My Virgin AWP Experience

I can’t believe it’s been (more than) a week since AWP ended. I admit AWP got off to a rough start for me (you can see what I mean here) but after the initial shocks and adjustments my experience at AWP was pretty okay. In fact, I would venture to say it was more than just okay.

I am still exhausted though. I mean it was roughly 5:30am to 1:30am for days. I went to four to six panels each day, alumni breakfasts and social events, caucus meetings, while trying to juggle my husband’s friends and plans (it was his first visit back to Minneapolis since he moved away in 2011). The book fair was great and so large it was hard not to get turned around and a little lost, at least once. I joked that my husband was acting like my agent, because whenever he came across a publication asking for submissions he got information and talked me up, whether I was with him or not (and when I was with him, it wasn’t like I could hear what he said, so not a big difference). Roy (my husband) even won something for me, which was awesome and also hilarious. He had me open something with a message saying I won. I thought it was a joke – and so did he! He figured everyone got the same message but it turns out there were only eight winners out of thousands. That’s pretty cool.

I’m not sure if I had any expectations for what I would get out of going to AWP beyond seeing old friends. And while that was certainly a highlight (I still miss your faces – you know who you are) I came away from the experience with a lot more. The two things that I like sum up almost everything are: Opportunity and Ah hah!

Opportunity

The Association of Writers and Writing Programs have their annual conference down – I mean it’s the very definition of a well-oiled (and efficient!) machine. But there was one area that I felt the conference was lacking resources or even a way to address a need: People with disabilities. I’m talking about both resources/services for people with disabilities who attend the conference as well as panels addressing topics of interest to this particular group.

I didn’t have the best of luck getting what I needed in advance. Luckily, they let my husband “escort” me so he could get what I couldn’t. But my lack of options was somewhat frustrating as was the lack of “obvious” solutions. I have a lot of ideas as far as what the AWP needs to do to make sure they are more accessible to everyone. I know I was not alone in this. My husband attended a panel about writing characters with disabilities and each member of the panel was “limited” (their preferred word for themselves, as opposed to disabled – I’m good with disabled or differently-abled when I’m talking about myself or in general). It turns out, even though they’re not first-timers and they’re not only attending the conference, but they are presenting, they all had an “ordeal” in terms of getting what they needed in order to attend and/or participate in the conference.

Of course, I’m like, “Why?” I don’t see why this is such a difficult thing or why it has to be so complicated. After my own negative experiences the first day, I felt I wanted to be a part of something, and make things better and more accessible to people with disabilities. I looked for a Disability Caucus, because there were so many. There was a caucus for LGBT people, women, low-residency MFA programs – surely they would have one for people with disabilities too. But they don’t. And then it hit me, “That’s what I am going to change.”

They don’t have one yet, and I am determined that “yet” will be the operative word in that statement. I’ve talked to a few others and there is definite interest in getting one going. I also attended a few other caucuses that I could be a “member” and talked about trying to form such a caucus and being a liaison between groups once it was formed. Because I think solidarity between minority groups is important. A lot of the groups have the same issues: visibility and acceptance. Why not work together?

I’ve only been back from the conference for a week, and I am still trying to get back into my routine (no thanks to my body giving me the finger) so I haven’t done anything yet. But I plan to do plenty. And that is exciting to me. Activism was such a huge part of my life for my first 21 years and then things just got too heavy (death and the devil – the death part is literal, the devil part is debatably metaphorical) and I had to give up fighting on the frontlines for many of the causes closest to my heart. I didn’t intend to get back into it (activism) but when I realized the need and potential impact, I found myself excited.

I think that’s because of getting involved, and the opportunities before me with this idea and what this group could do, as well as making a difference for others, and being selfish for a moment, myself. I am a part of a couple of minorities, but the one that affects me every day is being deaf. Being physically different, and even though I hate it, I’ll say it, “limited,” when it comes to certain physical things. Whatever word you use (disabled, differently-abled or limited) it doesn’t change what it means. These things don’t define me, but if I don’t make arrangements or have certain resources they will define my experience. If I can’t hear, I can’t hear. And without the use of listening devices, a note taker or something else – I’m not going to get anything out of a panel. That’s fact. Making a trip is a big deal (medically) and I have to do a lot of things ahead of time just to be able to go (I’m not just deaf, it’s just the most blatant game changer when it comes to an event like this).

I’m not naïve in terms of what this undertaking will mean. Yes, it will be a lot of hard work and I can’t even begin to imagine the uphill climb organizing such a caucus will be, let alone getting approval and funding, but it doesn’t change the need or the positive impact such a group could have, and that makes whatever is coming, completely worth it.

The Ah hah!

I wanted to come out of AWP with perspective for my book that I have to start over – again. I’ve felt so discouraged lately, I haven’t touched it in almost a year. But I haven’t just sat back this whole time doing nothing. I’ve read memoir after memoir, devoured craft book after craft book that focus on memoir and creative nonfiction. I took an online class/workshop about writing through trauma – I’ve been busy trying to grow and be in a better place for when I do start over, but I haven’t actually started.

There were a lot of things that I “knew” in terms of what some of the problems were with my last draft. From an objective standpoint, from a listening standpoint, I understood. I thought I completely understood what was wrong and why and what needed to change. And I did “know” it, but apparently I didn’t “get” it. Because after attending some of these seminars, I didn’t just know it, I felt it. It was like a refreshing breeze or a splash of water on my face. I “got” it. I understood on more than just the objective intellectual level, and I knew what to do going forward. And that felt pretty fricking great.


I went into AWP nervous and unsure about so much. I came out of AWP sure of so much more I had been unsure about before. I feel more secure and sure in my writing, both as a writer, and as it pertains to my book which is my aching heart right now. I feel reconnected to the spark of my own inner hell-raiser, a spark that I have not felt for years, at least not for more than a day. I feel like a part of something greater, and as much as I like to break the rules and make my own, I forgot what it feels like to really be a part of something. And that’s also pretty fricking great.

After the first day of AWP I was sure I would never attend the conference again. I was so ready for it to be over, and fighting to push the urge to bail down far enough where I wouldn’t actually walk out of the room. And now I’m actually looking forward to next year. Yes, I plan to go. I hope to go. And I also hope that I can forget about the uncertainty and initial adjustments and leave them behind. After all, isn’t the first time always the hardest? Well, it will never be my first time at AWP again! Thank (insert deity/higher power here)!

-DMW

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