Where the writers are: The AWP conference


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Attending the Associated Writers and Writing Programs conference --which began Wednesday in New York--requires a somewhat manic balance between panels, the book fair and the scramble to get to the best parties.

But there are also rare moments of transcendence. One happened in the Ding Dong Lounge (admittedly, not a promising name), an uptown dive that was host to a reading for Creative Nonfiction magazine. Among a slate of unremarkable readers, Sierra Bellows, an MFA student from the University of Virginia, shone like a gem. Leaning on the pool table to read from her laptop, she quieted the room with a story about her grandfather that had a kind honesty and a genuine clarity of language. It was a reminder that we’re here for the writing, after all.


And there are several thousands of us here for the first-ever, sold-out AWP conference. Usually a magnet for writing students, professors and authors with books to sell, this year’s gathering has become a literary happening in the center of the publishing industry, New York.

‘It obviously makes a difference for AWP to be in New York City,’ says Johnny Temple, the publisher of Akashic Books and a conference veteran. ‘It gives everyone a bit of a lift.’

It’s a strange electricity. Panels on how to teach creative writing are as filled-to-the-brim as those on how publishers select their books, while authors from the National Book Foundation’s stellar 5 Under 35 read to barely two dozen people. Poetry is big--Yusef Komunyakaa and Sharon Olds packed a ballroom with several hundred fans. There must have been more than a thousand people listening to Joyce Carol Oates when I popped in.

But what about the parties? This is the problem with New York--there are just too many of them. In Atlanta last year, authors--including Dan Chaon and Walter Mosley, both remarkably approachable-- hung out at the hotel bar, which was enough to make people stop and stay. Here, the conference has two hotels, each with multiple bars, and ‘offsite’ events take place all over Manhattan and, of course, stretch into Brooklyn. What makes a good party? Is it who shows up, as Jonathan Lethem did at a quiet reception for Steve Erickson?

Or does it have to do with how many people are there, or how well they dance or hold their liquor?
Partly, it’s all of those things--and if there happens to be a moment of writerly transcendence, then you’re in the right place for sure.

Carolyn Kellogg

Carolyn Kellogg is an occasional contributor to Book Review and hosts the literary blog Pinky’s Paperhaus.