One Writer Among 12,000 at AWP
Many AWP attendees complain of the exhaustion they feel after attending back-to-back panels, trying to schedule coffee and meals with old friends and new ones, and staying out late at offsite events. Having just returned from Seattle, I can say that I am not exhausted, but in fact, elated. A few of the panels I attended were motivating, leaving me energized to write, do more research for my stories, and of course, read more widely. It was inspiring to hear experienced writers share their wisdom with eager audiences—most of the panels I attended were standing room only.
One of the best panels I attended was “Creating Emotional Depth: Tools and Inspiration from Various Genres.” The poets who presented focused on using imagery, tone, and metaphor to create emotional depth; for instance, Tim Seibles gave a beautiful reading of Ai’s poetry, describing it as an antidote to the human tendency to be too polite in our writing, too delicate in our handling of extreme emotions such as rage and despair. Seibles said that writers need to be conscious of the work that tone can do in terms of reader response. Tone can also be generative, providing the writer with new images to use to support the tone. David Jauss reminded the audience that 65-85% of communication is body language, but it is often ignored in fiction. Body language can serve dual purposes of helping to convey emotion and deepen characterization, and I definitely plan to pay more attention to my characters’ body language as I write and revise.
Another panel I found especially helpful was “Plotting the Realist Novel,” in which novelists shared their approaches to plotting, which can be difficult for literary fiction writers who tend to focus on exploring character. Lan Samantha Chang said that character is inextricable from plot, and sometimes takes over the plot. Brock Clarke reminded us that plot arises from how a character sees the world, as expressed in voice. Leah Stewart offered good advice for writing the first page of a novel: it must contain a small action to give the reader the sense that a story has started, or that something has changed. Whatever incident Stewart chooses is usually enough for the next 100 pages, but at that point something else needs to happen. Having a dramatic event occur at the beginning of the novel also helps the reader become emotionally invested in the characters. Marjorie Celona said she starts a novel by thinking of a question that she wants her novel to answer. All of the panelists emphasized that a novel’s plot can be composed of small events, small changes, similar to a short story. Yet the novelist is freed from the perfectionism of the short story writer, at least in the first draft when the novelist really needs to fuck up repeatedly and see what happens, as Clarke put it.
For this post, I distilled about twenty pages of handwritten notes into a few pieces of advice that I thought might be helpful to fellow writers in my MFA program. But I don’t think it’s the specific advice, the book recommendations, or the networking that makes AWP so inspirational: it’s being surrounded by 12,000 people who share my passion for writing (if not my etiquette for riding escalators and standing in lines).