#AWP18: 10 takeaways from the SXSW (or Fest) of writing

The struggle, Nabokov and how you'll never find the answers.

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The AWP Book Fair and Conference is a big deal in the writing world. For my musician friends, I compared it Gainesville's yearly Fest: Maybe not everyone knows or cares about it, but for those who do, it's kind of a religious experience. Thousands of writers, readers, professors, and students from across the States convene for three days to discuss and celebrate all things literary. This was my first time attending, and I'll admit, going in, I was nervous, and leaving, I was exhausted. Still, I'm so glad I got to go and experience the frenzy.

Here are my takeaways from the conference: 

It seems overwhelming, but it doesn't have to be. There are thousands of people (most of whom are more eloquent, well-read, and better dressed than you), hundreds of booths at the Book Fair, and dozens upon dozens of panels, readings, off-site readings, and other events, including nightly dance parties. There's no way any one person could do, see, or attend everything, so once you've made a rough plan of where you want to be and when, you don't need to focus on anything else.

Choose the panels to attend with care. The scope of the panels is dizzying, and they all sound interesting. On Thursday, the first day, I went where my interests led me, and ended up listening to panelists reading from their own work for most of the day. There's nothing wrong with this, but I was hoping for an educational experience rather than an entertaining one, so on Friday, I sought out panels that had greater focus on discussion and advice and left more time for audience questions.

Read the panel descriptions. Even if you can't make it to a particular panel, most of their descriptions offer questions or points to ponder that you can contemplate on your own time. How do you write a frail essay, and is there a benefit to doing so? Can setting become a character, and if so, how would you write that? Any new perspective can only strengthen you as a writer and a thinker.

It's not just for writers of literary fiction, and it's not just for people in MFA programs. There were panels covering everything from the graphic novel, to YA, to memoir, to music, to how to start (and fund) your own literary journal, to creating a thriving literary scene wherever you live. There were booths in the Book Fair dedicated to novels in translation, science fiction, experimental poetry, and political works. If you like reading or writing in any capacity, there was something, somewhere, there for you.

Restraint at the Book Fair is necessary, but also impossible. With so much being sold, it's easy to overindulge. Remember, those ten books you just bought — now you have to lug them around with you everywhere. Fortunately, everyone is given an AWP tote bag upon registering. And for the frugal, wait until Saturday to purchase anything. While most booths had sales the entire conference, on the last day, some tables were marking everything down significantly. Five books for $20? Yes, please.

Even professors mess up the pronunciation of "Nabokov." No one's perfect, no one gets it right every time, no one knows it all.

Which is why even the professionals, who have been teaching, writing, editing, or publishing most of their adult lives, can't give you the answers. They can't teach you how to write or revise a novel. There's no guaranteed formula to get an agent's attention or your manuscript published. Everyone is sitting down at their computer and hoping it works out, every time. Even George Saunders struggled.

The struggle is inspiring and equalizing. During the conference, I never heard one person say, or imply, that writing is easy. Those authors signing the book deals and winning the Guggenheim fellowships, they weren't given magic tickets. They made a point to do the work, just as all of us can. Maybe the inspiration will wear off, but for now, I'm getting up at 6 a.m. and getting a few pages of writing in before starting my day. 

George Saunders, by the way, is a treasure. In his compassionate and hilarious keynote speech Thursday evening, he spoke of the beauty of true artistic failure, likening his efforts to sending out a metaphorical hunting dog to bring him back an important work of art, and it returning with the bottom half of a Barbie doll. But, he stressed, it was his bottom half of a Barbie doll, and from it, he  found a voice and grew a career that was his own.

Get outside, see the city. Panels and readings go from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. or later each day, and I get it, you want to get Bonnie Jo Campbell and Ada Limón to sign your books, and Claire Vaye Watkins is reading at some strange hotel with a tree-house somewhere, and there's a rumor that Roxane Gay is here, and, and, and! Take a breath, go for a stroll by the river. Maybe you've heard about the famous Taco Bus — why not go try it? Even though I live in Tampa and can take the trolley any time I want, I usually don't. I made a point to take some time to wander around, pretend to be a tourist, and see new things.

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