Is AWP for You?
Written by
Cynthia Hartwig
March 2012
Written by
Cynthia Hartwig
March 2012

Millenium Park at Night 2012 Copyright Cynthia Hartwig

Cynthia at Two Pens here. Exhausted but energized by three days of AWP.

I introduced myself to Kamy, co-founder of She Writes, at her panel (who knew she’s a knock out in person!) and she asked me to recap a few AWP highpoints for my fellow She Writers.

Bathroom and coffee line… bliss?

Since AWP runs a bare bones conference to keep the costs affordable, you had to buy your own coffee. Imagine 10,000 writers without coffee service and you’d think the line to Starbucks was as long as the line to hell. Au contraire, lines were a wonderful place to connect. Writers love to talk about writing and every place you waited in line, you could get a mini-report on things you missed. I had conversations with writers from Maine to Texas, learning how Alice Munro moves time around in her stories and why Jaimy Gordon interviewed ninety-year-old black horse trainers to get the voices right in Lord of Misrule, a National Book Award winner.

How to write for NPR by interpreting the meaning of your stories.

In a panel of four Radio Lab producers, I learned something important about writing for radio. Because you can’t reread a passage or turn back the page as you can in print, radio writing requires that you tell a story and help the listener get the point. In print, you let the reader make her conclusions but in radio, you do more active interpretation. Think of any story you’ve loved on This American Life and this advice makes sense, doesn’t it?

When Henrietta Lack’s daughter held her mother’s cells, her laugh was immortalized on tape before the story was told in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Rebecca Skloot told the story of how Deborah, Henrietta Lacks’s daughter, reacted the first time she held her mother’s cells in a Johns Hopkins lab. But what made me cry was hearing the actual tape of Deborah’s little intake of breath when the researcher handed her the frozen vial of her mother’s cells. Rebecca recorded all her interviews with the Lacks’ family and in the NPR panel mentioned above, the radio producer played that emotional moment. Imagine my surprise when the good looking dark haired woman squirming shoulder to shoulder with me got up and went on the stage! OMG, as my daughter says.  I touched Rebecca Skloot’s arm!  Do good writing cells rub off?

Readings, panels, and a hug from C.K. Williams.

My business partner, Emily Warn, is a poet published by Copper Canyon Press. When we went next door to the Hilton to have a drink, Emily was greeted like a long lost friend by Tom Sleigh, and C.K. Williams, two of the preeminent poets in the US. Since I was in Emily’s orbit, I got a hug by C.K. and am glad to report, poets hug just like the rest of us. With both arms and with gusto! That’s the AWP experience and it’s available to any writer or reader who attends.

She Writers, VIDA, A Room of Her Own, Hedgebrook, The Kentucky Writers Conference and the Women’s Review of Books support women writers. Join them!

Kamy did us proud by talking about how SHE WRITES has grown to more than 18,000 members, a number that made the audience clap. That was great because when Cate Marvin, co-founder of VIDA highlighted these terrible stats of women’s underrepresentation in publications like The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, the audience hissed. It takes a village to support women writers:  you can do your part by donating to VIDA:Women in Literary Arts; subscribing  to  The Women's Review of Books, edited by Amy Hoffman, who gave an inspiring argument for women supporting women; supporting A Room of Her Own for funding women writers with both money and time to write; attending The Kentucky Womens Writers Conference; donating to and applying for a residency at Hedgebrook; and, of course, participating and helping get funding for She Writes.   


The skinny on Editors and Agents.

AWP is not a pitch place. There are better places to spend your money if you have something to sell. That said, I did listen to words of wisdom by agent P.J. Marks of Janklow & Nesbitt who said he’d never repped an unsolicited manuscript. Bummer! But then Executive Editor Elisabeth Schmitz of Grove Atlantic countered him by saying “If I like the story, I’ll help the writer get an agent.”  Presumably if Elizabeth likes your work, P.J. can still hold his unrepped manuscript record and make a sale.

The most optimistic thing I heard on this panel was from Ron Silliman, Editor, at Tin House.  “Good work rises,” Ron said. Then he said it again, “Good work rises.” He confirmed my own opinion that no matter how many sell-sell-sell articles you read, you’re better off spending your time improving your craft.

Who knew shadow puppetry was such a valuable skill?

My own presentation on a panel addressing “New Media For Old (and New) Writers” attracted an SRO crowd of about 75 people (good!). Rebecca Agiewich, who sold her book, Break Up Babe to Ballantine from her award-winning blog, “Breakup Babe” talked about the process of developing a novel with a story arc from a blog and Matt Briggs of Final State Press gave his engaging "Engage or Perish Analysis of Social Media Publishing" presentation. Matt had the audience laughing about the contrast between the old “writer in the lonely garrett” which contrasts wildly with the new “social” media model of full metal engagement.

Unfortunately, the projector failed to show for my own presentation (bad, since my speech on how writers can use Twitter was a PowerPoint). Good thing I’m good at hand gestures!  Here’s a link to my presentation for those of you who couldn’t attend.

