Yet I waffled on whether I should go because I didn't think I was enough of a writer to stand among AWP's more accomplished attendees. Knowing that fellow alum and acquaintances I met through local literary events were moderating or reading at panels didn't help my self-esteem. They "made it," and I thought they were better than me with their Master of Fine Arts degrees and published credit. Meanwhile, the memory of a professor saying she thought I would've been published somewhere "by now" continued to haunt me. She told me so at an author reading open to the public at UT several years after I graduated, and it hasn't changed. I was literary promise unfulfilled, potential that never peaked. No way I deserved to be at AWP.
Friday night at the eleventh hour, I finally decided to go since I'd been considering it at least two weeks prior. A literary conference as large and esteemed as AWP happening locally was an opportunity I couldn't miss. I still doubted my writerly worth, but practicality and deadline-driven desperation convinced me to go. For the meantime, I'd buckle my insecurities in the backseat. I combed AWP's website for exhibitors and panels I wanted to check out and added them to my agenda in their mobile app. My convention time was limited because I worked Saturday afternoon, but despite my planning I left for the convention an hour and a half late that morning. Disappointed, I opted out of an off-site reading at a tea lounge because I already lost time at AWP itself. I rushed to a backup panel I chose about the "Future of Forms." As soon as the first speaker started, my literary self-doubt seized the steering wheel from me. What in the world was I even doing here? I scribbled the few points I understood throughout the presentations, but often the presenters' background information and explanations flew by too quickly for me to comprehend and translate into chicken scratch short form notes I could hopefully decode later. I hadn't studied poetry since college over a decade ago, and in my sporadic bursts of creativity I wrote free verse pieces or haiku.
Poet Sandra Beasley's three-step method to teaching forms clicked with me because I unknowingly did the same with haiku. Step one involved practicing a form until writing it correctly, gaining a sense of validation. Next was conversing about the form, perhaps going over what makes a successful example and what subject matter did it lend itself towards. Traditionally, haiku were written about nature -- but would it count if I explored a different topic? Did I have to abide by a single stanza of three lines of five syllables, seven, then the concluding five? This was the last step, interrogating and experimenting with the form to broaden its scope and structure to maybe reach audiences who didn't recognize or even resisted reading and discussing the original poetic form. I've penned my share of nature haiku or otherwise in either strict single stanza versions or several interconnected stanzas, fostering a fondness and appreciation for the form’s simple structure and elegant constraint as Beasley described.
Grateful to leave that panel with at least one solid lesson learned, I picked my next panel from the printed guide since the app wouldn't load my agenda. "The Worst Writing Advice I Ever Got" was a funny, grounded roundtable poking fun at itemized Google searches on how to compose terrible pieces, the contradictory nature of advice -- often from non-writers -- and nuggets of wisdom that the featured speakers found worked in their careers. Fiction writer and poet Chris Abani cut at the jugular, advising writers not to just talk about their craft which led to no actual work getting done. It’s easy to fall into that trap especially when you’re creatively blocked. That said, you need to know when to take a break and save it for another time. Ada Limón joked that people weren’t anxiously waiting for her to release new poems, which afforded her needed time away from her work. She said to keep reading and let the “world move into you” while actively waiting until you’re ready to write again.
Limón also confessed to feeling like she had to fit in or box herself into her Latinx background, limiting her literary range. “Women of color,” she professed, “can write whatever we want, and we have permission to do that.” As the audience applauded her impassioned statement, I reflected upon my own conflicts with the same issue. Probably my strongest and most memorable assignments to my professors were those inspired by my Filipina-American upbringing, but a lot of my other works aren’t culturally centered. I’ve wondered if that meant I was trying to “assimilate” and if zeroing in my submission strategy on Asian-American focused publications would be fraudulent.
Reading from The Friend, Nunez shared her main character’s meandering thoughts prompted by a friend and mentor’s suicide that she found herself unable to divulge during a session with her counselor because she was crying. She considered his fascination with despaired German dramatist Heinrich von Kleist who after several tries with other women convinced his lover Henriette Vogel to join him in a suicide pact and wondered how history would've changed if she didn't agree to die in his companionship. She remembers her and her friend’s visits to their gravesite and a pair of nesting swans that she noticed had never hatched signets. Sometimes she saw who she assumed was the male with other swans despite being mated for life. In light of how deeply she struggled, her counselor thought she was in love with her departed friend. Her recollections of Kleist, Vogel, and the swans led her to reminisce how people mistook them as a married couple and how, especially in the rare occasions her friend was single, they felt that way to her. It was a wistful musing over the undefined, fluid nature of relationships despite society's tendency to assume interactions between men and women are romantic. Nunez narrated this passage in a soft voice lilted in somber dreaminess, weaving seemingly unrelated trains of thought into a sympathetic chain of memories realistic of a mourning soul and touching in its sadness.
