Dispatch from a Writing Conference

I’m fresh back from the AWP Conference/convention/book fair in Los Angeles last week — well, fresh-ish, and freshly recuperated after a week of rest — and ready to share.

AWP, the Association of Writing Programs, puts on a huge convention every year. This year, 12,000 writers and related people converged on Los Angeles. I knew a couple hundred of them, and now I know about fifty more.

AWP is a many-tentacled monster that can be overwhelming. Here’s how I broke it down for my AWP experience.


Four to six writers (or fewer if some of them don’t show, which is fairly typical, especially if they are a big name you hoped to see, cough, Nick Flynn) sit behind a table, some of them partially blocked from view by a podium, and discuss a topic.

Among this year’s 500 offerings were “I Got You Babe: The (Dis)Harmonies of Collaboration,” “Affrilachian Poets: 25 Years of Redefining Appalachia” and “Furries, Fairies, and Fetuses: When Earnestness Derails the Short Story” (to name a few titles literally grabbed at random just now from the catalog).


Burning Down the Walls panel
Michele Filgate speaking on a panel moderated by Anna March (at left) on “Burning Down the Walls:The Art and Importance of Writing Essays That Can Change the World,” which also featured Jamia Wilson, Allison Wright, and Megan Stielstra. I got a good angle because it was so packed that some of us dragged chairs over from the eating area next door.

Book Fair

800 booths from micro (one table shared by a couple of publications) to glamorous (swaths of logo-bedecked fabric beckoning the emerging writer to sign on for $30,000 in loans in exchange for an MFA degree of arguable use). Writers wander, glassy-eyed and anxious, from booth to booth, pretending they are looking for a friend and sometimes making, then breaking, eye contact with strangers.

You can buy books here, usually for a discount. The bigger the publisher, the cheaper the books, including free hardbacks from some major publishers. Some booths give out swag, from pens to air fresheners to candy. Apparently some give tote bags, but I never found those. I was too shy to take a pen from Third Man Books, which feels exactly like the time in college when I didn’t know if we were allowed to use notes on a take-home exam, so I didn’t, and a graduate student laughed at me when I told him. (I still got a B+, so who had the last laugh? That’s right! He did!)

I did meet some editors, including Jonathan Silverman from 99: The Press, which published Daniel Nester‘s SHADER, which I had in my suitcase to read (now signed!), and a few of the nice folks at Blue Earth Review, which published my essay “Tooth Fairy” in issue 15.

Blue Earth Review Journal
Self-promotional photo of my essay in Blue Earth Review

Writers in hallways 

You might run into friends in hallways. You might recognize Wendy Ortiz as you both search for conference registration (she’s really nice!). You might see someone who has wronged you and pretend you did not see them (thank you, smartphone). You might be ignored by an editor, as Kavita Das was, while the editor pitches his journal to the woman sitting next to you as you eat a granola bar, wondering if you are wearing an invisibility cloak or just your skin. You might rest against a wall and watch the security guard who politely tells no less than forty people in forty minutes that this door is only an exit, the entrance is that way.

Readings and events featuring writers

AWP is chockablock with events featuring writers reading their work or speaking about it. You can’t go to all of these, so forget that. Some you aren’t invited to, such as the PBS interview happening with Cheryl Strayed on a couch on a raised dais in the middle of the book fair, while someone miked up Roxane Gay for her turn.

I made it to what I think was the hottest off-site ticket, a reading called Fierce Verse: Feminist as F*ck, featuring Roxane Gay, Lidia Yuknavitch, Amy Poehler, Eileen Myles, Randa Jarrar and Amber Tamblyn. Then Amy Poehler also brought out Carrie Brownstein and I almost died. 

Feminist as F*ck Reading
Carrie Brownstein and Amber Tamblyn helping Amy Poehler out with her re-imagining of the first scene of “Entourage,” giving voice to the silenced female characters.

I’m pretty sure everyone wanted to climb up Carrie Brownstein’s legs and make out with her. Case in point:

Carrie Brownstein and Roxane Gay tweet for the win

What seems to have been the hottest ticket on-site at AWP was Claudia Rankine’s keynote address. Unfortunately, I missed it, because I was partaking in …

Parties with writers

Some people say this is the best part of AWP. Before AWP, I thought “Oh, bosh,” with the swaggering self-doubt of someone who was terrified I would not be invited to any parties. After AWP, I must agree with the party-lovers.

I didn’t take pictures, but at a gathering the first night of AWP I got to meet Zoe Zolbrod, author of the forthcoming THE TELLING; Donna Talarico, editor of Hippocampus and founder of the Hippocamp creative nonfiction conference; and Sarah Tomlinson, among a dozen others.

On the last night of AWP, I tagged along with my roommate to a couple of parties. One was hosted by Tin House on the roof of the Ace Hotel:

LA sunshine. Not pictured: Fancy authors, cocktails, people lounging on chaises near postage-stamp-sized pool, me.

Oh, wait! I was there!
Kristen Arnett, Susanna Donato, Michele Filgate, Ace Hotel LA, Tin House party, AWP 16

Why, my husband and a friend asked, did I have to be a plus-one instead of receiving my own invitation to this party, given that it was hosted by Tin House, where I met these fabulous women, who were invited? The answer is, I do not know, but I think it’s because their names have appeared on TinHouse.com, while mine has not. Yet. (And by the way, you probably want to stalk Kristen Arnett‘s writing so you can sound jaded by the time her debut fiction collection FELT IN THE JAW comes out next year from Split Lip Press.)

I was genuinely invited to a get-together with the smart, great editors of Okey-Panky (which is why I missed the keynote), and everyone was invited to the party on Saturday night at the Last Bookstore, which has to be one of the coolest places ever. Go there!


Resting involves the hotel room, and while my hotel room was odd and small, I did the other part right, which was to bring my own food and pick a GREAT roommate. I had only met my roomie, Michele Filgate, at Tin House Summer Writers Workshop last year, but something told me we would get along fine — we are both hard-working, a little neurotic, like-to-enjoy-ourselves, extraverted introverts. Now I know that not only are all those things true, we’re also both down to earth, and she is a really great person. Also, when she gets a new book, she opens it and smells it, which I find completely wonderful and adorable.

Playing hooky

This year, I gave myself permission to do whatever I wanted, and the playing hooky part was AWESOME. The only problem is that I missed most of the panels I wanted to attend, which was mainly sad when I got to the panel late and realized it was super good and I wished I’d been there the whole time.

Not all of these photos were taken during AWP. I brought my family along and we spent a few spring-break days beforehand. But all of them are LA … weird, smelly, kinda grueling, kinda wonderful.

Left Handed Guitarist, Evan HollowayIntermittentGunfire



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  1. April 15

    Please tell me you stood there at Bela Lugosi’s star and sang in your best Peter Murphy voice to the humiliation of your family members.

    • Susanna
      April 15

      Oh man, I wish! Actually it was dark, and the Walk of Fame was the last thing we did, and it felt rather unsafe, and my husband was about to implode from exhaustion, so I saw Bela’s name and gasped and quickly snapped a photo while trying to be real slick and not let anyone see that I was a Raging Tourist.

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