Field Notes from AWP14

Winter 2014 Pike Place

Last week I flew across the country to Seattle for the annual convergence of writers and publishers known as AWP14. I joined over 12,000 other writers, teachers, editors, and publishers for three days of panels, parties, and networking. With so many attendees, AWP means a lot of different things to all these different people: a chance to build connections with other writers, to accost publishers, to learn, to flashback to the awkwardness of a middle school dance (on second thought, let’s not talk about the dance party).

As a young writer, I went to AWP14 full of the rosy hope that I would learn something mind-blowing that would change my writing forever. Most AWP veterans would tell you, though, that the panels are hit and miss. Sometimes you are riveted. Sometimes – well, sometimes panels don’t live up to their titles.

Here is a distilled version of my field notes from AWP14, with the boring parts removed. (And no, this is not a guide to who throws the best parties.)

Happy Endings in Literary Fiction
I’m working on a collection of stories about a tiger in captivity, and one of my friends asked for “just one story where the tiger is happy.” So I tried to write a happy story for the tiger. I thought I had accomplished it, until my friends read the story and told me that it was just as sad as the others.

These days novels and stories don’t often end with a happily ever after. If they did, we probably wouldn’t buy it. Ian Stansel pulled together a panel on Friday morning to tackle how to write a positive ending that doesn’t ring false.

Rebecca Makkai warned us that coincidence can get your character into trouble, but not out of trouble. You have to earn your happy endings. Amber Dermont added that all endings are a kind of death, a loss, a minor apocalypse. However, this loss serves a purpose: you cannot feel happiness with loss, joy without despair. She suggested that instead of trying to write a happy ending, it is more effective to give characters access to their own, elusive agency. Danielle Evans added that stories can end with the capacity of life to deliver joy and promise.

To finish, Kyle Minor suggested that while death is the end, stories are narrated from a point of living. Endings, he said, often invite a recontextualization.

Poetry and the Online Community
I work with social media as a Marketing Assistant for Ploughshares, so I was excited to hear about how poetry organizations built community online in the session “Poetry and Online Community: Using Digital Media to Build Audience.” The panelists from Poets.orgThe Poetry FoundationPoets House, and Dodge Poetry Festival gave some great advice for literary organizations on social media:

  • Pick your channels – If your audience is on Twitter and Facebook, don’t spend all your time and energy on Pinterest.
  • Interact – People love to answer questions and chat with organizations on social media.
  • Share, share, share – Share content from other organizations to build followers and relationships.
  • Create a culture of fun and experimentation for your staff to empower them to use social media as ambassadors for your organization.

Literary Citizenship
The most interesting idea that I discovered at AWP14 was the concept of literary citizenship. As writers we are often focused on our own work, rather than on the literary community or a greater social good. But in “Double Lives: Writers/Translators” on Thursday morning, several writers spoke about being a good literary citizen. I’ll leave you with this quote from panelist Sholeh Wolpe: “Dialogue between nations and cultures should be through poetry, not politics.”

Mimi Cook, Ivan Gold Fellow in Fiction

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