AWP Part 4: Weird Meals

On that first conference night, we walked out to a place called Library Bar, which was just a bar decorated with a bookshelf–basically the nerdiest place for a bunch of writers/English teachers to get drunk and eat bar food instead of a proper dinner. I was starving, but the menu was pretty limited, so I ended up with edamame hummus (two lovely things that are kind of a gritty, salty mess when you put them together), the greasy grilled flatbread they served it with, other people’s french fries. Not really what I’d consider a meal, so I decided to wash it down with something that wasn’t really a drink, a tall, lemonade thing with I think vodka in it.

I told my writer/English teacher friends–most of them people I mainly knew from online–about my terrible panel. They were all appropriately pained when I told them about the women who was stressed out about too many people wanting to publish her novel.

sweaty bar selfie

I met one of their friends, an awesome woman who lives in Iowa. I only know one other person in Iowa, one of my best friends from graduate school. I figured Iowa is small enough that everybody knows each other, so I asked this woman if she knew Sondra Gates.

The woman raised her eyebrows. “Not only do I know her,” she said. “We share an office.”

We took a sweaty bar selfie together and sent it to Sondra. We are going to blow her mind, we said. I thought we were awesome and hilarious.

Some ladies came over in matching black shirts and miniskirts. They looked like a Robert Palmer video. They told us they were doing taste-tests, gave us shots of bourbon.

“Is it good?” they asked. We nodded. It tasted like Jim Beam. I used to drink a lot of Jim Beam back when I was a drinker, because it was dirt cheap and I liked whiskey. I still have a few neglected bottles of it above my refrigerator that must be old enough to send to middle school.

“What do you think it is?” the Robert Palmer ladies asked.

None of us knew the names of any fancy bourbons, and I didn’t want to piss them off by saying Jim Beam, so we just said we didn’t know.

“It’s Jim Beam,” they said. They looked like they wanted us to be very surprised and order a round of Jim Beam for everyone right away. 

We left and went back to the spinning restaurant at the top of our hotel for more drinks and the only dessert they had, which was banana creme brûlée.

I did go to yoga on Friday morning–some warrior ones and twos and downward dogs on a conference-room carpet. They must have added yoga at the last second, because it wasn’t on my printed schedule, just the online one. Since the AWP app wouldn’t let me or Michelle log into it, I had to run down to the registration area and make one of the conference volunteers log into her AWP app on her phone to find the room. 

Michelle was at some actual panels–I don’t remember what they were–so after yoga, I went back to the hotel and worked for a few hours, lying on the hotel bed that was so much more comfortable (as is pretty much every bed) than my old futon. I edited a novel chapter; it didn’t need much change, so I didn’t feel super-productive, but it was nice. I liked being by myself, not on anyone else’s schedule. It felt free.

Why is this all I want to do, I wondered. Lie around or sit around and work. I like actually working so much better than being at a conference. For all I complain about grading essays, I’d rather grade essays all day long than do most things I could be doing.

There wasn’t a lot of work time, because Michelle came back for lunch, and then she had an offsite event in the afternoon that I would be attending. We went downstairs to the most basic-seeming of the multiple restaurants in the hotel. No more bar snacks instead of meals, we said on the way down. We’re going to have salad. But we didn’t have salad. Michelle had a beautiful bowl of pasta–one of those times where you walk by someone else’s lunch and know you have to order it–and I got two helpings of salmon and vegetables from the buffet. She had a glass of wine. None of it was french fries or greasy fried flatbread, and it was delicious.

<Part 3

Part 5>

AWP Part 3: The Worst Panel

I was sad to leave the quiet room, but I needed to attend one last panel to earn my day off on Friday. It was a panel of five authors who had just had their first books published. I figured I should go to at least one talk about the publishing process, in case I could learn something useful about trying to publish my novel, something besides what I already knew (write the best book you possibly can, rewrite it a zillion times until it’s perfect, send it to a thousand agents and get nine-hundred and ninety-nine rejections).

The panel turned out to be in a far wing of the conference center, as far as possible from the quiet room where I was hiding out, so by the time I got there it had just started. 

I found a seat halfway through the giant room, scooted past some people sitting at the end of the row and sat down. The panelists were seated at a non-elevated table, so I couldn’t see any of them. Each one introduced themselves and said a bit about their books. I half-stood for a second so I could see what each one looked like, then tried to envision their faces as they spoke.

The moderator explained that he was going to ask some questions that each member of the panel would answer. I think this must be the worst possible way to run a panel (please remind me some day if I ever moderate a panel). (Just kidding; I’m never going to moderate a panel). No one had prepared any comments, the responses were all shallow and predictable and nobody could go into depth about anything. 

