Last week, approximately ten million writers (or what felt like it, at least) descended upon the Hyatt Regency Hotel (we also took over the convention center across the street) in Downtown Denver for the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. When I first started going to the conference, back in 1995 (it was in Pittsburgh that year) the conference registration fees were twenty bucks (this year? $185), there were about 500 people in attendance (this year? about three thousand. Easily), the journal room had about 20 tables (this year? The entire second floor of the Denver Convention Center), a somewhat manageable ten-page selection of panels spanning 3 days (this year? A giant phonebook size book-worth of about 500 panels, and readings, spanning 4 days). The sheer size of this conference is a testament to the burgeoning popularity of Creative Writing Programs at Universities across the country. Famous luminaries mingled with unknown writing teachers, graduate writing students, and first-time published novelists and poets handing out postcards promoting their newly-published tomes. The only way to enjoy this smorgasbord of writing is to put away your complimentary planner for the conference (given to you along with your giant conference panel book upon registration) and just allow yourself to wander in and out of reading rooms, panel discussions, bookfairs and happy hour celebrations. That’s what I did this year and I had a blast. I learned some things, too, about the writing world. Here are the top five things I took away from my three days in Denver:
1. Writers like to drink
I know it’s a cliche, but the bar at the Hyatt Regency was at capacity from the time it opened up at 9 AM until it closed down at 2 AM. On Saturday night, the night the conference ended, they had to open up 2 extra temporary bar carts to accommodate the drinkers. When my friend Jason went up to order his sidecar (I know, I know, but he’s a wonderful poet with 2 great books out. So he’s allowed to drink whatever he wants, in my opinion) the bartender mentioned that they were out of vodka, and almost out of rum, and most mixers. “Who are you people?” the bartender asked him. “What conference is this?” He’d been working that bar for five years, and had served conferences every weekend, and had never seen his bar go dry before.
2. Writers like their Apple products
It’s just a rough estimate, but I’d say 99.9 percent of conference papers were delivered using an IPAD. These IPADS (and accompanying I-Phones) were also happily deployed at happy hour gatherings, or at dinners, or book launch parties, for any number of reasons. Seriously, I’ve never seen so many Apple products in my life. Denver was one big Apple commercial.
3. There are way too many writing students who will be seriously disappointed when they don’t get tenure-track teaching jobs when they graduate this year
I found out from a friend of mine I graduated with that at Michigan (my MFA Alma Mater, which was recently ranked as the #2 MFA Program in the country, after Iowa, by Poets and Writers Magazine) they received 885 applicants this year for 12 fiction spots. There are now 150 MFA programs in the U.S. (and this isn’t counting low residency writing programs or MA and PHD writing programs). All of these programs are dumping out graduates each year onto an already over-saturated market. It seems the smart applicants are using MFA programs now (at least the top-ranked ones, like Iowa, Michigan and UVA) as paid internships to finish up writing their novels already under contract at major publishers. This is what Nami Mun (a fiction writer I’ve been in awe of since her debut novel came out a couple of years ago) told me she did when she went into the Michigan program a few years ago. Sure, you have to take a few classes while you’re there, but really the top programs have serious money to offer their students, and who else is going to pay you to finish up that novel?
4. Even big-name writers still get rejected
This is the bomb Sherman Alexie let drop at his reading for the Beloit Poetry Journal’s anniversary celebration. He gets tons of rejection slips (many without even any writing! just the standard blank rejection slip!) and has taken to calling them “spankings.” He admitted that he’s still a bit bruised when he gets the slips, but it’s proof that in the saturated writing world, when the top journals are getting a couple of hundred submissions every month, even the big names can’t count on automatic acceptance. (That’s a blurry cell phone picture of Alexie at his reading at the top of the page).
5. And Finally, Writers are Insecure
The lines are drawn at AWP. Between non-book people, one-book people, one-book people whose books have won awards, two-book people, and heavy-hitters like Michael Chabon (who gave the celebratory opening night talk) and George Saunders. At AWP, you quickly realize that there’s always someone more important above you on the totem pole of the writing world. So just go with it. Take those spankings you get from potential agents, editors and publishers in stride.