Thursday, March 15, 2012

LU MFA Students Reflect on the AWP Conference

Nick Alexander, Pat Feeney, and Michelle Sanford

Michelle Sanford:

Attending AWP was such an inspiring experience for me. While working at The Lindenwood Review table, I met so many different writers, editors, and publishers. They all congratulated us on our first issue, showed interest in our program, and wished us future literary luck.

The keynote speaker this year was Margaret Atwood. Months ago, when I found out Atwood was the speaker, I knew I could not miss AWP. A few years ago, I was really struggling to find my writer's voice. In one of my classes, we read a short story by Margaret Atwood, and after that class, I continued to read her work. What I realized during my exploration of Atwood was that I needed to try writing characters from a different perspective, which for me meant beginning to write female characters I felt familiar with. I hadn't even realized that up to that point in my writing career, I had only written from the male perspective. After that, I started to become more comfortable with who I was as a writer and started developing my own writer's voice, instead of a mishmash of others' voices.

One point that Atwood brought up was that when she began writing, there was no such thing as creative writing classes or the study of craft. Writers had to read and figure out what makes a story a story on their own. I have learned that some of the realizations I have made about writing I have had to come to on my own, like with my writer's voice. However, it was in a creative writing class that I was first introduced to Atwood, and it was in a creative writing class that I learned about craft and how to read like a writer. Having the support of the people in our program is invaluable. Without this program, I'm not sure I would have felt comfortable facing the writing world alone, and I'm thankful to be share my experiences with a community of writers.

Nick Alexander:

The yearly AWP conference is an event all aspiring writers need to attend because nowhere else will have over 10,000 writers and editors in one location. AWP’s positive environment was addicting and made it a great place for writers and editors to interact and encourage one another. The lectures ranged from panels discussing craft and pedagogical ideas to readings from established writers. The most difficult aspect of the trip was trying to find enough time to see all the lectures.

AWP’s book fair was a great place to discover new presses looking for submissions and for picking up the latest copies of literary journals. Also, working The Lindenwood Review booth was enjoyable in itself. We received a lot of positive feedback about our first edition; many were excited to read and submit their stories to the next edition.

I know that I’m already saving my money to attend the AWP Conference in Boston in 2013. This is an opportunity that all Lindenwood MFA students should be looking to attend. If there is a booth for The Lindenwood Review again next year, I can see the positions for working the booth being very competitive.

Pat Feeney:

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of attending my first AWP Annual Conference and Bookfair. As I prepared to leave for Chicago, I spent several hours dissecting the conference schedule, choosing from among hundreds of panels, book signings, receptions, and readings to identify which I most wanted to attend. In addition to these offerings, a huge Bookfair runs in concert with the Conference, featuring presses, literary journals, and books for sale, and I wanted to cover this element thoroughly, as well.

My pre-trip analysis paid off, as I was able to visit all the booths at the Bookfair, and attend a string of sessions that sparked my curiosity, nurtured my creativity, and added to the body of knowledge I’ve gained from Lindenwood’s MFA program. One panel discussion left a particularly deep impression: “Ambitious Fiction” (Lucy Bledsoe, Jane Smiley, Achy Obejas, Allen Gee, Brian Bouldrey).

This panel addressed the need for a writer to identify when a piece of work calls for deep description and/or in-depth character development, versus a bare-bones offering from which the reader is expected to infer a great deal. Some examples of work that require more writing include stories that feature a large cast of characters, stories that address complicated themes, and stories that turn on complex plots. The panelists discussed their recent work – either published or in progress – and how and why they concluded the need for a more full-bodied rendering of the story. For example, Allen Gee is writing a novel of love and betrayal between an Asian man and woman. The male character is intensely passionate, a characterization of an Asian man that is rare in literature. Thus, Gee found he couldn’t do justice to the character with spare language and minimal insight to his motivation. More must be given in order for the reader to draw the intended conclusion about who this character is.

I thought this workshop offered great insight to economy of language, when it works, and when it may fail. The alternative – lush language and/or precise but carefully and slowly drawn characters – has its place, and in fact, at times is required. Though I think minimalist versus lush language is, in part, linked to a writer’s style, I think the panelists made a good case for stories that require the latter.

Beth Mead’s post on the AWP conference can be read here.

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