in the lobby, I get timid and shrink away. That will be okay, too.

Here is what I’m hoping to see at AWP that I haven’t seen before.

  • A really good system that makes the conference accessible to people with disabilities. In the past, the conference has not done well with this – AT ALL – so this time, I hope to see sign language interpreters in every session, braille schedules in the hands of attendees, wheelchair accessible spaces everywhere. I hope to see that this, the largest writing conference in the U.S, has stepped up to the plate for those of us writers who have some special needs so we can attend safely and easily.
  • A true awareness of diversity in all its forms. From what I’m seeing in the program, I think things are improving here, but the academic institutions that are the foundation of AWP are notoriously white, upper-class, and sometimes largely male organizations. So I’m really eager to see AWP lead us into a much more inclusive lens into the reality of the writing world.
  • Indie writers given their due. As someone who straddles the more traditional world of writers – with my MFA and a decade of teaching at colleges and universities – and the independent world of self-publishing and freelance coaching and editing, I really want to see AWP embrace the indie writers among us. I’d love to see tables of indie writers selling their books and sessions dedicated to self-publishing.
  • A series of encounters between writers and their fans. Even though I get shy around my favorite writers – you should have been how I grinned and then scamped away when I passed Nikky Finney in the book fair a couple of years ago – I LOVE seeing fans get into an elevator or approach a writer they love at a table. It’s like watching a child taste ice cream for the first time – beautiful and powerful.

More than anything, I want AWP to reflect the vastness and richness that I love in the writing community, so this week, I’ll be walking around with eyes wide open to witness what I hope I will find.

If you’re going to AWP this year, please leave a comment below, and I’ll email you my cell #. I’d love to give you a hug as we pass in the book fair or grab a coffee if we can.  

And if you want to join us next year, we’ll be in Tampa, FL from March 7-10.  Florida in March!! Yes!!


By the way, I’ll be speaking at the conference this year alongside of the amazing Jane Friedman, Stuart Horwitz, Gabriela Pereira, and Julie Duffy.  Come see us at Noon on Friday. Here’s all the details.