So, for example–“Do you read the reviews of your book?”

“Yes, of course,” said one author. “I know I shouldn’t but I can’t help it.” 

“I never do,” said another. “Some people have friends send them links to only the good ones.” 

“It’s impossible to avoid the bad ones,” said the third author. “You have to read them all or none of them.” 

“The bad reviews are depressing,” said the fourth, “but you need to learn not to let them get to you.” 

The sad realization came over me that I was ten minutes into a seventy-five minute panel and I wasn’t going to learn anything. I was still thirsty and in need of tea. I got a text message from Michelle: 

“The Wayward Writers are meeting at a bar near the hotel at 6.” 

It was 4:45 now. The panel ended at 5:45, and the hotel was a mile away. 

“I’ll never make it,” I wrote back.

One panelist was explaining that her path to publication was filled with heartache and despair. You see, she had never written a book before, didn’t know any writers, had no connections and no knowledge of the publishing process. But she submitted her book to a contest, it placed, and suddenly all these agents and publishers were calling her, wanting to publish her book. It was terrifying! Can you imagine the trauma? 

I looked down to the end of my row. The four people I had slid past, two minutes late, were still sitting there. I couldn’t drag all my bags past them a second time to leave fifteen minutes into the panel. Could I?

I squirmed in my seat and thought about how I would spend the time until this panel ended. 

“The main thing is just doing the writing,” one panelist said. They all agreed. “Yes, the most important thing is just doing the work. You need to put all your focus into doing great writing.”

I knew it! There was absolutely no reason to be at this conference. I should be writing.

I looked around, desperate for escape. Then something wonderful happened: the people at the end of my row got up and left. 

I was free! I grabbed my bags and followed them out into the hall. 

I called Michelle to tell her that I was on my way back, explaining that I was grumpy, that I was going to be tired and hungry and thirsty after my walk back to the hotel, that fine, I could go straight out to the bar but there was no way anyone could expect me to actually drink without becoming physically ill.  

Michelle was even less interested in my whining than usual, because she had her own problem. She was lost in our city-within-a-city hotel. 

“What’s the room number?” she asked. “I don’t think that room exists anymore. I can’t find it anywhere.” 

Then she turned down a different twisting hallway and found that the room did still exist. I stopped at a juice place on the way back, got a giant kale-based juice to fill up my steel travel mug, drank it as I walked. That made me feel a lot better. 

A few blocks before the hotel, I was keeping pace with a fast-walking woman in high heels. I kept thinking I had passed her (good! so annoying to walk the same pace as someone), then she would pass me, then finally we were both walking next to each other. 

“You must be from New York,” she said.  

“No, I just walk fast,” I said. “You’re from New York?” 

She was, and she worked in a community college, as I do. She asked me if I was going to the upcoming conference for community college writing teachers (Of course not. Who goes to two conferences in two weeks?). 

“I hate conferences,” I said, because I can’t lie when I’m tired. Or actually ever. “I think I’m done with this one.” 

She smiled. “I went to a great panel this morning,” she said. “They’re doing it again tomorrow morning.” 

“What was it?” I asked, polite. I already knew I would not be going to any panels tomorrow morning. 

“Yoga,” she said. “It was really pleasant. I thought it was going to be chair yoga, but it was actually a nice little workout.” 

I was pretty impressed–this lady totally got me. So okay, there would be just one panel for my day off: yoga. 

<Part 2

Part 4>








AWP Part 2: Conference Hell!!!

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.

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.

<Part 1

Part 3>


AWP Part 1: The Decision

“Do you want to go to AWP with me?” Michelle asked. “I need to know soon. Like by today.” 

That’s how I ended up going to the annual conference of the AWP, which I think but couldn’t guarantee stands for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (but then why isn’t it AWWP?). Every year, a bunch of our writing friends go, while Michelle and I gawk at their happy pictures on Facebook, wondering, how did they get the time off work? How long are they staying? What do you even do at a creative writing conference? 

This year, an incredible confluence of events meant that my best writing friend Michelle had to go to AWP. For a change, it was scheduled during our spring break, across the state rather than across the country, and she just published a book she needed to market. 

I hate conferences. I might have mentioned this before. I was force-fed a horrible diet of yearly conferences as a graduate student. Now I feel about conferences the way a lot of people raised in the 70’s feel about carob. It didn’t taste good, and the people who said it was good for me were lying. 

