This year, I attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference here in icy Washington DC. It’s a massive conference, with hundreds of panels and sessions to choose from (though I’m not sure if quantity was better than quality). AWP also featured a book fair / publishers exhibition bigger than a football field. The entire experience was pretty overwhelming.

The coolest thing about AWP is that I saw every possible writer stereotype you can imagine. Grey-haired professor-looking fellow with tweed coat and elbow patches? Check. Sullen-looking woman in black sweater, scribbling furiously in a leather-bound notebook? Check. Handsome, well-dressed thirty-something man with vintage pipe? Check. Dorky, wired, Macbook-tapping blogger? Check. Sloppy, scruffy bald guy who was high, hung-over, or hallucinating? Check. Wiry, cynical hipster with sunglasses who makes two-minute-long speech instead of a question? Check.

All that said, here are some highlights and interesting insights from various panels I attended:

“A Sense of Where We Were: Nonfiction Writers on Setting”

Steve Church: “Setting needs to do more than one thing“… It shouldn’t just establish a place; it should help with other elements of the narrative: establish character, tone, theme…

Church or one of the other panelists also make this suggestion to nonfiction writers: flip the old writer’s adage — “write what you know” — and tackle the opposite: write about what you don’t know. Fill that void of knowledge with strong research, reporting, and interviewing to create something fresh and insightful.

The Future of the Book Review: How to Break In

The consensus of the four panelists (three of whom were affiliated with Bomb) seemed to be that traditional, long-form book reviews are an endangered species, to be replaced by short 500-words-or-less reviews or Q&A interviews with authors. Oh, and almost nobody gets paid to write reviews. Thanks for coming!

The Q&A session heated things up when a couple traditionalists in the back of the room got loud and angry at the panel, accusing them of playing kissy-face with small-press authors and acting like “a club” where people agree not to ever say mean things about each other. It got a little awkward.

I just needed coffee.

The Art & Authenticity of Social Media: Using Online Tools to Grow a Community

Despite having one of the needlessly long titles at the conference, this was one of the best sessions I attended: a diverse group of speakers with varying perspectives on how to use Facebook, Twitter, and other social media as part of your writing career.

Christina Katz: “never say ‘having a conversation’ or ‘building a community'”… She also had this often-ignored bit of advice: “Before you use social media, have something to say.”

Bethanne (The Book Maven) Patrick: “it’s social media, not ‘me’ media”… Don’t think of social networking as a one-way marketing transmission.

In a similar note, Dan Blank suggested that writers should think more broadly when using social media: it’s not just about promoting a book; it’s about connecting with readers and other writers, as well as exploring the ideas that you write about.

Tanya Egan Gibson cautioned writers to remember that whatever they post on social media is difficult to un-share. Her rule of thing: anything you post online should be something you’d be comfortable saying to someone at a cocktail party.

Status Update: The Personal Essay in the Age of Facebook

Apparently, Philip Lopate is a rock star at AWP, which might explain why I’ve been assigned his stuff in about half of my classes at Hopkins.

Suzanne McCallum-Smith: essayists need to create a lot of material before editing down a great essay. They should “take a lot of footage”… think of themselves as a movie director who shoots lots of film before cutting it down to a finished product.

Jocelyn Bartkevicius: “Fiction is scarier, but nonfiction is harder”

Balancing Professional Writing with Your Creative Side

Valerie Due really shined on this panel with a lot of practical advice, both big and small, for writers:

  • If your day job is uncreative, stifling, or toxic, LEAVE. It will suck away your energy and creativity and leave you with little to apply to your other work. It doesn’t matter what it pays: the price is too high.
  • Be disciplined. You need to produce on schedule, be focused and disciplined with your creative writing as if it were a job. Schedule time to do your personal work and set deadlines
  • If work won’t fuel you with lyric language, voice, read all the time. READ other good writing. Feed your brain with quality, beautiful writing.
  • If you do freelance or consulting work, when you estimate time needed to get work done (not hours billed, but how long it will take to get something back to them), take the real time you think it will take and multiply it by three: that’s what you tell the client.

Moderator Matt Tullis echoed Valerie’s emphasis on discipline, suggesting that in addition to setting your own writing deadlines, you find someone to “be your enforcer” and make sure you don’t miss those deadlines.

To Tell You the Truth: Strategies in the New Nonfiction

This panel was standing-room only, or in my case, sitting-indian-style-on-the-floor room only. Apparently we’re all looking for new nonfiction strategies. Stephen Elliot had tips on “three reasons people will read your entire memoir”: good sentences, tension, and honesty. Simple advice, but spot on, I think. It’s not enough to write well, or to have create tension, or to open up and be honest on the page. Good, powerful memoir delivers all three at once.

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