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AWP: The Writer (Not Author) Conference


I remember my first AWP conference. It was in the winter of 2008, before I had my first book out, and around the time I had racked up dozens upon dozens of rejections from literary agents for my second adult novel and was feeling pretty low about my publishing prospects.

I still wanted to write literary fiction for adults, and I had not yet embraced writing YA. The AWP conference was in New York City that year, within walking distance of my office, but I took two personal days to attend. I went to as many panels as I could take and carried home as many literary journals as I could handle on the subway… There was one panel I remember distinctly, because it ended up sitting with me for months afterward. It was a panel about YA fiction, and the wonderful Margo Rabb was on it. I had written down an anecdote she’d said, which was when she told her writer friends that her novel—written from a teenage perspective and originally intended for adults—would be published as a YA novel they said, “What a shame.” She spoke about lifting those judgments and the readers she’s found in YA fiction in a way that made me think about doing this, and I do think she’s one of the reasons I’m here today. That was a transformative time for me, when my mind was open… a perfect moment to attend AWP.

Now, years later, I just attended my fourth AWP conference—this time in Minneapolis. My first time going, I was a quiet note-taker in the audience, but this year, I was on two panels of my own, speaking before crowded rooms full of people. (And then, after, quietly taking notes in the audience at everyone else’s panels. Some things never change.)

Photo: Claire Kirch, courtesy of Publishers Weekly. From left: me, Bill Konigsberg, Varian Johnson, and Jewell Parker Rhodes.

Photo: Claire Kirch, courtesy of Publishers Weekly. From left: me, Bill Konigsberg, Varian Johnson, and Jewell Parker Rhodes.

I was thankful to be sent to the conference by the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University, where I am an instructor and a YA mentor in their Your Novel Year certificate program. Our panel was in the first slot on the first morning of the conference, on Plot IS Character, Character IS Plot, with the glorious Jewell Parker Rhodes, the director of the Piper Center and an incredible writer and woman, along with some of the Your Novel Year instructors, including Bill Konigsberg, Varian Johnson, and me. We talked about plot and character and how the two intersect and inform each other… and our panel was even written up in Publishers Weekly!

The next day, I took part in a panel on Growing Up in a Magical Space: Magical Realism in Contemporary YA and Children’s Literature, moderated by the immensely talented Laura Ruby, one of my favorite authors!, and with wonderful fellow writers Janet Fox, Nikki Loftin, and Samantha Mabry. We had a great discussion about the blurry definition of magical realism in YA, and I confessed that, to me, The Walls Around Us is a ghost story, though I’ve seen it called magical realism all over the place and had to question my own understanding of the genre and my intentions.

So that was the official stuff. It was an honor to panel with these wonderful fellow authors, and I was thrilled at how packed each of the rooms were and by the great audience questions and the discussions we had.

However, for me, the AWP conference is about far more than talking on a panel, even beside some phenomenal fellow YA authors. AWP is the one conference where I can be a writer and not an author. This is so refreshing to me, it’s like tugging off an uncomfortable set of professional clothes and slipping on a soft pair of pajamas.

What happens when you get to an AWP panel late... You sit on the floor and listen. Here's my view of the Young Adult Literature and the Female Body panel.

What happens when you get to an AWP panel late… You sit on the floor and listen. Here’s my view of the Young Adult Literature and the Female Body panel.

AWP is my favorite conference out of all conferences because of the main focus on writing craft. I like the sense of skill-sharing—that so many writers (was it almost 13,000 this year in Minneapolis?) come together to talk writing, and also do readings and see old friends and have parties and whatever else happens when so many thousands of writers get together in a borrowed city for three/four/five days. I like that I go to think only about writing, to talk only about writing, to gather inspiration and knowledge to make more writing and to teach writing and work with other writers. I’m not being my author-self, I’m being my true-self, which is a writer.

