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Weekly Wrap: How We Make Use of Conferences

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Thank you to Enrico Casarosa for what came in the mail. Gorgeous! I’ll share soon when things aren’t so crazy. And Lance, we’re all thinking about you in Rock Creek.


Okay. The Question of the Week concerned the AWP conference. AWP stands for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and each year they have a conference in a different city, where writers and editors and publishers congregate. Not the big guns – not Random House and The New Yorker and those types – but the medium to small guys, like Ploughshares, Tin House, Other Press, and so on. And what do they do when they congregate and how useful is all of this? Well, it depends. What I can do is share my experience of attending the AWP conference in Vancouver, and maybe that will shed a little light.

When I went to AWP two years ago, I was the managing editor of a little literary magazine called Night Train. We paid some reasonable fee to have a table at this conference, and the senior and founding editor, Rusty Barnes, went, as well. If you’ve ever run a small literary magazine, you know that there is always the issue of a miniscule budget. So with Night Train covering the expense of two tickets to Canada, two hotel rooms, and the cost of getting several boxes of the magazine there, as well, we did not want to waste our chance to make something of this trip. What did we want to accomplish? Basically, we wanted more people to know of our magazine, and we hoped they’d find that it was better than the others. And maybe, rather than meeting more people who wanted to submit their stories and add to our workload, we’d actually meet people who wanted to subscribe or even help fund the magazine.

Now imagine a long and hopeful plane ride in which small-time editors feel important and feel as though their time in Canada will lead to a new level of glory in the business. Also, imagine that they have brought along two things they do not get paid to do – one, to write the novel that is never good enough to send out, and two, to read about 70 stories that have been submitted to the magazine that week for potential publication, though all of them will get rejection letters.

When I arrived in Canada, and waited in a customs line filled with hundreds of editors, I experienced what would be the beginning of my understanding that I am not really the introvert I always thought I was. In fact, I found that I was a closeted extrovert. And worse, later, when I told this to Mr. Henderson, I discovered that I was maybe the only one who ever believed I was shy.

Let the networking begin! In line, I chatted up editors, talked about Night Train, exchanged cards, and found that every editor there believed they were publishing “the best and edgiest fiction of our times.” We all looked slightly shocked and annoyed with each other when we said the names of our literary publications and heard each other say, “Hmm, I don’t know that one.” This theme is going to become increasingly important (and depressing) as my story of AWP continues

On to the conference. Now my focus, clearly, was on the bookfair portion of the conference, but when you sign in, you’re given a press-pass looking name tag and a catalogue of the most ridiculous number of overlapping panels. They had everything from panels of debut novelists talking about what they learned to readings by people I considered literary gods to absolutely trivial stuff that reminded me of joke Ph.D. dissertation topics. I moved right along to the bookfair.

Imagine a giant room, the size of a ballroom, and now make a mouse maze within that room, using folding tables, and on each table are books containing “the best, edgiest fiction of our times.” Say there are thirty rows and in each row there are 20 folding tables touching, and the tables that don’t fit into the ballroom are lining the hallway. Okay, and now I sit at table 400-something while editors and conference goers wind their way through the mouse maze. Here we go!

Rusty preferred to sit at the table and talk geeky deep-sixed literature with those who stopped to say hello, and I ventured out, visiting every single table to get the pulse of each editor and magazine. From a writer’s perspective, that was probably the most useful thing I did in Vancouver because right away you learn which magazines are arrogant and clique-y, which are run by stodgy or just-this-side-of-the-mental-institution editors, and which ones are compatible with your own style. Once I went to every table, I found myself making frequent return-trips to Agni, Post Road, Bloom, Ninth Letter, and CLMP because, frankly, some people are way more fun to hang out with than others.

The idea of standing out became secondary to enjoying time with people who share your passions. The other thing was to get the best swag without looking greedy. “Swag,” for those of you who’ve never gotten any, means the free things (rulers, clocks, t-shirts) given to you with hopes that you’ll remember a particular publication. My kids, for example, got One Story tattoos from the Vancouver AWP. That is swag.