But this was our BIG OPPORTUNITY to go to AWP without missing any classes (teachers hate missing classes), and anyway, I wanted to see Michelle do all her readings and panels and book signings. So we registered, booked a flight, reserved a hotel room in downtown Los Angeles. 

As spring break approached, I got nervous. I really wanted to spend spring break writing and catching up on my grading. If I wasn’t going to do that, I’d better make this conference worthwhile. I looked through the endless list of panels and activities. There were dozens of panels each day, fifteen at a time. Panels on writing, panels on publishing, panels on teaching. Panels on diversity and writing. Panels on parenting and writing. Panels in tribute to this and that author. Prose panels. Poetry panels. And of course, panels of advice from real literary agents, who probably would have the longest lines of people waiting to talk to them and hand them a business card and book proposal after the panel.

It reminded me of my least favorite conference, the one held annually by the Modern Language Association, which every English grad student needs to attend if they are looking for a job. A giant conference filled with useless panel sessions, grad students giving talks solely for the purpose of getting their departments to fund their trip, panels with audiences that were smaller than the panel itself. 

And then, that sense of desperation, of everyone’s needy ego, of desperate desire. These big conferences are like New York–you go there starry-eyed and full of big dreams, leave starved and deflated. 

It was to much to figure out ahead of time. I was going to wing it. But just in case, I rewrote the synopsis for my novel, printed out ten copies and stuck them in my suitcase. 

>Part 2

Interstellar Burst

Is there some way to write like Radiohead? 

I’ve listened to this song a bazillion times—-Airbag from OK Computer, one of my favorite albums to write to–but today I looked up the lyrics. 

In an interstellar burst

I am back to save the universe. 

No. Really? 

I would have guessed…hmm…

Into stay the past, 

I’m back to sing to you. 

Not that that makes any sense. But the lyrics are un-gettable. They’re draped over the music in a scrambled way, the accents all in the wrong places. Thom Yorke belting it out like drunken karaoke, and no words intelligible, just an irrestistable stream of emotion and voice and syllables. 

I love that. I love anyone who can do that. Use words as a medium without their meaning. Like scatting with secret messages. 

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs do it on my favorite song of theirs, Bang

As a fuck son, you sucked. 

(Try saying that out loud, and see if you can understand yourself). 

And Pink Floyd on Pigs

Big man, pig man

Haha, charade you are. 

All songs that people might sing along with at the top of their lungs, without having any idea what they’re saying. 

So, so cool. Someday I’ll learn some non-musical way to do this. 

I suspect it might involve poetry, though…



Reading Out Loud/Per Se

I went to the Saturday Night Special open mic again last night, and read a short fiction piece. Reading my work aloud isn’t my favorite thing to do, but I try to do it at least once in a while. It’s good to practice appealing directly to an audience who is right in front of you, to consider what will make them laugh and what will make them think and what will make them sad when you read it to them. I’ve been going to this open mic on and off for a few years now, and the readings get better and better each time. Here’s what I read:

Per Se

Asher was up all Saturday night surfing the Red Pill Subreddit, which was an anti-feminist website. He went to bed at five and woke up at two p.m. It was pretty much a given that he would spend all Sunday day on the Red Pill Subreddit unless he left the house, so he went to Tilden Park.

He wasn’t an anti-feminist per se. It’s just that the guys on the anti-feminist sites were some of the only guys he could relate to. They weren’t snobs, and some of them made some pretty valid points about stuff. But Ryan, who was the only semi-cool guy from Asher’s dorm who would actually talk to him, told him those sites were for losers who were just salty that they couldn’t get laid. Which was the whole reason Asher was on the sites, because he was a loser who couldn’t get laid. That’s how all the guys on the sites were; it wasn’t some kind of big secret. But anyway when Ryan said it, he called Asher son in that way cool guys talk to each other.

“Son,” he said, “Those sites are for salty losers who can’t get laid.”

No one ever called Asher son, definitely not his father, an emasculated beta male who worked in nonprofit fundraising and had failed to teach Asher how not to be a social pariah. It felt nice to be called son, even by a guy who was chronologically speaking four months younger than him.

The Uber driver dropped him off by a trailhead. She looked the same as the girls in his dorm, Ugg boots, nice body, probably stupid.

“Time for a hike,” he said. She looked him up and down all skeptical, like it was that obvious he wasn’t the hiking type. How to successfully lie to women was another one of those things his father never taught him. Sigh.

As soon as she was gone, he doubled back through the parking lot, past the playground, and up the hill to the petting farm.

He walked through the crowds of parents and kids, said hi to the sheep, bowed low to the rooster, who he thought of as the farm’s concierge. He’d been coming maybe once or twice a year since he was a kid, whenever he felt too lonely and depressed to accomplish anything productive, and it always looked exactly the same.

