Writers often tend to keep to themselves, but the biggest convention of writers is the annual AWP Conference--the Association of Writers and Writing Programs--which will take place April 8-11 this year in Minneapolis. I thought I'd offer this from last year's conference to give you a taste.
Imagine a three-day film festival in a giant complex where you had a selection of 33 movies every 90 minutes, and each of the 500 movies would be shown only once. Add to that more than 12,000 attendees vying for the choices over the three days. That gives you an inkling of what it felt like to attend the 2014 Conference for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), held in 2014 in Seattle.
Attendees received a thick catalog detailing the more than five hundred panels, and panels changed every 90 minutes. The panels could be divided into categories. There were those that addressed publishing and getting published, either through traditional methods or other ways such as do-it-yourself. There were panels that addressed ways of teaching creative writing, such as using the stories of Flannery O’Connor in the classroom.
Then there were voyages of how to write creatively, such as research strategies for creative nonfiction or using an unusual point of view such as from a dog. Academic explorations examined such things as passive characters in contemporary fiction and poetry as a philosophical foray. Last, there were readings of poetry and fiction.
If a person could absorb two or three panels a day, catch a reading, meet a friend for lunch, and attend the Book Fair on the fourth floor of the Seattle Convention Center, that was a big day. The Book Fair featured more than 600 exhibitors competing for your attention, offering handouts, chocolates, raffles, and glimmers of publication. One could meet editors of journals for future submissions or examine some of the more than 200 MFA writing programs across the country.
Then there were the hundreds of off-site meetings and parties. To zoom from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day took much stamina. To find a moment of rest and pleasure was difficult—until I found that short story writer Rick Bass, who lives in Montana, would be reading his stories, accompanied by live music. The band Stellarondo, named for the character in Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.”, had composed original scores to go with Bass’s stories.
The AWP Convention, by the way, is the only convention I’ve liked. Years ago, I’d been to a few Comdex computer conventions in Las Vegas—miles of walking indoors to see the latest programs, computers, and gadgets. I’d been a delegate to the Modern Language Association, but would be lucky to find three panels among its hundreds of offerings, most of them professors dryly reading papers to other professors.
I arrived for Rick Bass at 10:30 a.m. to a giant ballroom filled with chairs and a stage up front, to find only twenty people, and the band was just setting up. I went up to one person and said, “This is all there is? I thought this would be the coolest thing at the whole convention.”
“Me, too,” she said. “I don’t get why it hasn’t started yet or why more people aren’t here.”
I went up to a band member to learn the show was at noon. We’d misread the catalog. Thus, I grabbed a cab to the waterfront to visit the Seattle Mystery Bookshop on Cherry Street, then zipped back in time to see the performance.
Rick Bass sat in a comfortable chair on stage that had a microphone. The band spread out to the right of the stage, and the four members prepared their instruments: pedal steel guitar, acoustic and electric guitars, banjo, cello, glockenspiel, musical saw, upright bass, and vibraphone. The lights dimmed, and the magic began, first with the band playing what might be called mood music, and then Rick Bass starting in on his story “The Canoeists.”
While I instantly loved the idea of music and words, one thing worried me: that the music might overwhelm the stories. Instead, the music offered a gentle flow, allowing Bass to pause at certain sections, and he didn’t have to start up right away. The music filled the space and let you think about the words you just heard. At times, the band members would take turns playing, so that there would only be one soothing sonic sense at a time. Together, they mingled in harmony.
After the first story, Bass told the audience that he had had doubts when the band first suggested a collaboration. He pictured beat poets with bongos, and he said that had rarely been effective. “However, working with these musicians,” said Bass, “I learned what Barry Lopez meant about ‘stories need to have space.’” Now when Bass writes, he pictures the aural space his words might have.
I sat in the front row and let the music and words drift over me, and everything was about the story. I was in the moment as when I ski. I was present. It was now. Each story unfolded at its own pace. Bass read two more stories, “Fish Story” and “The Bear.” When it was over and the lights came up, the woman next to me and I looked at each other and said “Wow” in tandem.
To get a taste of Bass with music, the band has clips on its website, which you can hear by clicking here. After the show, they were selling CDs of Bass’s stories with music, but the line became quickly long, and I had to get to the airport. Still, the show was the perfect way to end AWP. I’ve since learned one can get the album here.
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.