I roomed with my good friend, Gail Siegel, and staying up talking and eating and being overwhelmed together was really the best of the trip. Because, by day two of the conference, I definitely began to experience this “We’re all going to die” feeling. And by that, I mean the overwhelming sense that everyone is a writer and no one is a reader, that our dreams of making a profit were stupid because we couldn’t even give the magazines away. And who reads these little publications? And what of the poor fools who are there to hand-sell their genius novels and will be lucky to sell five?

It was really really depressing, because as each person left the conference, you started to see piles of brand new books (the books we’d all given away in hopes of our publications and our writers being discovered) lying all around the trash bins in the lobby. People were dumping books on the way to the airport – and I’d do the same – and it felt bad in ways that were deep and lasting.

Also lasting were friendships, of course, but it’s a mixed bag, and it puts a visual on the uphill journey of the writer. Maybe for some of you, it’s better not to have that visual weighing down your hope and confidence, which are the things we absolutely must hold on to in order to keep going.


Thanks to this week’s guest, Jeff Lependorf, who is the perfect blend of hopeful and practical in the world of indie publishing. And thank you to those who answered the Question of the Week: Gail Siegel, Robin Slick, Juliet, Carolyn Burns Bass, mikel k poet, Kim Chinquee, Lori Oliva, Terry, Lauren Baratz-Logsted, Marcy, Daryl, Alexander Chee, bruce hoppe, and J.D. Smith.

Finally, if you’re going to AWP and you take some good pictures, I’m happy to post them.

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  • LaurenBaratz-Logsted
    February 23, 2007

    Susan, DELETE DELETE DELETE DELETE DELETE? And if you get a spare minute, you might want to stop by Backspace today: In the Diversions section, I started a new thread last night called “The Pool-Hall Hos, Our Ongoing Story” wherein we’re writing a group piece about Sally Sloat, DELETE DELETE DELETE DELETE DELETE.

  • Ellen Meister
    February 23, 2007



    Anyway, you’re absolutely right about publishing. It’s a completely absurd and thankless industry with worst business model and hardly any real consumers. There’s got to be a better way to not make a living.

    Maybe tonight we can ask Susan Isaacs how she does it.

  • Gail Siegel
    February 23, 2007

    There are a few details that Susan didn’t mention — her bravery in reading at the sparsely-attended open mike the first night I arrived. Her reading was brilliant despite the strange crowd.

    Staying with Sue is an inspiration (and I’ve been lucky enough to be under the same roof with her a number of times) because she’s writing when I go to sleep, and writing when I wake up. One day, when Ms. Henderson finds the right publisher, they are going to have to roll out several books at once — and happily for all of us.

    Also, she’s very funny and does NOT snore.

  • Betsy
    February 23, 2007


  • Rusty
    February 23, 2007

    Ah yes. AWP Vancouver. Where I lost my voice eventually but perfected a 30-second spiel about Night Train that serves me well even unto this day. I’ll be there again this year, but will be wandering the bookfair instead of being locked into a table.


  • Robin Slick
    February 23, 2007



    DELETE DELETE DELETE DELETE DELETE. Now your books…and the brilliant manuscript I read…that’s where your future lies.

    Getting back to your original topic this week…I loved your thoughts on your experience at AWP. They were both scary and hilarious.

  • Carolyn Burns Bass
    February 23, 2007

    Susan, I still have my copy of Night Train that I received at the first Backspace conference (2005). At dinner I remember seeing a cute brunette sitting at the table with all the big names, but I didn’t know who it was. Looking back I realize it was you and am damn sorry I didn’t stretch out my hand and say hello.

  • Aurelio
    February 23, 2007


    This post was utterly depressing but also a must read for all of us. It reminds me to keep focused on my part, creating stories, and not be held down my the weight of competition out there.

    Are we really competing against anyone anyway if our work is true to ourselves?

    We can’t control it all. Good to be aware of what’s out there though.

    (BTW, Susan, I got Enrico and Ronnie’s gift too! Those guys rock.)

  • Juliet
    February 23, 2007


  • Susan Henderson
    February 23, 2007

    Lauren – I just figured out how to get back into Backspace. When I switched computers I lost all of my automatic log-ins. All better now, though no time yet for a diversion. My kids are off school this week, and we’re going ice skating in a half hour or so.


    Gail – What a sweetheart.