For someone who struggles with the public face of being an author—the online persona, the in-person persona, the competition, the comparison, the cliques, every last stitch of it—I found AWP reinvigorating and, well, refreshing. Probably because YA is still such a small pocket of the conference and so many other kinds of writers are there, too, and I know I’m not in their cliques, perhaps? Maybe the pressure is off because most of the literary magazines and small presses filling the book fair wouldn’t publish me anyway, so I don’t care as much? Maybe that’s it? The sense of freedom?

(Though I did gravitate to the One Story table… buying some issues to support them and sending a little silent wish into the ether that I would one day be published by One Teen Story, my current dream journal. Hey, I haven’t changed that much.)

The mayor (!) of Minneapolis introduced the keynote speaker, Karen Russell. p.s. The mayor of Minneapolis has an unpublished YA novel in her drawer... YA editors, get on that?

The mayor (!) of Minneapolis introduced the keynote speaker, Karen Russell. p.s. The mayor of Minneapolis has an unpublished YA novel in her drawer… YA editors, get on that?

All I know is AWP is entirely what you make of it. What I like to do is attend select craft panels and readings and wander the book fair and support literary journals and small presses I admire. No pressure. No stress about networking, though it tends to happen naturally. I keep my schedule overbooked and always open, in case I change my mind, which I do, constantly. I let myself follow my whims.

And I take advantage of how gigantic the crowd is… and disappear to have introvert time in my hotel room whenever I feel like it.

At this year’s AWP, I came away with so much thinking and inspiration and challenges to myself, some I am still mulling over now, a full week later.

Some of my favorite panels included Young Adult Literature and the Female Body with Megan Atwood, Brandy Colbert, Christine Heppermann, Alexandra Duncan, and Steve Brezenoff… Women Writing Darkness: Villains, Violence, and Unhappy Endings with Michelle Hoover, Allison Amend, Sabina Murray, Sheri Joseph, and Kate Racculia… Young Adults, New Adults, & the Women Who Write Them: Navigating the Politics of Gender & Genre in Young Adult Literature with Cecil Castellucci, Laurel Snyder, Lynn Melnick, Marian Crotty, and Stephanie Kuehn… Politics of Empathy: Writing Through Borrowed Eyes with Lorraine Berry, Matthew Salesses, Prageeta Sharma, Tess Taylor, and Aimee Phan… Striving for Balance between Language and Prejudice in Teaching Writing with Alexander Chee, Danielle Evans, Christine Lee, Jennine Capó Crucet, and Mat Johnson… and Teen Sex in Fiction for Adults with Pamela Erens, Gina Frangello, Anna March, Elissa Schappell, and Julia Fierro.

Yep. I went to a good bunch of panels that resonated—and there were so many more I missed, which makes me hungry already for next year’s conference, if I can afford to go, fingers crossed. There is so much going on at once, so much happening at the conference and at off-site places surrounding the conference, that you will never ever feel like you’ve done enough or seen enough people… which I guess makes you all the more inclined to come back next year.

There were only a few panels on YA or children’s books when I attended AWP in 2008. Now, not so many years later, we’re very much a part of things at this yearly conference that you just can’t deny us. Here’s a small sampling of photos from YA and children’s panels this year that was featured in Publishers Weekly.

Some other cool moments: I won a week-long writing retreat in Los Angeles in a raffle! I ran into my oldest writing friend on the plane and ended up hanging out with her for much of the conference (hi, Erin)! I ran into my very first writing workshop teacher, from my first year in college, and she recognized me right away! I introduced myself to a literary fiction author whose books I love and she actually knew who I was! I saw so many colony friends and MFA classmates and summer workshop friends and authors I admire and lovely Binders and I read an intense and gorgeous book on the plane ride home that I’d picked up at the book fair: The Other Side by Lacy M. Johnson.

I hope to be able to attend AWP in Los Angeles in 2016. And if I do, let’s try to run into each other there, okay?



4 thoughts on “AWP: The Writer (Not Author) Conference

  1. The best part of 2008 AWP was meeting you irl! I didn’t achieve anything else that AWP year, bc I was still recovering: but it was one of the best things I’ve done at AWP, ever.

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