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Reflecting on AWP 2012 and literary sisterhood

I’ve been home two days now from the AWP annual conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs). For me, the conference started slow this year. The panels I attended on Thursday and Friday weren’t very useful and I didn’t feel inspired. I started to wonder if the panels were just an excuse for writers to get together with far-flung writer friends. I loved hanging out with Janice and Jean and Rosellen and Carol and Marie and Margaret and Jeanne, and with folks from Red Hen Press and Stonecoast MFA. I bought and started reading fellow Red Hen author Michael Quadland’s brand new novel, Offspring. (It’s a wonderful read; check it out). But the chaos and noise of 10,000 writers was overwhelming. And not in a good way.

Saturday, day three, didn’t start well either. First of all, I didn’t sleep well Friday night – insomnia and bad dreams chased me into dawn. And several of my friends had to leave early. So I was looking forward to my political fiction panel with Rosellen Brown and Tracy Daughterty (assigned the last slot of the three day conference) but not much else.

My attitude changed in the ladies’ bathroom at 8:30 a.m., when the woman drying her hands at the sink said hello and we began a conversation. Turns out she is Edith Pearlman, whose recent story collection Binocular Vision, I’ve read twice, and loved. We were both en route to her panel – Women of a Certain Age. The panel was totally delightful, inspiring even, as five elegant and eloquent women writers opened their hearts. I was not the only person in the audience with tears in my eyes and a catch in my throat. This was because the panelists embraced the audience as sisters rather than passive listeners, and because of the truth of their observations and the beauty of their prose. The panelists, all with long and successful careers, also embraced those in the audience who are – like me – literary late bloomers, and welcomed us into their literary sisterhood.

Enjoying the brisk air and occasional snowflakes on Michigan Avenue afterwards, I realized that it took a while, but I finally hit my AWP stride. Once again I felt a profound gratitude to be part of a community of people for whom words are magic and books still live.
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