AWP@MSP: A Top Ten List

AWP @ MSP Minneapolis, you did us proud
Minneapolis, you did us proud

For the unbaptized, AWP is a huge annual writer’s conference arriving to and departing from Minneapolis last week. It includes a book fair showcasing MFA programs, literary magazines and small, independent publishers and hundreds of daytime panels featuring book readings, instruction in the craft of writing (and the craft of teaching writing) along with discussions ranging from diversity in YA fiction to “the post-masculine” (really!). It also schedules about a million off-site, literarily social and/or socially literary events, most of these in bars. If my brief introduction scratches your writing itch, the first thing you should do is read this hilarious essay, “So You Didn’t Get to go to AWP,” a BREVITY Nonfiction Blog post of 4/13/15. If you’re up for more, by all means, proceed to my TEN TOP REASONS AWP @ MSP WAS AWESOME, counting down to the best:

REASON #10: When I travel to AWP in a different city, I’m in charge of my panel choices during the day, and then I am sad and lonely at night. At AWP@MSP, I did a bit of ushering around and introducing writer-friends to the experience, so I didn’t necessarily get to every  session I’d planned. But when each of my two kids called, on separate nights late last week, and I had to tell them I couldn’t hear because I was at a bar (having a beer with fellow Loft mentees), or that I had to go because I was out with friends (on our way to the three-hour standing-up spectacle that was/is Literary Death Match), I secretly relished their thinking, Who are you and what have you done with my mother?

REASON #9: In ushering around said AWP newbies (of which I actually did very little), I (jaded AWP-er that I have become) remembered that feeling when, seven (!?!) years ago I first commingled with 12,000 nerdy-looking, nerdly-behaving writerly types, and they were people so much like me, and there were so many of them in one place who love what I love, it almost brought tears to my eyes. And it almost brought tears to my eyes.

REASON #8:  I didn’t spend much time in the book fair this year. For the first time since I started going to AWP, I wasn’t checking out potential literary magazines for submission. (I believe I experienced a weak cousin to PTSD when I even briefly walked down those book fair  aisles, recalling every humiliatingly worthless comment I felt compelled to make in horribly awkward conversations with editors.) (See Reason #7, below.) It’s not like I’ve mastered the lit mag scene–far from it, and I will return to it soon, I hope. It’s just that I’ve been working on novels–novels! Two! One in revision with my agent! In this solitary business, you don’t get a lot of peer review–and what little you do get is, frequently, blatant rejection. AWP is a time I take stock, and even with lots of rejections, even without a published book I can see incremental growth and change in my career.

REASON #7: I did make a few humiliatingly worthless comments in horribly awkward conversations. For writers, this is a good thing, because otherwise we spend way, way too much time alone and/or with imaginary people who always say and do useful things in a wholly artistic and lovely way. Or a horribly perverse way. In either case, we’re in control which, alas, is not the way of the other/real/your world.

REASON #6: Most of my conversations were easy and I was reminded of the many friendships I have made with other writers: teachers at the Loft, including the wonderful Jorie Miller and Kate St. Vincent Vogel; my Loft mentee cohort (Pallavi Dixit, who is building a book while the Vikings build their stadium and sharing her photos and words on Instagram (#stadiumANDnovel); Chrissy Kolaya, whose novel, “Charmed Particles,” with Dzanc Books comes out in Fall 2015; Margie Newman, co-creator–with her dog, Tango–of the Diaspora Prairie website; Rachael Hanel, of We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter fame; and Loren Taylor); students (including the very talented Nona Kennedy Carlson, who you can find on Twitter @nkennedycarlson ) I have had the privilege to teach and whose accomplishments trounce my own with humbling regularity; other writers (Karen Stefano of, who has just published an amazing short story collection, The Secret Games of Words; my editor at Edina MagazineAngela Johnson; and local writer and blogger Nina Sackheim Badzin.) Oh, and, btw, as they say, at AWP@MSP I (dinosaur-ness notwithstanding) taught @ChrissyKolaya and @rachel_mirelle (check them out!) how to Tweet.

