What I Learned at AWP


The Rumpus dispatched dozens of our top reporters to Chicago. None of them were heard from again.

The annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs took place in Chicago last week. Thousands of writers, teachers, and students converged on the Windy City—where temperatures whipsawed between 10 and 50 degrees—to compare pedagogy, discuss literary trends, interview job candidates, and kvetch about the publishing industry.

The Rumpus dispatched dozens of our top reporters to the readings and panels, the parties and meet-and-greets, the ballrooms and hotel lobbies of downtown Chicago, in search of sophisticated insights into literary academia. None of them were ever heard from again. Instead, we got back these brief accounts. [Photos by Vauhini Vara]


I had one and a half inspirational martinis and a basket of chicken wings with my teacher (and dear friend) Nicholas Delbanco in the Buddy Guy’s Legends Bar.  Shouting over the blues banjo, Nick told me to make my novel either a comedy or a tragedy, and to go easy on myself.  All good advice, which I’m promising to take to heart. – Scott Hutchins, Lecturer, Stanford University

Vision. “How do you write yourself?” a woman in the elevator asked her acquaintance. The guy was a head shorter, baffled. “What do you mean? In my poetry?” “How do you see yourself?” she insisted. He said, “Different than anybody else.” – Overheard by Stefan Kiesbye, author

The Book Fair

The Book Fair

Audio plays an increasing role in both art and marketing.  The prevalence of cheap audio equipment, and its relative ease of use, has radically changed the way that artists and journals can market themselves.  During a marketing panel, one poet discussed how he recorded himself reading poems, and sent mp3 files of these to newspapers reviewing his books.  The newspapers put these on their websites, which increased overall sales and visibility.  Taking it even farther, The Missouri Review will soon generate an audio counterpart to everything they publish, either read by a professional or by the author.  Furthermore, the ability to preserve audio on-line for indefinite accessibility led to some fascinating theoretical discussions about whether language-dependent mediums like the audio diaries produced by This American Life are radio programs, audio creative-non-fiction, or some type of hybrid genre.  It’s a neat trend all the way around. – Alan Ackmann, DePaul University

All you have to do to get a reaction out a native Chicagoan is to say “Blagojevich.” – Shimon Tanaka, Jones Lecturer, Stanford University

It was, maybe still is, the year of beards. Squeezed into an El train, listening to AWP participants read, I finally noticed. Most 20, 30 something white males wore beards. Not stubble, no. Beards, shaggy. Pale faces, too many layers of clothing – hey, it’s Chicago in the winter – and beards. Time warp. – Stefan Kiesbye, author

When walking through the hotel hallways between panels and events at AWP, I felt like I was back in high school, searching the oncoming faces for friends, teachers, the popular kids, and that girl who was always trying to beat me up. My friend Joanne said AWP was like being at family reunion and meeting family members she never knew she was related to. – Grace Talusan, Tufts University

In the “Shameless Book Promotion” workshop, I learned that promoting your book should be seen as  an act of generosity… You need to be brave about getting blurbs… Todd Boss has become the poet laureate of his local coffee shop – he does podcasts of readings of his work and works with a musician… Every writer needs a Website… Keep all records and email addresses… Have people ask for your book in bookstores… Give parties… Have friends give parties and promote your book… Do your own press release but don’t put the title of the book on top… Get a business card… Buy your friends’ books… You can take a subway to the Loop from O’Hare for $2.25… It’s cold in February (duh!). – Louise Nayer, City College of San Francisco

Podcasting is good… I miss winter… Harold’s Chicken Shack is no longer just a South Side thing… Sprinting, in a ballroom with eight fiction writers and a baby grand, can be fun… There’s something called a God Particle. – Sarah Frisch, Stegner Fellow, Stanford University

Emily Mitchell and Monica Ferrell at the One Story Happy Hour

Emily Mitchell and Monica Ferrell at the One Story Happy Hour

For any worshipper of the art of language and lover of all good writing, the term “to network” is by necessity odious: a noun-made-verb, a neologistic life form of a taxonomical stratum even lower than adverb, embarrassing to say, excruciating to do. – Elizabeth Kadetsky, University of Pittsburgh

Not what I expected: Best party. I learned that a crowd of poets and fiction writers will drink warm beer and smoke cigarettes in a marginially ventilated hotel room until 3:30 in the morning, despite early morning job interviews, an explosive altercation leading to an ejection, and severe overcrowding.  Thus went the scene in the room 1057.  Not what I expected: Worst party. Sneaking into a penthouse VIP event turned out to be the most interesting part of that party, though there were crab and mushroom pastries aplenty on hand.  Who would have guessed? – Monica Ferrell, Purchase College

Panels that involve making art have plenty of seating, but panels that involve making money are standing room only. – Alan Ackmann, DePaul University

Was the true purpose of President Obama’s Chicago visit to sneak into AWP?  I find it curious that he just “happened” to have dinner up the street on Saturday.  Anybody notice him sitting in at the back of their panel? – Shimon Tanaka, Jones Lecturer, Stanford University

