AWP is kind of a social scene, but then, so is everything.

I’m at the Association of Writing Programs’ annual convention (this year, it’s in Boston). This is the big professional organization for people affiliated with writing programs (which, by extension, has turned it into the big convention for writers of literary fiction in the U.S.)

It’s good. Kind of big. Twelve thousand people. Pretty much all of them are writers. And I know barely anyone. I’m here with almost all of the MFA fiction writers (and some of the poets, too), which definitely assuages some of the loneliness. But I still feel a bit on the outside. Obviously, as a student, I’m a bit low-status. But it’s more than that.

I’ve come to realize that, regardless of their states purpose, almost all gatherings—AA meetings, churches, meetings at offices, corporate retreats, concerts, protests, etc—are basically social scenes. There are a bunch of regulars, who have the most connections (mostly with each other) and power, and they basically organize the whole thing for their own benefit. They’re the ones who the gathering is for. And, because of that, when outsiders come in, they always feel a bit rejected and shut out.

The important thing for the outsider is just to realize that the left-out feeling is a normal thing that everyone has to go through when they try to break in. And you can try to be friendly and outgoing and that helps a bit, but, really, the moment when you start to fit in is this weird, invisible transition. You come back a few times and, suddenly, you recognize people in the halls. Your schedule fills up. You get invited to dinners and parties. You start only going to panels that your friends and acquaintances are on. You don’t know quite how it happens, but suddenly you’re part of the in-group.

I’ve experienced this process a bunch of times. I was part of my college’s newspaper staff and twice a year we’d have banquets. During my first few, I stood in a corner and was desperately lonely and really made no attempt to talk to people or anything. But during my last few, I had a lot of fun. My first few science fiction conventions were miserable and lonely experiences. My last few were significantly easier and more filled with, like, talking to people and having them talk back to me.

So yeah, I imagine that my fifth AWP will be a riot.

3 thoughts on “AWP is kind of a social scene, but then, so is everything.

  1. debs

    Conferences can be grim. I think that the organisers should make a special effort to help newbies. Maybe a room you can go to when you’re overwhelmed with loneliness.

  2. Hel

    Yes. This. Exactly.

    When AWP was in DC a couple of years ago I went in the evenings to go see my friends and had a fine time drinking at one of the hotel bars. One of my Poetry professors was there and introduced me to another poet with whom he was conversing. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that my professor was introducing me to the poet so that she (the other poet) would have another person to talk to. I was only there to see my friends and thus that’s where my focus was. I wasn’t rude to her (I don’t think), but the conversation didn’t really extend beyond ‘Oh, hello, I write poetry too!’. I still feel kindof bad about it. My only excuse is I am the awkwardest of the awkward turtles. I cling to my friends not because I want to exclude people, but because I assume everyone around me is way more awesomer than I am and they don’t want to talk to me at all. Of course I’m sure most everyone else is undergoing the same mental thought process I am, but knowing that and being able to do something about it are two entirely different things. It’s like a screwy hazing ritual you can’t help but endure, and then inflict on others.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      It is hard. I sometimes notice when people (girlfriends, boyfriends, spouses, visiting cousins, or friends from back home) are being excluded from the conversation and I sometimes try to lob a question or two their way, but it’s extremely difficult to break out of the polarity of discussing familiar things with familiar people. Furthermore, often your friends don’t notice what you’re doing and just return the conversation back to arcane and alienating things. More often, I go home and realize, “Hey wait, this person never said anything all night,” and then I feel bad.

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