AWP Series: Jessi Haley

Wrapping up our series of AWP posts is this one from Jessi Haley.

jessi haley“AWP is like a music festival,” a friend told me last week.  “You have to have a really solid plan so you can see most of the stuff that you want to.”

Okay, I thought, maybe.  Maybe that is how you do music festivals.  With a plan. I, on the other hand, tend to show up with a vague idea of what is going on when and wait for people and/or circumstances to guide me to the good stuff.

But I took her advice; I pretended like I was at a music festival. I thumbed through the heavy directory, letting my eyes settle on random pages so that the titles of events jumped out at me haphazardly.  I listened to the advice of my fellow MAPH people and sometimes followed them places. I skipped readings and panels that were probably informative or even enlightening.  On Saturday afternoon, I ran over to Charlestown to spend an hour nervously holding my cousin Vicky’s fragile, squirming newborn when I could have been, I don’t know, acquiring more half-priced copies of Tin House?

However, even without a  coherent plan, I got a lot out of my first time at AWP. I practiced talking to people: about MAPH, about submitting to journals, about how to practice talking to people.  I made eye contact with Tea Obreht more than once and definitely soaked up some of her powers as a result.  I even learned how to respond to the question “Are you a writer?” without choking and violently tugging at my hair.  (Okay, that’s a lie. I will always hate answering that question.)  And, thanks to the great directory-reading abilities of my MAPH friends, I sat in on relevant and informative panels, including one dedicated to writing in the first person plural, as I am doing in my thesis. The organizers of that panel also run a reading series in Harlem that explores this kind of narration, and Justin Torres, one of the authors I am reading for my critical component, participated in the talk. Pretty convenient. At the end, one of the organizers agreed to correspond with me about my project and Torres told me that he “couldn’t wait to see it,” which was sweet and encouraging if not realistic.

It turns out that the people of AWP are a predictably eccentric bunch who scurry around decked out in variations on the “writer” outfit: tweed, glasses, wrinkled button-ups.  The pinging of iPhones and the repetition of phrases like “my MFA” and “your Submittable account”  punctuate their conversations.  Some attendees stare directly into your eyes for too long while they tell you about their important and potentially imaginary screenplay; others never let their gaze leave the table as they scan it for free books. Certain individuals exhibit an unusual drive to collect as many buttons and flyers as possible.*  Overall though, despite the tendency of many to bemoan the very premise of a writer’s conference, there was an undeniable energy racing through the windowless rooms of Hynes Convention Center this past weekend.  The fact is that it is exciting to admit that you want to turn something that you love into some kind of career.  Yeah, it is scary, and at times you feel like a fraud, but when you are milling around a giant space with tons of other people who share your aspirations, and some of them have even realized them, it is possible to feel a little free, a little confident.  You at least know that you are in good company.

The conference ended as it should have—with a dance party.  Now, two days later, my legs hurt, I have a mysterious bruise on my collarbone, and I may or may not have dozed off and briefly let my head rest of the shoulder of a university press’ acquisitions editor on the plane ride home. Nevertheless, I am pretty sure the whole thing turned out way better than I could have planned.

*Including some poor, bored nine-year-old girl who got dragged there and stuck wearing a nametag that read “Awesome Kid” and a man who was apparently searching for our Colloquium buttons all over the book fair (“People have been talking about these ‘Q’ buttons”)…

– Jessi Haley (MAPH ’13) has a BA in History from Skidmore College, some professional experience making binders and sandwiches, and is now working on a short story collection for her MAPH thesis.


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