Sophfronia Scott

I’ve just returned from the biggest, brightest, zingiest writing conference of the year, the annual gathering of The Association of Writers and Writing Programs. (AWP or, if you were following the social media hashtag, #AWP15.) More than 11,000 writers, editors, agents and publishers descended on Minneapolis for four days of events including readings, panel discussions, interviews, and a bookfair so huge it took up the length of several football fields. From the social media posts I read leading up to the conference I noticed many writers faced it with trepidation and fear of overwhelm. So I had this question: “What is the conference all about anyway?”

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I found my answer fairly quickly, the first day in fact, in the panel I happened to be on regarding social media for authors. One of my co-panelists was Isaac Fitzgerald, editor of BuzzFeed Books. He provided a succinct description of Twitter. He said it was like walking into a party and joining a conversation. Authors new to Twitter don’t understand this and it’s painfully obvious because it’s like they walk into the room and move around saying nothing but “Buy my book, buy my book, buy my book.” I thought this was a brilliant description because it felt true for both social media and real-life interactions. Writers who come to an event like AWP interested only in promoting themselves or finding a book deal can miss out on a lot. Isaac’s comment made me more cognizant of the value-rich, real-life conversations I had in the ensuing days:

  • While walking to a reception I discussed with a new writer friend the complexities of breaking down the grief process and getting it on the page.
  • One of my former teachers wanted my opinion of online versus print in terms of literary journals and we talked about how one decides where best to be published.
  • I had a serious but loving conversation with another writer/professor about the importance of standing strong in one’s principles, especially when everything is crazy in the place where you live, and you have a public presence.
  • There was the overall conversation going on in any given panel discussion in which everyone, writers and speakers, were participants. The panel on “The Art of the Art of Writing,” for example, featuring Charles Baxter, Carl Phillips, and Stacey D’Erasmo, took a line where talk of bringing to bear passion, daring and intimacy in our writing made for an inspiring, energizing experience.
  • The social media conversation turned up a few times. In her joint interview with Charles Baxter, the novelist Louise Erdich when asked about social media said, “[Social media] can be put to use without disturbing yourself as a writer.” I commented during my panel discussion on my admiration of Roxane Gay’s Twitter feed, then got to tell her so personally when I met her at the bookfair.

Then there were conversations I had with myself, no less important, that came about as I listened to a lecture or an interview that led me to question some aspect of my past or of my writing. For example, hearing the author Lee Martin discuss writing about how, as an 11-year-old, he had to help bathe and dress his father who had lost both his hands in a farming accident led me to a long-forgotten memory of washing my own father’s massive back and broad shoulders. “Why did my siblings and I have to do that?” I thought. I’d never questioned it before so suddenly I was picking through the foggy halls of memory, recalling the size of my huge Daddy and how small the one bathroom in our house was, and how the tiny tub had no shower. I wrote these thoughts down, fodder for a future essay.

Then there were conversations I had with myself, no less important, that came about as I listened to a lecture or an interview that led me to question some aspect of my past or of my writing.

These conversations were and are part of an overall literary conversation that filled the many spacious rooms of the Minneapolis Convention Center. Did you have your share in the conversations? Or did the distractions of wanting someone to read your manuscript, finding an agent, standing in that epic long line for coffee or being late to a reading because you got lost in the downtown skyways connecting the buildings (many of us did!) keep you from noticing them? But here’s the thing: these conversations are ongoing, a fact confirmed for me by Dede Cummings, publisher of the Vermont-based Green Writers Press. As we waited for our flight home at the airport she told me, “The arc of conversations started at AWP is long,” she said. “They can last for years.”

She’s right, but how can you continue or even begin the conversation when, just like at the conference, real life might distract you from having your share, or you can’t afford to attend an AWP in person? Being intentional would be a good start. Even if you can’t see writers face to face every day you can:

  • Participate in online chats such as #LitChat
  • Attend local book signings (I recommend the new app, P&W Local, created by Poets & Writers magazine to find what’s happening in your neighborhood.)
  • Read widely and develop your thoughts on craft and criticism.
  • Seek out writers you like and maintain connections, even if they’re long distance. I’ve already sent emails to my new writer friends and made reminders for myself to check in with them.

In other words, be a literary citizen. If you do, your chances of feeling overwhelm will lessen and the things you want will more likely come your way. And let’s face it, you’ll have a lot more fun at the party.

Sophfronia Scott is author of the novel All I Need to Get By. Her work has appeared in The Saranac Review, Numéro Cinq, Barnstorm, Ruminate, Sleet and O, The Oprah Magazine. She holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and she’s on the faculty of Regis University’s Mile-High MFA in Denver.