AWP–where everybody is a writer

Every year, AWP–Association of Writers & Writing programs–holds the biggest writing conference in the country. For the first time since 1998, it was in Oregon, at the Portland Convention Center, so I had to go. Could I afford it? No. Could I afford the time off from work? No. Was my touchy stomach up to the different diet? No. Do my feet have blisters on their blisters? Yes they do. But I don’t care. It was worth every blister, every $20 bill that went flying out, every frou-frou sandwich with ingredients I couldn’t identify, even worth that mouth-burning hot pepper I thought was a crabapple.

AWP was like a massive party where everyone I’ve ever known in my writing life-from Antioch, Fishtrap, the Tucson Festival of Books, Portuguese writers, Nye Beach Writers, Willamette Writers, my Facebook friends, editors who have rejected my work, editors who have accepted my work, and famous writers on whom I have massive writer-girl crushes—were all in one place. I’m not normally comfortable at parties, but I had found my tribe, and I was high on the love—and way too much iced tea.

I was able to walk up to booths and say “I have a story in that issue,” and have the editors say, “Yes! It’s so great to meet you.” To have young writers call me an inspiration. Me? To get a big hug from a grad school classmate I hadn’t seen in 16 years.

I heard there were 12,000 people there. There were more than 700 exhibits with publishers, editors, writers, and college writing programs selling thousands and thousands of books and giving away pens, candy, postcards, poems, and more. There were approximately 500 panel discussions spread over three days, plus all kinds of “offsite” gatherings. It was not possible to do everything, but I’m so pleased about what I did do. I saw my heroes from Creative Nonfiction. I attended a session led by poet Kwame Dawes. I heard readings by Ilya Kaminsky and Tess Gallagher. I saw Oregon poet laureate Kim Stafford in the parking garage and Luis Alberto Urrea wandering around the bookfair. We were all citizens of Writer World, a place where I finally felt at home.

Many of the attendees were so very young, but we older folks were well represented, too. All races and nationalities attended, including men in dresses and girls who dressed like boys. I saw some wild outfits I can’t believe anyone would wear in public. It amused me that everyone put on what they thought looked good. But never mind. We were all obsessed with words.

Unfortunately, one can’t wander around Writer Land forever, living on fast food out of paper containers. After the conference ended Saturday afternoon, I wandered through the exhibit hall. The tables were empty, and workers were busy rolling up the carpet. Where did my people go? It was time to go forth and tell our stories.

I think I did well coming home with only seven new books, a mug and a hat I bought at the Saturday market from a funky old lady named Anita who makes them by hand from scraps of vintage fabric. I spent Saturday morning walking around the Willamette River, which I could see from my room at the Marriott. I had to keep taking pictures because the view kept changing. Sunrise, sunset, boats, birds, bridges, Mt. Hood. Glorious. Exactly the vacation I needed. WordPress is not letting me post photos right now, but I will.

Unfortunately, my buzz was disrupted by worrisome news about my dad, so now I’m on my way to San Jose when I just want to be that writer girl. It sounds like it’s going to be a tough time. Say a prayer, okay?

And buy some books! With so many writers producing so many books, somebody needs to read them.

 

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Where everybody knows your name


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Everybody seems to know me around here. If they don’t know me from church, they know me from various writer events or they’ve seen me singing at the annual garden tours or the Toledo street market. They know me from yoga class or the Alzheimer’s support group or the dog park or the grocery store. Maybe I interviewed them for some article for some newspaper, or maybe they took a class I taught at the community college.  They’ve certainly seen my name and picture in the local newspaper. It’s not hard to make that happen. They publish pretty much everything people send in, unlike the papers I used to work for that were more stingy with their ink.
Take yesterday, when I hosted a talk about my new book Childless by Marriage at the South Beach Community Center. Attendance was disappointing, even though the Beavers and Ducks games were over. But this one woman came in, and I exclaimed, “I know you. What’s your name?”
It turns out we know a lot of the same people involved in local music. I have heard her sing and watched her play bells. I’ve read about the antique business she runs with her husband. She knows me from Sacred Heart, from the garden tour, and from the newspaper.
If you want to be anonymous, go live in a big city. In a small town, it’s impossible unless you hide in your house and never do anything. Many of the most active people I know moved to Oregon from California and immediately got involved. We Bay Area transplants just love the way people connect in and around the towns on the Oregon coast.
It’s the way it was when my father was growing up in San Jose. Living on a ranch on Dry Creek Road along the edges of Campbell and Almaden, his family knew everyone around them, and everybody knew the Fagaldes. It’s hard for him now to accept the way things have changed. When he goes out, he’s usually surrounded by strangers, many of them speaking languages other than English. The old-timers are dying off, their ranches turned into housing tracts. It’s a lonely place, even with nearly a million residents. People stand so close together sometimes that they touch and yet they don’t speak or acknowledge each other’s presence. Not here. Thank God.
We’re short on stores and long on rain, but after a while, everybody knows who you are.