Steve Almond rocks the Hilton Lobby

Steve Almond rocks the Hilton Lobby

Best line heard in a story, “Instituto,” as read by Roy Kesey: “Regardless or irregardless, both are acceptable.” – Overheard by Stacy Muszynski, co-host, Five Things Austin

One Story never fails to have the most innovative bookfair table ideas. This year they offered bookfair goers valentines accompanied by an issue of One Story for a dollar. Nothing broke up the monotony of sitting behind a bookfair table like seeing a One Story staffer walking up and down the rows, delivering valentines while wearing a huge pair of angel wings. I received a valentine with a copy of Yannick Murphy’s story “The Good Word,” which was excellent. – Laura Van den Berg, author

Overheard at Flash Fast, Sudden Fiction and the Short Story panel:

Girl 1: “My girlfriend went to high school with Steve Almond’s brother and ended up in the hot tub with him. He was older–”
Girl 2: “Who? The brother or Steve Almond?”
Girl 1: “Steve Almond. She was fourteen. We tease her and she says, ‘Uh, Steve Almond is not my boyfriend.'”

“I thought of myself as a poet until the world disabused me of it.” – Ed Falco

“Literature can teach us how to live before we live, how to die before we die. Writing is practice for death.” – Jayne Anne Phillips

– Overheard by Stacy Muszynski, co-host, Five Things Austin

If there is a fish in an aquarium by the front door of a restaurant and this fish has a growth on its head that could possibly be an enlarged brain tumor—and if there is another fish, in another aquarium, gills down at the base of the glass, gasping in a way a fish should not gasp while in water—don’t eat here. – Dina Hardy, Stegner Fellow, Stanford University

Stanfordians Shimon Tanaka, Molly Antopol, and Skip Horack

Stanfordians Shimon Tanaka, Molly Antopol, and Skip Horack

Most journals like the idea of technology, but are non-committal or frustrated regarding its application. Some journals seem to resent the idea of generating something as simple as a website.  Terms like “Search Engine Optimization,” “social media,” and “Web 2.0” left many editors shaking their heads. As a friend of mine put it, “If this was 1998, they’d be in really, really great shape.” – Alan Ackmann, DePaul University

The panel “Fictionalizing Family” had audience members that spilled out into the hallway. An unfortunate hotel employee had to refill plastic pitchers of ice water at tables on either side of the doorway and got more than one death look as the ice clunked its way into pitchers.  Pearls of wisdom from this one included a discussion about whether there was some sort of greeting card that could prepare loved ones for their appearance in print, inscribed with something like “I’m sorry!” or “I’m gonna make you a star!”  And panelist Don Waters, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction award, pointed out that, although the writer may reveal information about their family, they are revealing just as much about themselves. – Jen Sullivan Brych, freelance writer

Room service at the Hilton costs more than my life, but their Eggs Benedict proved to be the best hangover cure ever. – Laura Van den Berg, author

Short story authors are decidedly optimistic about Obama’s economic stimulus package.  Sitting at the coffee house across the street from the conference hotel, I overheard two young female writers lamenting the fact that their agents had no luck peddling their linked story collections.  “We’ve just got to ride it out,” one writer said.  “I don’t know much about economics, but I hear that in six or nine months, everything’s going to turn around.” – Christopher Feliciano Arnold, MFA student, Purdue


“Number One question heard and asked at the conference: ‘Are you a writer?'”
• “Number One way to receive an eye roll response: Ask, ‘Are you a writer?'”
• “Being bribed into off-site readings by the promise of free wine is not a custom I’m accustomed to…not in the academic realm.”
• “Poetry sounds better in a dive bar than from behind a mahogany podium.”
• “Rebecca Wolff is younger than her name sounds.”
• “Some writers will explain their work with enthusiasm until they learn you’re an intern.”
– Overheard by Adam Bishop, Intern, Journal 1913 (courtesy of Stacy Muszynski)

Alexander Chee with Rumpus Books editor Andrew Altschul

Alexander Chee with Rumpus Books editor Andrew Altschul

I learned [secondhand] that a pick up line to try in Chicago is “I’m with Obama’s Secret Service.” – Jen Sullivan Brych, freelance writer

By Saturday evening, I sensed impending doom, half expecting to look north along Michigan Avenue outside the Hilton and see an irradiated lizard bursting through buildings like the Kool-Aid man on a bender.  For four days, panelists had espoused the obligation of writers to make our characters sin and suffer, to gain readers’ trust and then betray it, to prepare ourselves for the lean years ahead in the new publishing economy.  I’d personally sentenced my liver to Fat Tire after Fat Tire and set my ego adrift down the river of the annual AWP dance party, where rhythm and self-restraint go to die.  Ironically, upon realizing all this, I unwound.  I was among thousands of likeminded people as fervent as I was about the frightening, impractical, exhilarating career choice we’d made.  While there may not be safety in numbers, there is, it turns out, fiercely good company. – Brian Beglin, MFA student, Purdue University

Got your own story from AWP? Leave a comment below.

Read more in the books section.

Andrew Altschul was the founding Books Editor at The Rumpus. He is an O. Henry Prize-winning short story writer and the author of the novels Deus Ex Machina and Lady Lazarus. Currently, he directs the Center for Literary Arts at San Jose State University. More from this author →