Aesthetic Drift #10 by Shawn McKee
Why I Go to AWP
Los Angeles is a metropolis unlike any other. After I got kicked out of a bar for allegedly being too drunk, I could have been back home in Orlando for all I knew. But I wasn’t in Orlando, I was somewhere else—a magical land of endless towering skyscrapers and a dazzling array of massive, glowing advertisement screens like something out of Blade Runner, on a smaller scale. Five days in L.A. for the AWP 2016 conference felt like one tightly-confined day with minimal sleep in-between hours.
After all the panels, readings, dinners, Ubers, and miles walked back and forth from the hotel to the convention center, I’m faced with the question of why I go to AWP in the first place.
Aside from being the premiere literary conference for writers all over the country, AWP is, for me, I guess, like the cabin in the Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill, where old friends periodically reunite to catch up on their lives, loves, and passions. Now that I think of it, that’s not at all like The Big Chill. I’m thinking more of Alan Alda’s The Four Seasons. I need to get my annoying 1980s baby boomer drama allusions right.
Theoretically, AWP is as much about absorbing as many panels as you can endure in one day as it is as test to see how many tweets you can emit ending in #AWP16. Of course, non-writers on Twitter may wonder just what in the hell #AWP16 means and why it’s trending, if at all, but that’s beside the point in this gargantuan whirlwind of an experience that, if anything, always turns out to be memorable in the three years that I’ve attended.
It’s February 2014, and I’m at my first AWP conference in Seattle as a MFA grad student from the University of Central Florida. I’m diligent in my approach to selecting panels. I take note of which ones seem the most useful and who I want to see the most and what notes I can take back home on my college ruled notebook in handwriting so sloppy, you’d think I’d suffered a stroke.
I’m excited to see Phillip Lopate, Chuck Palahniuk, Roxane Gay, Stephen Elliott, Sherman Alexie, and many other writers I may or may not be familiar with. But they’re here—and for an hour or so—they’re willing to share elements of their craft with me—a veritable nobody. I’m exhausted by the end of the day, but I still go out and have fun with my talented colleagues and take in all that Seattle has to offer. It rains a lot of Seattle rain, and my shoes are always soaked. I share a hotel room with four other guys, but the situation totally works. I absorb copious amounts of drink as though the government will be reinstating prohibition in a matter of days. By the end of the conference, I don’t know what the hell happened. All I have are my notes that the NSA couldn’t transcribe if they wanted to.
It’s March 2016, and I’m in L.A. for my third AWP conference. (I may have blacked out last year.) By the time I check into my hotel room by mid-afternoon, all I want to do is register and take a nap. Maybe this premature exhaustion’s due to the fact that I have a full-time job now—and a part time job that feels like a full-time job, but that’s another story. I can’t believe that it’s already March and that I’m in Los Angeles. I hope that I didn’t forget my toothbrush.
My friends and I meet up, all MFA graduates like myself. Many of them are enrolled in or pursing PhD programs. Meanwhile, I’m still working on thesis revisions. Time flies like a premature nuke launched from communist North Korea where the missile spins around like a pin wheel and explodes to the sound of that Price is Right losing horn. Uber is every bit important in L.A. as it is in Orlando. That’s just how I look at it. Their stupid rates keep jacking up around certain “fare times.”
We walk, for the most part, to the convention center. We Uber to West Hollywood where the diverse mountainous landscape can be seen beyond the sprawling strips of a city that looks a tad more faded and less glamorous than I had imagined. We drink margaritas and each nachos. We visit the “Museum of Death” where I reconnect with my morbid fascination with serial killers, cult leaders, and mass murdering tyrants.
Perhaps I should have went into investigative journalism. There’s still hope. It’s essentially a house with different rooms decked out in grotesque photos, themes, and video involving some of the most heinous people that the 20th century had to offer. Oddly enough, many of them are from California. Joan Didion was definitely onto something with The White Album.
The aesthetic of L.A.—which I’m including as Hollywood—is similar to any major city: noisy streets, hordes of people waiting at cross walks, massive tarps covering buildings mid-construction, benches, and variants of wandering or sleeping homeless—but I don’t recall seeing roads blocked off for filming last time I went to Washington D.C., or San Francisco, for that matter. I watch uniformed police officers rush the street and shoot a bad guy full of lead as cameras film. It looks almost like a street performance, but apparently it’s a television show called Training Day.
As I walk the streets, at a cool seventy six degrees, I notice that drivers in L.A. love to honk—probably more than they enjoy Starbucks. But don’t get me wrong, every person I run into is nice, almost suspiciously nice, especially bartenders and servers. It’s when I look at my extensive collection of receipts that I realize why. It’s very expensive to do anything out here. I ask my Uber driver if it’s expensive to live out here. He tells me, “very.” A few more days in L.A. and I’d be wandering the streets and sleeping on benches broke as the day I was born—I was born in Yuma Arizona, if you were wondering.
So back to the conference: I know there’s a lot that I’m leaving out. I have to mention first that many of the people I met in L.A. were from somewhere else, sort of like a magnified version of Orlando multiplied by one hundred stars on the “Hollywood Walk of Fame” (I’m sticking with that math analogy). Everyone out here, well most of everyone, is from somewhere else. And many of them, not all, but many, are aspiring actors. This should come as no surprise. The cliché is as evident as the fact that L.A. often substitutes as other major American cities in movies and television shows. It really could be a state all of its own. I’m wandering off topic again.
Most of my time at the 49th annual AWP is spent at the book fair. The physical layout is fantastic and well-spaced.
Gone is the squeezing through tight aisles to perennially glance at the most interesting booths. The experience is initially overwhelming, but that’s why you peruse in intervals. I spend a few hours at the book fair each day and pick up my fair share of flyers, buttons, books, journals, bookmarks, stickers, shirts, and mugs—enough to reach a satisfactory weight in my tote bag. Of course, I don’t gather near as much booty as I did my first AWP go-around. This time everything is “AWP lite.” I’m older and less inclined to take a bunch of shit back home.
I attend three, maybe four panels at the most. I have work to do back in the hotel room. I’m getting text messages from work reminding me of this fact. I go to the AWP dance party, but I don’t dance. The participants are all the more lucky. I miss the panel on book to film adaptation with Brett Easton Ellis. I don’t remember why. I always wanted to meet him. I see Cheryl Strayed in the hotel bar lobby and I ask my friends if I should get a selfie or a “groupie” with her, as the kids call them.
I’m advised multiple times against it.
I attend a panel on Comics in Literary Journals and there are multiple walkouts. I’ve rarely ever walked out on anything. Many years back, I ran out of the theater during Meet Wally Sparks, but that’s another story. An esteemed professor tells me that she gives panels upwards of ten minutes, and if they don’t deliver, she’s gone. I admire that. Maybe I need a few more AWPs under my belt before doing so. I don’t go to many panels this time, but writing is never far from my mind. There’s probably a story to write for each day. A week after the event, I realize that there are about a hundred other things to write about. If I ever needed a reason to explain why I go in the first place, that’s a start.
Shawn McKee (Episodes 179 and 184), despite still working on his thesis edits, is doing just fine.