REASON #5: Learning new things. E.g.:

  • Re: “nerd novels,” i.e., novels in which the writer has done a tremendous amount of research into a specific area of science, or art, or history: In two panels of a total of four men and four women, ALL the men wrote first and filled in the facts later, while ALL the women felt compelled to know the facts before they put one word of fiction on the page. Both men AND women confessed to spending inordinate amounts of time on research, because everything is easier than writing.
  • Social media Venn diagram to keep in the front of your head: one circle is what’s good for you, the other is what is enjoyable for the person reading. Where they intersect is where you should live.
  • I need to read Aristotle’s Poetics. Apparently, most translations say something about how plot emerges from a character’s flaws, which is pretty much a bread-and-butter fiction-writing assumption. But what I hadn’t heard is that in another translation the word is not “flaw,” but “mistake.” My characters make lots of mistakes! And guess what? A mistake is ACTION. That plot proceeds from a character’s mistake(s) is something I think I can really wrap my head (and narratives) around in new and energetic ways.
  • Surprise = something you did not expect, while suspense = something you did expect.

REASON #4: All things Ben Percy. Best take-away of the conference: You can be a writer, or you can be a story teller. (I want to be a story teller, Ben!) His new book, The Dead Lands, comes out this week. In it you will find, in typical Ben Percy fashion, both beautiful language and exploding helicopters. Read a wonderful Star Tribune review here, and an equally effusive MPR review here. Come support Ben, a fine writer AND story teller, great teacher, kind and ever-helpful mentor at Common Good Books at 7PM on Thursday, April 30, when he reads from his newest book.

REASON #3:  The Minneapolis Convention Center. OK, the food was terrible, but you didn’t have to go far to find delicious food of all varieties. And they need another place to buy coffee (the lines were epic). And the weather stank, but that’s not the MCC’s fault. What was great was a single room big enough for the entire book fair, and that all of the panel rooms were within a 5 minute walk (max) from each other. I’ve been to four or five AWP’s and there’s never been a better, more efficient layout of space.

REASON #2: The Loft Literary Center, my literary home away from home. I attended two of a whole host of events–a great party with free beer, and a heart-stopping, wildly electric feminist poetry reading that I can’t stop thinking about (thank you Roxane Gay, Amber Tamblyn, Patricia Smith and Franny Choi.) If you see a book by any of these amazing women, buy it. And while you’re at it, check out a copy of Bust Magazine (“For Women With Something to Get Off Their Chests”) who co-sponsored the poetry reading, and buy it for the young women in your life. Jocey Hale was there, proud as a peacock, and Bao Phi, making sure everything ran smoothly for the extra-capacity crowds. And everything did run smoothly, at least to this participant’s eyes. I don’t know what visitors saw, but I saw an amazing, community-and-artist-based institution where writers teach and care for and mentor other writers. Hooray, us. Hooray, Loft.

REASON #1: OK, it’s a little bit of a cheat. But the morning after AWP left town my agent wrote me an email that congratulated me on my most recent novel revisions, saying she was “very happy,” and that the edits (of course, still a few) won’t be hard to do.

AWP 2016: What can happen in a year?

Give us a little time to dream of bliss—
To dream, at least, in a world such as this.

(Frederic Mistral, in Mirèio, and me, in We Are What Remains)





  1. This is a great round-up! Thanks for introducing me to this event and helping me navigate. Might we have drinks and dinner in LA next year? Hmmmm? 😉

  2. Fabulous recap, Donna! I found Caribou on Nicollet (as you know!) and Boiler Room coffee on Third Ave to avoid the long lines at Dunn Bros. 🙂

    1. I missed the Boiler Room. Hope it’s still there in 2020, when AWP is supposed to be back in Minnie. What if, in 2020, we had a mentee (+ Jerod + anybody else we like!) reunion at my house? Should have done it this time, but there’s a;ways next time.

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