Exploring the art of prose


AWP 2018

Another AWP has come and gone. This time we got palm trees, warmer weather for many, and late arrivals from the New York crowd, as a Nor’easter hit just as planes were scheduled to leave. Some committed New York writers even hopped in their cars and drove down the eastern seaboard once their flights were cancelled.

There’s always way too much to do at AWP, so it’s impossible to provide a comprehensive roundup, but here are a few things that caught our attention.


AWP Bookfair: Aisles were a little empty on Thursday, but crowds picked up on Friday and Saturday, as the late-arriving New York crowd appeared. Electric Literature had the best tote bag. One Story’s booth featured alligator ring toss and inflatable pink flamingos. Graywolf Press sold out of Carmen Maria Machado’s book on the first day. Lots of stickers and pencils and temporary tattoos and tote bags and candy. Not to mention books and literary journals.

Whale Prom: The offsite, rogue bookfair was held in a separate venue on Friday, and featured many small presses. This was started, in part, as a reaction to the rising costs of participating at AWP. The venue was packed. We won’t be surprised if Whale Prom gets even bigger and better next year in Portland.


 The Historical Women: Reimagining Past Narratives Through the Contemporary Female Perspective

  • Featured writers Chanelle Benz, Danielle Dutton, Amelia Gray, and Min Jin Lee
  • Allow your fascination with research to take you to unexpected places
  • Some writers begin with interiority and layer the research in later; others begin with the research and then develop characters
  • For Dutton, the book changed when she changed the POV to first person. Suddenly the protagonist became a real person, rather than simply a character
  • The focus on historical women now is due in part to the increased emphasis on social justice; we are now shining the light on the unknown women
  • Activism is documenting the lives of those who are not documented


Finding the Understory: What Connects a Collection

  • Featured writers Mia Alvar, Ramona Ausubel, Helen Phillips, Deb Olin Unferth, and Laura van den Berg
  • By resisting novelization, collections gain a connective resonance
  • Stories show you the consciousness of the writer at the time of creation; collections can therefore be an exploration of the self
  • Subtle through-lines can often be more important than linked characters
  • Essays to read: Not-Knowing by Donald Barthelme and Only Collect by Peter Ho Davies
  • Collections to read: Edward P. Jones. Look for the connections between Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children
  • Consider the difference between repetition and echoes
  • The first story matters. Think of it as a welcoming hand


Past as Present: The Relevance of History in Fiction

  • Featured writers Allison Amend, Amy Brill, Alexander Chee, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Yoojin Grace Wuertz
  • We write about the past to resurrect those lost to history; to create a parallel to the present; to explore who gets to tell the story; to examine life without cell phones (it is now impossible to get lost or to disappear)
  • James Baldwin quote: “History is literally present in all we do.”
  • Exercise from Perkins-Valdez: Without doing research, write a scene in 1950, 1850, 1750. You will realize how much you already know. Fiction is an act of the imagination; if you lose that to research, you will lose the magic.
  • Do enough research for context and framework, but don’t over-research
  • Allison Amend: “The space for a novel is between the historical spaces.”
  • Suggestion: Keep the book you don’t want to write around to remind you of what you do want to write.


George Saunders gave the keynote speech on Thursday evening to a packed house and a standing ovation. Although parts of the speech were familiar to anyone who’s heard Saunders speak before, he’s both smart and amusing, and he knows how to speak to a large crowd.

On Friday, Carmen Maria Machado and Lesley Nneka Arimah read from their prize-winning debut short story collections (Her Body and Other Parties and What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky) and spoke with Richard Russo. Each writer was given significant time to read, so Machado was able to read “Inventory,” and Arimah read both “The Future Looks Good” and “What is a Volcano?” The conversation afterwards with Russo was enlightening and inspiring, as both women spoke about writing their first collections. Some highlights of their conversation:

  • Arimah: “The MFA is not the end of the learning.”
  • Part of the process of developing a collection is minimizing the difference between the story in one’s imagination and the story on the page.
  • Consider all the different ways a story can be told
  • The magical world is not magical to the characters involved
  • Good questions to ask yourself:
    • What are your interests?
    • What are your obsessions?
    • What kind of writer are you?
  • Let yourself become the writer you need to be

An offsite reading entitled “Prelude to a Debut” featured writers Jamel Brinkley, Renee Simms, and Nafissa Thompson-Spires on Friday. Each writer read a wonderful story from their forthcoming debut collection, and these are collections to pre-order: A Lucky Man, by Jamel Brinkley; Meet Behind Mars by Renee Simms; and Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires.

On Saturday evening, Rivka Galchen and Claire Messud read briefly from their most recent work (Little Labors and The Burning Girl) and then spoke with Pen America’s Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf. The women spoke about motherhood and writing, with Galchen, as always, entertaining the crowd with her observations on life and writing. Messud made the interesting point that, as a parent, one is witness to a child’s perspective and that, in turn, creates remembrances of one’s own childhood. The past is therefore opened in a multi-layered way.


The Kenyon Review/One Story/Tin House party was packed and the place to be on Thursday night, with Tin House’s Lance Cleland manning the sets DJ’d by writers such as Kaveh Akbar, Manuel Gonzales, and Claire Vaye Watkins.

The Marriott bar was the place to see and be seen.

Coffee lines were ridiculously long. Fried food was everywhere.

See you next year in Portland! Save the date: March 27-30, 2019.