We flew in on Wednesday night and took a very long shuttle ride to the hotel. It was the Westin Bonaventure, whose website described it as “a city within a city.” All hotel names sound the same to me, so I remembered it by singing the Pet Shop Boys song: In a Westin town, a dead-end world, east-end boys and Westin girls.
We didn’t even check in, just dumped our suitcases at a bag check and rode up to the 34th floor to join some friends from our writing community, the Wayward Writers, in the rotating restaurant. We ate six giant plates of appetizers while spinning in a very slow circle, high above the streets of downtown Los Angeles.
The conference started on Thursday morning. We walked a mile to the LA Convention center, stood in a line that was five times longer than the one we went through to check in at the airport, registered. They gave us a conference program the size of a high-school yearbook and a tote bag to carry it in. We visited the booth for Michelle’s publisher, PM press, where a few of her many fans were already waiting to meet her. The conference is attended by over 12,000 people each year, and it seemed like they were all in the building right then.
We went off to find panels. I went to one about depicting diverse characters, something I am always worried about doing well. The panel itself wasn’t as diverse as I’d hoped; all the panelists seemed to be Muslim women (based on biographical details in their presentations, clothing, and research interests). Several or perhaps all of them were involved in young adult writing or issues regarding children, and several of them referenced the We Need Diverse Books movement. The panel was helpful, even though their viewpoints were a bit similar at times (they all focused on nationality and immigration as the arenas for diversity and all spoke mainly of child-appropriate issues; one mentioned cultural differences regarding marriage but not sexuality). The best advice they gave, though it was familiar to me already, was not to describe a character different from yourself as having problems based on that difference. So for example, if you are an able-bodied American woman, don’t assume a disabled character wishes to be able-bodied, or that an Indian woman in an arranged marriage feels trapped.
I met up with Michelle for lunch. The lines in the convention center cafeteria were crazy long (like the bathroom lines), so we crossed the giant boulevard to the sushi restaurant. Then she had her panel, which was about Latina/o writers and punk/new wave music. I loved this panel: a poet wrote about listening to punk music in Los Angeles, a few writers rhapsodizing about the Smiths and Morrissey, an academic paper about Futurism and the obsession with categorizing noise. Michelle read one of my favorite pieces from her book, about a writer who accused Michelle’s band, Spitboy, of cultural appropriation for naming their album in Spanish, Mi Cuerpo Es Mio, evidently not noticing Michelle, the Mexican drummer who wrote half the songs and lyrics.
Here’s where everything went bad for me, right after that panel. Michelle went downstairs to sign books at her publisher’s table. I looked for tea. It was 3 o’clock, and the cafeteria at the conference was closed. I crossed the boulevard again, found a Starbucks, stood in line for ten minutes, got halfway to the register, decided to leave.
I walked back to the conference, found a water fountain by the bathrooms (lines still out the door), put some cold LA water into my steel travel mug. I felt completely defeated. I had just spent half an hour wandering around looking for tea, perhaps a snack, carrying two tote bags full of my laptop and conference-yearbook and ten copies of my novel synopsis in an increasingly rumpled file folder.
I looked in the giant program, found the designated “quiet room.” It was a conference room filled with tables and a few people, working, sleeping with their heads on a table, lying on the floor next to their charging phones.
I loved it in there. I finished up some grading, emailed my students, did a little editing on my own writing. This is where I am spending the entire conference, I told myself, sipping on my cold, tinny water. This silent, empty conference room is like heaven. I am never leaving.
Better yet, I realized: I would skip day two of the conference and stay in the hotel room ALL DAY. I could rejoin the festivities on Saturday, when another friend would be on a morning panel. But tomorrow, Friday, I would just lie in bed, write, drink all the tea I wanted from the dinky coffee pot on the desk. I would not go to AWP at all.
But before I did that, I decided, I needed to go to one last panel.