The cow barn was his favorite. It was dark and shady and smelled like mud. The cows had heads that were as big as Asher’s whole torso. They could eat a baby in one bite, but they never did, even though all the moms kept waving babies right in their faces. They just stood very patient, accepted pats on the head with neither anger nor pleasure, watched the people watching them. Something about the cows made Asher feel very peaceful.

Three Ugg-boot chicks came in the barn, petted the cow, shrieked and giggled when it licked one of their hands with its slow, giant tongue. They looked kind of familiar, like maybe they were in one of his classes. Maybe they lived in his dorm. The parents were all nice to the Ugg-boot chicks, let them play peekaboo with their babies and say hi to their little kids. They never let Asher talk to their kids.

He wished Ryan would come to the farm with him sometime. Maybe Ryan and a few of the cool guys from his dorm. But guys didn’t do stuff like that together. Girls did, guys didn’t. Asher didn’t know why, exactly. That was another one of those things his father never taught him.


Deadly Mansplain (Halloween 2015)

I read this story on Halloween at my favorite open mic, Saturday Night Special. 

 “Before we get too involved,” she said, “there are some things I need to tell you. There are things you don’t know about me. I have a secret.”

“I’ve got it,” he said, like it was a quiz. “You’re afraid of commitment.”

“What?” She said. “No.”

“Also I’m guessing you’ve been in some bad relationships. Maybe some abuse. That’s why you’re so insecure.”

Abuse? Insecure? Her?

“I’m not insecure,” she said. “I mean, am I?”

“It’s okay, babe,” he said. “All the women I’m attracted to are insecure. It’s probably something about me.”

She wanted to say, do you know who you’re talking to? She wanted to say, you wouldn’t talk to a man this way, would you? She looked at the soft spot where his jawline met his neck, the pale skin, the soft, dark stubble. That spot was the main reason she hadn’t brushed him off a million times in the last two months they’d been dating.

“Do you want to hear it or not,” she asked.

“Yeah, sure, babe,” he said. “Of course.”

That muscle running thick down the side of his neck. The meatiness of it. The delicious solidity of a grown man, the kind of man who lifted weights three days after work and both days on the weekend. It brought out that thing in her, that primal, hidden thing that the world must never know of.

“Lay it on me,” he said.

She hushed her voice. The room dimmed, and a crackle of electricity filled the air outside the window.

“I am Adrasteia,” she said. “Immortal queen of darkness, perpetual sovereign of the night, undying monarch of the underworld.”

Thunder crash.

“Wait, what,” he said.

“A vampire,” she said.

“You’re shitting me.” His Adam’s apple bobbed indignantly under that soft, thin skin.

She snarled one side of her lip, flashed demon-yellow eyes, showed him the deadly sharpness of her canine tooth.

“That’s like a metaphor,” he said.

“It’s not a metaphor,” she said. “It’s literal. I’m literally a vampire.”

“Right, I was just telling my buddy that. I was like, this girl I’ve been seeing, she’s literally a vampire.”

“But you didn’t mean literally,” she said.

“It’s a metaphor for feeling invisible,” he said. “Like how vampires don’t show up in the mirror.”

“I don’t feel invisible,” she said.

“And how you always come out all awkward in photos, like you don’t know what to do with your face.”


“The vampire metaphor,” he said. “Vampire is a metaphor for invisible or no one really sees you. It’s in that novel The Woman Warrior.

“When did you read a novel?” she asked.

“In college.”

“You’re remembering it wrong.” She straightened her long, silk-lined cloak, ran her fingers through her hair so her widow’s peak looked extra widowy. “Vampire is not a metaphor for invisible. You’re thinking of ghosts.”

“I’m not thinking of ghosts.” He touched his neck, brushing away a strand of shaggy hair. “We’re just going to have to agree to disagree.”

“No, we’re not,” she said. “I’m a vampire and you’re not, so you can’t tell me what vampires are and aren’t a metaphor for. You’re not an expert on everything.”

“Okay, miss vampire. Why don’t you tell me. What is vampire a metaphor for?”

His dark sweater had little holes in the weave, she realized. Through them, she could see the swell of his collarbone.

“Violent physical appetites,” she said.

He opened his mouth to argue, but she covered it with one long-clawed hand. She used the other hand to pull his head back. There it was, the soft neck. She stretched the skin tight over the small blue veins and took took a long, satisfying bite, savoring the thickness of his blood, the heavy smell of laundry detergent and unearned confidence.