Every year, thousands of writers travel to the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, the largest literary convention in North America with an upwards of 10,000 attendees, 700 exhibitors, and 500 programmed events.
This year, however, was special. The coronavirus pandemic cast doubt on this giant event until March 2, just two days before its start, when the organizers and the host city of San Antonio, TX, confirmed it was going forward.
Despite many attendees’ choosing to stay home and the cancellations of up to a half panels – quickly dubbed on Instagram as #AWPocalypse – #AWP20 was still a vibrant event. Many panels reconstituted themselves with new panelists, while the readings and the Bookfair proceeded as planned.
I spoke on the panel “More Than Me: Memoirists Looking Outward,” which focused on memoir as a tool to spotlight larger social issues like the ethics of science and medicine, drug policy, race, sexuality, and, in my case, family formation and public adoption systems in America today. Our panel’s 200 attendees asked probing questions and stayed on afterwards to discuss the issues raised in our books. The panel was organized by Alia Volz (far right), and included (R-L) Barrie Jean Borich, Samuel Autman, Ming Holden, and me.
The next day, I moderated another panel, called “Nurturing Future Danticats, Nabokovs, and Vuongs: Engaging Multilingual & ESL College Students in Creative Writing.” Counting a last-minute replacement of a non-attending panelist, our panel had four English instructors – Marlys Cervantes, Sharon Romero, Carla Sameth, and me – sharing working strategies on how to destigmatize these students’ voices and tailor writing pedagogies to their needs. Besides presenting the strategies and examples that we brought with us, we fielded some great questions from the audience of, roughly, 30.
As a memoirist, I couldn’t miss the panels related to my field, but also some that satisfied my professional interests, such as how to finish a long-term writing project, keep the readers’ interested past the first 70 pages, or navigate the publishing world after a book deal.
AWP is also a great place to have your writing heard. Friday, March 6, I read “When the County Is the Parent,” an essay excerpt from my memoir Dispositions, at the group reading of the AWP 2-Year College Creative Writing Caucus off-site. The reaction, just as when I read a portion of it at the memoir panel, was visceral, and I was asked numerous times when the book would finally be out.
This was a most unusual AWP, that barely made under the wire of the pandemic curfew, but still a deeply gratifying experience.