    Betsy – I’m so glad you understand!

    Rusty – This comment will not be to Rusty but about him. First of all, if you’re going to AWP, do track Rusty down and take a look at his beautiful magazine. Rusty reads and subscribes to more lit mags than anyone I know, so he’s not one of those guys who says he supports small press but really doesn’t. Okay, the other comment about Rusty is where we diverged as editors. Both of us, clearly, are smart cookies with amazing literary taste. But Rusty’s comment about ‘DELETE DELETE DELETE DELETE DELETE anyway,’ shows where he’s so wrong. Because while Rusty wanted Night Train to rise above the other magazines purely on its literary worth, I would have been the first editor on staff to try to get Paris Hilton to submit a haiku. Not only that, I could have stood proud while Rusty cringed.

    But Robin – Don’t you remember DELETE DELETE DELETE DELETE DELETE? I live for things like that.

    Carolyn – I’ll be there again this year, and we’re sitting together, okay?

    Aurelio – I’ve been missing you!

    Juliet – Ha! Perfect!

  • n.l. belardes
    February 23, 2007


    OK, this was a thoroughly absolutely unlikely depressing blog entry from our normally chipper Susie girl. This was more like Souixsee and the Banshees. I give up. I’m joining the foreign legion… I’m strapping bubble gum to my head and try to bungee bubble jump from the Eiffel Tower.

    Seriously, this blog was terrific. I’m energized, because you just told me what Noveltown is doing is RIGHT. Starting a lit magazine, start small, start grassroots, get advertising, and give the mag away… And… it’s got newspaper and blog qualities to it.

    And, you gave me a great idea. Maybe Perez Hilton will be on the cover of the next issue and one lucky winner can be on the back cover! Hell yeah!

    I agree: a lot of literary types are stuffy… Noveltown is only going to balance zany and wacky and great lit… who can ask for more?

    Take the lit magazine to the readers… TO THE READERS! GRASSROOTS.

    Slight and polite criticism and difference between me and most literary blogs. Many lit blogs are for writers/publishers. I take my blog to the potential customers… (not that each other aren’t customers).

    Stay tuned for The Noveltown Review!

    Guerrilla marketing.

    It’s gonna be good.

    I’m peeing my pants! Oo!

  • LaurenBaratz-Logsted
    February 23, 2007

    Susan, ice-skating with the kids definitely sounds like more fun than visiting my, um, Ho thread. It’ll keep. And DELETE DELETE DELETE DELETE DELETE.

  • Kim Chinquee
    February 24, 2007


    Love the story about your AWP in Vancouver. I feel sorry to have missed that one. I miss working with you and Night Train.

    Oh, and I’m late in response to an earlier note this week: Our AWP panel for this year is Thursday at 1:30 and listed as The Online Writing Community and Flash Fiction:Words Across the World; it includes panel memebers Claudia Smith, Darlin Neal, Kathy Fish, Jeff Landon, Liesl Jobson (who is coming all the way from South Africa) and (from Australia) Girija Tropp.

  • Ellen Meister
    February 25, 2007

    Lol. You’re like Richard Nixon. One of these days those missing 18 minutes of tape will surface!

  • Susan Henderson
    February 25, 2007

    Ellen – Ha! I know. Oh, the things I can’t say… !

  • Claudia
    February 25, 2007

    Thanks for this story Sue. Oh, we do this because we love it don’t we? And it can be a rocky, potholed, stinky road sometimes. When I was fourteen I thought all published writers must live in houses climbing with ivy, dressed in L.L. Bean, and spending most of their time thinking poetic thoughts. Now I know better.

    I went to my first AWP last year. It was in Austin, where I live; I would have been foolish not to go. I met writers I’d known for years but never met in person, and it made me feel connected to the writing world in a way I hadn’t in years. It meant a lot to me and I carried it with me all year long.

  • n.l. belardes
    February 26, 2007

    There’s a lot of deleting going on…

  • Linda
    February 27, 2007

    I’m going to the AWP in Atlanta this week. Any scoop on the reception portion of this? I’m trying to book my time accordingly. I had to laugh at your description of the overlapping panels. There’s one this year called Inventors in the Temple. Hmm.

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Susan Henderson