AWP: An Opportunity to Exercise Literary Citizenship
by Lori A. May
The annual AWP Conference & Bookfair is just around the corner. This year, writers from across the country and beyond will gather in Seattle during Feb 26-Mar 1, 2014. AWP is by far my favorite literary gathering of the year. It is the one event I bookmark in my calendar years in advance and for which I schedule everything else around; it’s a must-attend event in my books. Just last year I wrote a brief introduction to AWP on my blog where I also shared an excerpt, “Chapter 12: AWP Membership and Services,” from The Low-Residency MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Creative Writing Students.
I often speak about what opportunities writers may find during AWP. Yet in addition to the socializing, schmoozing, and general knowledge intake, there are also countless ways in which to exercise literary citizenship. That is, AWP presents an open door for writers to help others during this whirlwind week of events.
But what is literary citizenship? And why, of all places, would an emerging writer elect to spend time doing activities seemingly unrelated to his or her own writing path?
Simply put, literary citizenship is a topical term for engaging in the community with the intent of giving as much as, if not more so, than we take. Our literary world is a social ecosystem that relies on others: readers, writers, editors, reviewers, publishers, booksellers, and so on. The writing and publishing world is one made of relationships. Writing itself may be a somewhat solitary activity, but once the story or poem is ‘done’ we rely on others to read, share, and publish our work. Yet there are so many levels of participation from others in this community. We turn to others for support after rejection; we hope others celebrate alongside our successes. We hope to develop positive connections with readers and editors; we long to feel a part of this community that has called us in some way to participate.
Yes, there is much to personally gain in becoming active members of the arts and at-large community, but literary citizenship calls on our acts of giving, of giving back to the ecosystem so that we may actively ensure its sustainability. The beautiful thing is that it needn’t take much time or skill to offer something of ourselves, of our passions, to others.
Simple acts of literary citizenship can include reviewing another’s book, helping set up a reading event, proofreading a peer’s draft, or simply showing up at an event and being mindfully present. These acts of kindness needn’t cost us a thing; the best ‘gifts,’ as in other aspects of life, come from an authentic place within. We know that giving, indeed, is better than receiving.
It is through my activity in the writing community-at-large that I feel more like a writer, like an engaged participant in this network of dedicated creatives. It is through my involvement with small presses and literary journals that I feel a part of something bigger than myself, better than my own small presence. Contributing to, and impacting, the literary world is something outside of our own selves, and yet it benefits our personal goals and ambitions as we can’t help but grow as writers, as people, when we step outside of our writing dens and into the buzz of literary culture.
How, then, might a writer participate as a literary citizen during AWP? The organization itself has a number of volunteer opportunities to assist with the conference, but there are simple activities anyone, from any walk of literary life, can take under her wing during those few fast-paced days:
- help a bookfair exhibitor hand out materials and attract passers-by for an hour
- or, merely cover a coffee or lunch break for a bookfair exhibitor
- offer your time to an off-site reading and help set up chairs or hand out programs
- approach exhibitors you don’t know to introduce yourself to something new
- ask a literary journal how you can volunteer as a book reviewer or marketing assistant
- seek out publishers and writers from your region that you can help in some way when you both return home
- introduce people you know to others you just met; help make connections for others
- introduce yourself to the person behind you in the coffee line-up and ask what he’s writing/editing/publishing
- take photos of panels and speakers and then send them to those speakers
- when you meet a representative from a journal or publisher that doesn’t work with your genre, consider who you know that would find them a perfect fit and make that introduction
- most of all, engage: attend panels and approach the speakers after their sessions; be helpful to newbies who need directions in and outside of the conference; and make it a goal to come away from the conference having met at least three or four new people—and then make a point of contacting these folks after the conference winds down
AWP hosts a world of opportunities—for your own writing life and for engaging with others throughout the year. Yes, it’s a somewhat hectic place with too much to do and too many people to meet, and yet that’s precisely why it’s a goldmine for making things happen, for meeting new people and jumpstarting relationships that can extend throughout the year, throughout your life as a writer.
Going into the conference with the mindset to give back, to assist where your help is welcome, and to connect with others in meaningful ways can help fine-tune your social map for the week. While there are countless ways to participate as a literary citizen and you should definitely customize what works for you, I hope you’ll have a look at a few additional resources I’m pleased to share:
- In the May 2010 issue of The Writer (pg 8-9), I interviewed author Matt Bell, agent Andrea Hurst, editor Leah Maines, and author/editor Kate Gale about how to play an active part in the writing community (online link)
- In November 2013, I shared a round-up of resources and discussions about literary citizenship on my blog (online link)
And, lastly, a personal offering; if you’d like to ask more specific questions about AWP or literary citizenship, feel free to contact me personally at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll do my best to give helpful responses—and I’d love to shake your hand in Seattle.
Lori A. May writes across the genres, road-trips half the year, and drinks copious amounts of coffee. Her books include Square Feet and The Low-Residency MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Creative Writing Students. Her writing has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, Writer’s Digest, Brevity, Midwestern Gothic, and The Writer. Her editorial roles have included working with Kaylie Jones Books, Creative Nonfiction, and other independent presses. She is also the founding editor of Poets’ Quarterly. Lori is a graduate of the Wilkes University MFA program, where she was awarded the Norris Church Mailer Fellowship. She is a frequent guest speaker at writing conferences and residencies across North America. For more info, visit her website at www.loriamay.com.