This week I’m traveling to my first ever AWP Conference, held in Seattle this year.
I have to admit I’m nervous and excited all at once. Part of my nervousness has to do with the gigantic writers who may be there. I have the feeling I’ll be more than a little star struck if I happen to see or intentionally bump into one of these rock stars. Cheryl Strayed comes to mind. (Cheryl, if you’re there, please forgive me if I shove my way through the crowds and make a fool of myself in front of you. Tiny Beautiful Things has given me a lifetime of writerly wisdom. It is the book I turn to when I need to read brilliant writing and insight before I begin my own sojourns into the essay. I promise not to slobber.)
I have a history of losing my cool in front of writers I admire. Once, I met Scott Russell Sanders and asked him to sign A Private History of Awe. I then asked him the most obvious question (one he’d probably answered a million times before) rather than engaging him in a meaningful conversation about writing. I had envisioned the question coming off better than it did, leading to all sorts of rabbit trails into his writing life, but it dead ended. I was so flustered that I turned without thanking him and berated myself the rest of the day for asking such a dumb question. I’ll leave the question up to your imagination. Suffice it to say, the brief conversation was entirely tired rather than the erudite one I was going for. Later, when he read at Ashland University for the River Teeth Conference, I intentionally avoided approaching him. Not because I was afraid he’d remember me, but because I was afraid he wouldn’t and I’d get tongue tied and wonky again.
To my humiliation, I’m even occasionally rude.
Once, in an effort to catch Eugene Peterson, I accosted him as he was leaving the table where he was signing books. Late, I presented myself before him, out of breath, sweaty, and insistent. I’d raced across an entire college campus to see him. I’m sure I violated his personal space as I asked him would he please, please sign his memoir, The Pastor, for my husband, who admired him as a pastor, theologian, and wise man. Peterson graciously signed it, but his body language indicated he was exhausted. What he wrote in the book reveals this. He wrote, “To Sam. Eugene Peterson.” I feel particularly horrified about my behavior with Peterson and Sanders because I’m an introvert and I know how exhausting being around too many people can be sometimes.
Now, I try to avoid gigantic writers. I can’t be trusted with them.
In preparation for my first AWP, I’ve read the articles and blog posts offering advice: tip the hotel staff and housekeeping, don’t try to kill yourself to get to every reading, panel discussion, event. Take some time to relax. Stay hydrated. Meet with friends. Take advantage of the quiet room. Leave yourself some time to see the local sites. Check, check, and check. Before the start of the conference, I will plan out exactly which sessions I will attend so I’m not floundering, paralyzed with indecision in the hallways as the 15,000 estimated writers, who are expected to crowd into panel discussions, race by.
I’ve also read the blogs and posts and articles that have criticized the conference as too expensive, crowded, filled with posturing writers whose egos arrive in the room before they do. Since I’ve never been to one, I accept that these criticisms may be valid. Who knows? I may avoid the conference in the future, too, for just these reasons. I’ve often found that the excitement leading up to an event is a little like Disney World. The idea of it is often more appealing than the reality.
But for now, a few hours before I board my plane, my level of anticipation is already in the clouds. I feel like a kid realizing for the first time that she gets something new and shiny to play with on her birthday. The sessions I’m planning to attend are just that, bits and pieces of writing and teaching wisdom I can carry home with me and put to good use. I may not be one of the cool kids, but being near them has got to rub off a little, right?