ReTweet After Me: Twitter is Made for Writers

Would I go to AWP again?  In an AWP Boston minute.


Cynthia Hartwig

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  • Cynthia Hartwig

    Thank you, Mary. That extra "i" caught me up; but he was great! 

  • Mary Gannon

    Cynthia, Thanks for mentioning Poets & Writers panel on agents and editors. I'm thrilled to hear you were there and found it helpful. I wanted to offer one little clarification. It was Rob Spillman from Tin House Books, not Ron Silliman. Hope to meet you at AWP Boston! All best.

  • Cynthia Hartwig

    Hey you guys!!! I got a thank you letter from Jaimy Gordon for my little comment re listening to her talk about how she went back and interviewed some of her old trainer friends to get their voices right. Got a note from Rebecca Skloot's assistant, from Amy Hoffman at Women's Review of Books, and from Kate Gale and the VIDA ladies. The only one I haven't gotten a thanks from of note are the AWP organizers. Hmmm. Quite amazed at how nice people are when you reach out.

  • Cynthia Hartwig

    Should have thought of that lunch idea; I ended up with tuna fish glop on a new blouse. Tell me what your faves were at AWP; it's just way too big to see everything. Really want to figure out a way to get She Writers who go there

    to attend some kind of "welcome to AWP drink/thing" next year so we meet in person. 

  • Lois Roelofs

    I went to AWP this year for the first time. With 6-90 minute sessions per day, I attended 16! Loved every minute of it and will be blogging about it soon at Thanks for this recap. I loved the coffee line, too, but found myself packing a lunch the second two days because there was no time to buy any. Such is a life of stimulation and learning!

  • Mariana Dietl

    Thanks for a great post, Cynthia! Mariana

  • Cynthia Hartwig

    AWP is a great place to find community but it's so huge, it's fun to set up a group of people you'd like to meet up with so that you don't feel overwhelmed. Let me know if you go to Boston; I'll be there.

  • Thanks for this piece, Cynthia. I have just started attending writers' conferences and didn't know much about the AWP. I've gone to my local one--The North Carolina Writer's Network which has gotten quite good. I would like to venture out  of state next year and AWP sounds like a great place to connect with other writers and enjoy community.

  • Cynthia Hartwig

    Thx for the photo compliment, Marlene. Fun to walk back to the Fairmont Chicago and use my Canon S-95 for night shooting at Millenium Park. I would love to hear your take on being a more savvy AWP Conference consumer. I circled everything in the catalog I thought of interest and got shut out of several choices. For ex., the Alice Munro technique panel was completely wall to wall and I waited out in the hall for quite a while before giving up. Would have killed to hear Michael Byers dissect Alice Munro's wayward use of time.

    Do tell how you'd be a better conference goer. Would love to hear your advice.

  • I did attend since I live in Chicago, fitness walking distance from the venues. It was my first time, an event that for many years always seemed to be scheduled during times I couldn't attend. You're definitely "spot-on"with your post but I did learn that there are few important  lessons, tricks and approaches to the stunningly overwhelming event! Can't wait for the next one that I'll attend as a much more savvy AWP Conference consumer! By the way - fantastic photo of the Millennium Park pillar!  

  • Cynthia Hartwig

    Elaine and Julie, thanks for the feedback, especially about supporting the women's writing endeavors. VIDA's count is unbelievably telling. It's odd, too, because women buy more books, read more magazines, and go to more readings than men. That's the info missing from the count: the power of the woman buyer!

  • Celine Keating

    Terrific piece - I went last year but not this, money being tight, so it's wonderful to get this little slice of the conference. My most important take-away is to support the women-focused endeavors, like VIDA and The Women's Review of Books - thank you for that.

  • I've never been to AWP...but you've made me want to check it out for next year!

  • Cynthia Hartwig

    I hope, as Deborah says, that Rebecca Skloot's writer cells do rub off. And I agree with Mihku's comment that AWP writers are surprisingly welcoming. It was my first AWP so I had no idea what to expect. And coming from the world of business, where most conferences are about selling something, it was refreshing. Thanks for reading.

  • Mihku Paul

    Thanks for this post, that seems to cover AWP from multiple angles.  The experience is not for everyone, and if one isn't careful, it can be easy to get exhausted and burned out.  I've gone for three years in a row and I am still amazed at the warmth and generosity of other writers, so often welcoming and interested in what I do.  Where else can you meet a major author, hear world-class poets read their work, and get feedback on how to find an agent all in the same day?  I went to the reception at the women's art gallery, too, and I was surprised to learn of the glaring disparities in published work between men and women.  AWP is not just about individuals hunting down publishing opportunities, it's a chance to get involved in something larger than yourself, to participate is shaping our literary world.  

  • Deborah Batterman

    Terrific round-up. Your own (very impressive) presentation made me smile. Of course, I tweeted it. I think good writing cells do rub off. ;-)