Lee's passage from Pachinko painted a chaotic, competitive scene staged in 1939s Osaka, Japan where matriarch Sunja set up her station in an outdoor market. Thinking she'd find kindred spirits in other Korean merchants, she was instead denied because they claimed her kimchi -- a salted, seasoned, and fermented vegetable side dish -- would stink up their area and drive off customers. Lee's initially meek, cracking voice depicted Sunja’s nervousness to the brink of tears. She paused with a thick and heavy air, and I wondered each time if that's where the reading would end. As Sunja drew courage from a Japanese butcher's kindness and the memories of her parents and market peddlers back in Korea, Lee's voice perked. “Kimchi, delicious kimchi!” she announced, distinguishing Sunja's triumphant transition into an emboldened merchant determined to support her young children and keep shop until she sells her entire jar of kimchi.
Being introverted on top of harboring writing insecurities, I’m reluctant to talk about my works because I doubt its quality compared to my peers’. I prefer to undersell them, err on the side of caution, and then be pleasantly surprised if people think it's better than I do, but Lee insisted that you believe your stories are important enough to tell and should be willing to sacrifice and care for them like a child or someone you love. To me, that could be interpreted as taking pride in your work and staying open to critique that, used with discretion, might improve it. Remembering that suggestions are just that and not denouncing my talent should lessen the pressure to perform perfectly on the first try and from there maybe chisel away at my mental blocks so I can write more, building up my confidence.
While deciding to go to AWP, I forgot that I could simply enjoy myself with like-minded wordsmiths as well as learn how to hone and approach my craft differently so I didn’t dread it -- even to the point of hesitating to attend the conference in the first place. I agonized over writing well and cared too much about readers’ opinions. Lee recalled Abani’s comment that “no one cares about writers,” and Nunez riffed that they were “fleas.” Though a seemingly demeaning thought, it’s also freeing because you can write and edit what and however you want. They also agreed you shouldn’t write to get famous or feel better about your life. Nunez suggested instead you “owe” the craft by doing it for “the person you are,” respecting your reasons for writing, and improving your craft by learning from the works by writers you admire.
I also forgot how fun it’d be hearing writers read passages from their books, gleaning interesting and informative anecdotes about their professional lives, and chatting with them as they signed copies. After “New Intimacies,” I bought books from Lee and Nunez because their readings and conversation had sold me on them both and shook and stammered like a shy schoolgirl from the nerves and excitement of meeting them. I admitted to Nunez that I wasn’t familiar their works before the panel, though I’d read an interview she had done for The Friend’s release. She appreciated my attendance and said their panel and others like it were great ways to learn about writers you don’t know about. I also laid my heart out to Lee about her “delayed” success resonated with my worries over not being published. After asking my age, she said with a smile, “Oh, you have plenty of time.” As long as I was reading, composing, and getting involved in literary citizenship she said, I was a writer.
Leading up to AWP, I fretted so much about whether I belonged to the literary community it attracted, and when I finally made it there I overcompensated by acting so studious with my note-taking and hopes to gain tips on how to elevate my lowly writer status. When I finally relaxed and just experienced everything around me, I got the most out of my excursion. I needed to stop stressing over feeling late to being published. Like Lee told me I still had time to make my break, and as Limón suggested during the “Advice” panel I should let the creative energy bustling within convention borders “flow” through me. That worked well enough for me to update this blog after 18 months of inactivity and a year before AWP 2019 in Portland, Oregon. I’d be lying if I said the conference cured my self-doubt, but attending was a step towards overcoming it. Watching roundtables and talking to fellow creators reminded me I’m not alone in my fears and that no one follows the same roadmap or timeline to success. Considering the expansive sampling of publishers at the bookfair and countless others in the world, the opportunities to one day see my words in print or on their websites are exponential. What the next chapter is, I’ll just have to actively wait and see.