Why I’m Going to AWP 2014 by Arna Bontemps Hemenway

Posted by February 18th, 2014

Arna Hemenway author photoAnybody in the Book Country headed out to Seattle next week for the Associated Writers and Writing Programs Conference, colloquially termed “AWP”? Our friend, the writer Arna Bontemps Hemenway, will be attending, as he’s done every year for the past four years. Here he explains what this conference means to him, and why Book County members might consider participating in this massive conference themselves.

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It is not hard to find someone who will tell you his or her opinion of AWP, the massive Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference held annually. A simple Twitter search for “AWP”, for instance, will deliver a representative sample of the very wide range of opinions and witticisms offered on the subject. There’s everything from presenters asking you to go to their panels to novelists loudly and proudly proclaiming why they will or won’t be attending this year. But very few of these thoughts are directed specifically at you, dear reader, by which I mean the kind of aspiring writer and reader who has found a community like Book Country. So let me attempt to rectify that.

To wildly misappropriate a quote from Corinthians (that is nevertheless spot on), it might be said that AWP has become all things to all people in order that it might help you, whoever you are.

When the conference begins this year in Seattle, Washington, I will be attending as many things: a panel presenter (my panel on post-Iraq War fiction was accepted earlier this year), a professor of Creative Writing from Baylor University, an author with a book coming out (my short story collection, Elegy on Kinderklavier, will be released in July from Sarabande Books and is available to pre-order now), the holder of an MFA from Iowa, and, relatively speaking, an AWP veteran. But when AWP 2010 was held in Denver, I was, basically, nobody. I was a college graduate living in Pittsburg, Kansas with the girl who is now my wife, working as a janitor and writing fake blog entries for certain jewelry companies’ Google results for money.

Now, there was no bookstore in Pittsburg, Kansas. There was one literary reading in town that year, given by a New Yorker flown in by the local university, a man who berated me for daring to ask a question about his influences in the Q&A that followed. This is all of which to say I had no writing community. Each day that I had the chance, I drove to the local university and pretended to be a student there so I could sit in the library and write.

Between then and now, I’ve slowly developed a sense of the writing community to which I belong. At times this happened in leaps (getting an MFA at Iowa, for instance), at times in meaningful strides (getting a scholarship to go to the absolutely wonderful Sewanee Writers’ Conference one summer, for instance). But all of this really began with (and is now supported by) AWP.

There’s a democracy to AWP that can rarely be had elsewhere in the writing (and publishing) world. I remember going through the Book Fair, where publishers, writing programs, and literary magazines have booths, and dropping in on the table of a magazine I’ve always loved, A Public Space. Standing there, I got to chat with a woman who turned out to be the magazine’s kind and genius editor, Brigid Hughes. Here, almost exactly three years later, I have a story in the current issue. AWP is not just good for your writing career, however: sometimes it’s just about pure book-nerd enjoyment. Last year at the book fair I also got (for free) an Advanced Readers’ Copy of Anthony Marra’s excellent debut novel, A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA, which I relished reading before my friends.

Again, one of best things about AWP is simply the chance to see and talk to the real editors, readers, and authors behind the books and magazines you know (and don’t yet know) about. This year, for instance, you can see the talented Molly Antopol at the W.W. Norton booth, where she’ll be signing copies of her debut story collection THE UNAMERICANS. Maybe you’ve come across THE CREATIVE WRITING MFA HANDBOOK? Its author, Tom Kealey, will be at the University of Georgia Press table. If you’re not (or even if you are) taking the titular advice of Kyle Minor’s story collection, PRAYING DRUNK, you can see him at the Sarabande booth.

AWP is of course full of bigger and smaller names than these, but one of the great pleasures of the conference is discovery. It is quite likely you’ll meet others with your same writing interests and aspirations, or writers, books, and magazines that will come to mean a lot to you. Sometimes, it will blindside you. Last year, I attended one of the keynote readings and conversations, which featured well-known writers Amy Bloom and Richard Russo. But what I came away most impressed with was instead the moderator, novelist Leah Hagar Cohen. I started reading her wonderful book THE GRIEF OF OTHERS on the plane back to Iowa, and haven’t stopped reading her stuff since.

All of this is not even to say anything of the actual core of the conference: the panels. The panels are the most technically instructive element of AWP. There’s a panel on just about every topic imaginable, and the schedule alone is well worth reading. You can get a lot of real insight, instruction, and ideas on everything from your career to your novel’s structure to your memoir’s religious engagement to your linked story collection to the pedagogy of your high school/college/community writing group classroom.

But if you’ve found your way here, to Book Country, then you already understand that learning about writing is given incomparable value by meeting others who are trying to do what you are trying to do: that is, to write and to read. What I’ll tell you, dear reader, is that the AWP conference is a great place to do that, and one of the rare opportunities to do so in person. It’s been important to me as a writer, reader, and person, and odds are, it will be to you, too.

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Elegy on KinderklavierArna Bontemps Hemenway is the author of Elegy on Kinderklavier (Sarabande, July 2014), which was recently chosen as a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Series pick for the summer. His fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from A Public Space, FiveChapters, Ecotone, Alaska Quarterly Review, Meridian Literary Review, The Missouri Review, The Seattle Review, and Bat City Review, among others. He holds an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Baylor University. His panel, “You Can’t Go Home Again: Post-Iraq Assimilation, Trauma, and Narrative Art” will be presented at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 27th, at the AWP Conference in Seattle, Washington. Follow Arna on Twitter. Search for news about the AWP 2014 conference on social media with the hashtag #AWP2014.

If you are going to AWP 2014, be sure and chime in on this Book Country Discussion Board!

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One thought on “Why I’m Going to AWP 2014 by Arna Bontemps Hemenway

  1. Amy lerman

    I really enjoyed this, Arna. I don’t know if you remember me, but I lived in the Chancellor’s Guest House and taught with your wonderful father. (You were still elementary-school aged then :). It would be great to catch up at AWP, and congratulations on your many successes.

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