You Again? (or: AWP Serendipity: It’s a Thing)

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Major Jackson speaking at the fantastic Folger Shakespeare Library panel on Keats and Countee Cullen.

Given the legions (10,000? 15,000?) who attend the annual AWP conference (Association of Writers & Writing Programs), it should feel like a faceless sea.

So how is it that, for every hour I spend there, I run into somebody I know? I’m not even especially well connected. I’m a very wee creature in the AWP zoo.

I think it’s just the AWP Serendipity Thing.

Consider this quote from Julia Fierro, on today’s panel “Second Time Around: On the Sophomore Novel”:

“I had to give up all hope of publication to write that first book [Cutting Teeth] in a pure way. I had a certain level of honesty. I enjoyed writing it.”

—Julia Fierro

This way-of-being that Fierro describes seems to me not only a good way to write, but a good way to approach AWP. I think many writers feel a kind of anxious urgency to Hurry Up and Network! here. And I understand that. It’s a huge conference, it costs money, and it’s brief. So you pick up on a lot of anxiety, observing people going booth-to-booth in the book fair or approaching Big Name Writers after panels.

That Hurry Up and Network! approach just feels to me like 1) a lot of pressure, 2) not fun, and 3) a surefire way to miss real, warm, human interactions….

So I try to meander around AWP in a “pure way” too, I guess. To enjoy a few interesting events, and do a lot of wandering, have relaxed conversations, see what people are up to. Yes, I am absolutely keeping my eyes open for journals that might like my work or books I could review to help out other writers. But I find that this near-Taoist way of AWPing actually leads me to such cool stuff, things I couldn’t have planned.

So here’s my account of today’s uncanny AWP Serendipity. I promise that the following is not an exercise in name-dropping, but an account of the typical weirdness.

SERENDIPITY NO. 1

First thing this morning I ran into Jeff Gundy, whose book I reviewed. Just walking by.

SERENDIPITY NO. 2

IMG_0148After that, I did some book-fair roving and then went to this marvelous panel, ”Second Time Around: On the Sophomore Novel.”  (Because… I’m starting my second novel.)

I am not a voracious panel-goer. I like to go to a few and thoroughly take them in. If I sit through too many, all the words start to blur at me like sleet on a windshield.

So I seek out just a few with really interesting topics. Confession: I rarely even check who the panelists are. But at this Sophomore Novel panel, one of the faces looked familiar. It turned out to be Julia Fierro, founder of Sackett Street.

Now—we don’t know each other. Not even a little. Never met. But at the past three conferences I’ve been to–two AWPs and a Slice Literary Conference in NYC–she happened to be sitting on one of the very few panels I chose. (If this were not a complete coincidence, it would be a little stalker-y. It really is coincidence.) Those panels weren’t even topically related. At AWP 2015 it was “No Shame: Sex Scenes by Women, About Women.” Today it was this panel about second novels.

What is that? I dunno, who knows. But the result was I got very interested in her new novel coming out, The Gypsy Moth Summer, so now I have a new book to relish and possibly review.

SERENDIPITY NO. 3

IMG_0151She mentioned they had free copies of The Gypsy Moth Summer at the Macmillan table, so I headed over. And when I got there, I found myself smack in front of this display. Marlena (pictured left) is the new novel by Julie Buntin, whom I’ve gotten to know a little at Catapult, the WONDERFUL writing center associated with Electric Lit.

SERENDIPITY NO. 4

Then I saw–same display–Every Anxious Wave, the first novel of Mo Daviau, whom I had JUST MET AN HOUR EARLIER at the Vermont Studio Center table.

SERENDIPITY NO. 5

And speaking of Vermont: After I picked up the book, I started to leave the book fair and ran into Tony Eprile, who taught the very first college fiction workshop I ever took, as a freshman in 1998 at Bennington College, VT. (Also, he just wrote this great little essay that gives me hope post-election.)

Serendipity is all the sweeter for those of us who are temperamentally obsessive plan-makers. I’m one of those. So I love this weird phenomenon. All those good conversations and new books and chance meetings with people I like, and not one of them contrived or planned or even imagined.

 

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