When Brian Turner, author of My Life as a Foreign Country, Here Bullet, and Phantom Noise, greeted me with a hug, I knew something was up but I figured it was a one-off. Then others whom I only knew through online interaction reacted with similar joy and intimacy when we met. Now, I’m not really one for hugs. But at the 2017 Conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), it was actually kind of nice.
AWP was a weird affair. I’d heard it referred to as “a party involving 10,000+ introverts.” And that was certainly true. But there was also the sobering reality that of all of us there, only a few had or would achieve the notoriety we al dream of as writers. Walking through the monstrous book fair in the largest hall in the DC Convention Center – a space that could have supported a small football stadium – I noticed how often folks looked not at my face, but at my name card. By the second day, I was so self-conscious, I took to concealing it within my jacket. Don’t bother – not famous.
As a “veteran writer,” I’m constantly aware of the paradox of that label. On one hand, it is a strong, supportive tribe. The kind of people you can meet for the first time and feel as if you’ve been friends for years. We are in the genuine business of elevating each other. On the other hand, it’s a small tribe, and we’ve all got ambition: we all want to be “writers,” sans modifier. Folks are simply going to start running in ever-widening circles as their reach and network expands.
Personally, I don’t know how they do it at AWP – how they make decisions on who to spend time with, whose panels to attend, etc. I’m nobody, and even my dance card was full. On the veteran and war writer side of things, I felt extremely fortunate to finally meet people who’ve influenced my writing life for the better. Jesse Goolsby, who coached me through an essay for Southeast Review and has invited me aboard the War, Literature and the Arts nonfiction team; Pete Molin of Time Now, chastised me for the length of my hair; Andria Williams (The Longest Night and The Military Spouse Book Review) and I talked parenthood for nearly an hour over some really bad vendor food; Matt Gallagher (Youngblood and Kaboom) can drink; and prizewinning essayist Tenley Lozano and service dog Elu were kind enough to hang out and chat about tiny homes on wheels and hiking the PCT. And all this was minus the panels, readings and events.
I probably should have been out there, scanning name cards for the word, “Agent.” Or maybe hitting up the journal booths, buying editors’ books and pitching story ideas. Probably should have at least made the keynote addresses and events. Instead, I got to spend time with people who matter to me, as of this very moment. And I got to feel bad about people I wish I could have spent more time with. That’s a good problem to have.
Guess maybe I’m more about those hugs than I let on.