On the Tiring Fun of AWP

I’m preparing to depart for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ Annual Conference, which will be held in Los Angeles. It’s an event I look forward to each year I’m able to attend, and each year the conference is larger and more overwhelming than the previous one.

I view AWP similar to the various races I’ve run. Baltimore (’03), Vancouver, BC (’05), Denver (’10), Washington, D.C. (’11), Boston (’13), Seattle (’14), & Minneapolis (’15). Rather than racing medals, however, there are the canvas bags, but unlike with my handful of racing medals, I have not kept all of my bags.

This will be my 4th year bringing Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature to the bookfair, and overall, my conversations with people have been pleasant and meaningful. Because of those bookfair duties, I’m able to attend only a few panels during my time, but I’m okay with that.

I enjoy meeting current and past contributors, putting a face with the name. I enjoy meeting folks who are excited to discover the journal. I enjoy the challenge of explaining what we’re about and what we’re not about.

I enjoy walking around the bookfair before it opens, conversing with fellow editors, discovering new journals. At my first AWP, I went wild grabbing free back issues of journals or buying copies for $1 or $2. I returned with over 30 journals. (That was one heavy suitcase.)

Perhaps the best thing about AWP is not the journals or the books themselves, but the people. There are familiar faces: my grad-school and undergrad profs. People who were in my MFA or PhD program. Fellow writers and editors, many of whom I see once a year at this event.

I’ve met so many other people through attending the conference, as much as the conference overwhelms my introverted self. I’ve developed (and am developing) meaningful friendships with these fellow writers and editors, friendships that (through the wonder of social media and email) I am able to sustain between each conference. But for the 3-4 days that I’m there, I laugh more than in any other timespan of the year.

I return home exhausted, but inspired. New ideas to pursue, new journals to read, new people to maintain contact with. And then I’m already plotting for next year.

Aspirations 

In second grade, a new kid named Ryan Meinert joined my class. He befriended me; I befriended him. So far all normal. I’m not sure how it started, from where the idea descended, but I began giving him a weekly handwritten newspaper: Nate’s News. 

I know I included jokes I gathered from other places. I’m confident I included some news stories; whether they were serious or not, I can’t say. Maybe I included baseball scores, football scores. Maybe I included other sections–I’m just not sure. And I only made one copy of each issue: the one I gave to him.

No copies of this august publication remain.

*

Summer of ’86 was hot and dry across Minnesota. There was lots of dust, and for much of the summer, my house didn’t yet have central AC. We utilized the “fan method” of cooling: put the fan in the window at night. We also had a ceiling fan in the living room, which helped move around the hot air.

Just as with Nate’s News, I’m not sure what prompted this, but I drew a one-panel comic strip. In it, a somewhat human-looking individual is sitting in a chair, the ceiling fan spinning overhead. The joke is the juxtaposition of the man saying, “Boy, is it hot!” with the switch marked “Hot/Cool” set to “Hot.” An attempt ironic humor.

I rode my bike downtown to the office of the local weekly newspaper and asked to speak with the editor. For whatever reason, perhaps because my mom worked as a receptionist there, he agreed to see me. Of course nearly thirty years later I remember none of the conversation I had with the editor, but I do know that I handed him the cartoon, and a week later, I had my first official publication.

*

Two years later, I was immersed in the world of reading comic strips and comic books as well as in making my own. My comic strip was Stupid Cowmix, and among my other creations was the comic book Molecule Man. I spent hours in my room first using my wooden ruler to draw panels and then filling them with text and pictures that I thought were funny, clever, and entertaining. My parents humored me.

But in that time from 6th grade through 8th grade when I was dedicated to the comic world, my drawing ability peaked, and the following year other interests grew and continued on through high school: basketball, music, role-playing games, and theater.

*

And what I realize looking back is that it wasn’t so much about the drawing. It was about story. About pacing and timing. About humor. About making something of my own. Taking ideas and materials and creating something that someone else could read and connect with.

Since my mid-twenties, I’ve dedicated my life to making things: poems, stories, essays, blog posts, literary journals. I can trace a line back through those earlier experiences, realizing that they were preparing me for what I love to do.

Even now, all of my efforts begin with a blank page.

[Note: see this prior post about how I came to write poetry again.]

On Rejection

Two weeks ago in my prose Creative Writing class, we read and discussed Bret Lott’s essay, “A Home, a House: On Writing and Rejection,” from Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer’s Life. In the essay, Lott explores the relationship between the writing life and the publishing life, using the analogy of a lean-to in the woods for the writing space and a house built from rejections (and acceptances). He calculates, as of August 2004, that he has received 597 rejections (for stories and essay alone–not his books). This figure (understandably) startled my students.

As I visual aid, I brought my binder of rejections (those that I saved) beginning in 2003 and running through 2009, when I stopped saving them. The binder also contains my earliest acceptances, including my first post-MFA acceptance: a poem in The Chaffin Journal. I told my students how I had danced around my apartment, how Amy and I had celebrated by going out to eat at some fast-food place in Southeast Portland. Using the classroom projector, I displayed my Submittable account, showing them first the number of rejections, and then the acceptances. My disclosures added an up-close example of several of Lott’s points.

By my rough estimate, in 12 years I’ve sent out close to 500 submissions. As my website’s publications section attests, some fellow editors have decided to publish my poems, stories, essays, and reviews. I’m proud of each item on that list, not embarrassed by any of them, and I take great satisfaction in the places where some of these works were published.

Lott reminds writers that they “will be rejected,” and he suggests that writers need to view the submission element of writing as a “business transaction.” I understand both ends of the “business transaction” element of submissions: as a writer, and as an editor. Since I became editor of Windhover in 2012, my own comfort level with being rejected has increased. This isn’t to suggest that I enjoy rejection but only that I understand and “accept” the dynamics: I don’t take rejection personally. I reexamine the work (perhaps), and then send the piece (or pieces) out again.

In the closing section of the essay, Lott reminds writers that the real joy, the real delight is in the creation of (and reworking of) the pieces themselves. I agree. Probably because I hold on to that exhortation, I find that the submission process (the rejections, the acceptances, the unanswered submissions, the lost submissions) doesn’t wildly raise or drop my emotional barometer as it once used to. Perhaps as Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes in that famous passage, we might add that there is time for publication, a time for rejection.