The first thing I did upon entering our 3-day AWP home on the 27th floor of the Seattle Sheraton was to draw open the curtains. My reaction to the gigantic cityscape was the same heart-flutter the whole event stirred in my heart–I thought it would be pretty good, but in my craziest first-time AWP fantasies, I couldn’t have cooked up a better time.
Since coming back and undergoing to slow recovery process from a skewed drinks-to-meals ratio, hours circling book fair booths, panels (for better or worse; fortunately I lucked out or just walked out), and more socializing than I’ve accomplished in the last 12 months, I’ve been trying to remember every beautiful, fleeting, coincidental, serendipitous, surprising thing that happened within about 72 hours. On Monday, when I was back to the real job in the real world with real people and real Lean Cuisines waiting to be zapped into edibility, I kept a running list of any memory I could snag evaporating from my short-term memory banks. Here they are as a tapestry of a finite world I’ve missed so much, that place where “tribe” ceases to be abstract, and for a blink in a lifetime, all that we love most becomes everything.
Late Wednesday afternoon, the Sheraton lobby was overflowing with carry-ons, freshly claimed AWP tote bags and thick-rimmed reading glasses. They seemed like my people, but I didn’t particularly recognize any of them until I spotted Shelley Washburne, the director of the Pacific MFA program. I squealed, I hugged, I grabbed one of the complimentary glasses of cabernet sauvignon the incredibly gracious hotel was handing out to salve our collective travel nerves. I promptly sloshed it all over my shirt, which was perfect, actually–any clumsy spaz knows that an early crack in the perfect veneer means less time waiting for the other shoe to drop (like my last residency, when I didn’t fall smack on my ass in the cafeteria until way too late in the game). Getting a Shelley welcome felt like being home, especially considering that you don’t get an epic welcome with warnings about sneaker waves and advisor pairing policies from the AWP director.
This is the sort of grandiose expectation I have that never pans out: I’m walking through the book fair on the first day of the conference, still fresh-faced and wearing a cute, meticulously planned “writerly” outfit and not requiring three triple-shot lattes to stand up. I pause at a journal that has an essay I’d recently written in their Submittable queue, a journal I reallyreallyreally want to be in. I lean over and glance at the bookmarks, letting my fluorescent green nametag dangle forward. Maybe they’ll recognize my name and accept my piece right here and now, I thought wistfully, knowing that shit never happens.
“Oh! Tabitha Blankenbiller!!”
Both table editors gasp and smile, and ask if I have a moment. “We’d like to give you our first in-person acceptance,” they say, and I jump up and down and hug and clap and can’t stop smiling until the plane takes off from Sea-Tac. That night I get to open an ultra-special bottle of wine and toast with my dear MFA classmate-roommates as I triumphantly withdraw the piece from everyone else.
A rejection less than an hour after I introduced myself to an “In Process” journal submission
So I should have quit while I was ahead, right? Nope! Had to stop by another journal with the same piece and introduce myself. About an hour later, a new email from them showed up on my phone. A polite and personal rejection, but still a no. Felt more personal in the sense of “we were on the fence, and then we met you, so… uh, good luck placing that elsewhere.” If only I hustled over to withdraw it faster and beat them to the punch. But no! Complacence is the enemy, people. #AWPfail
The Sea Smoke toast!
I was in Seattle (and overnight in Portland!) for the week before the conference visiting much-missed family and friends, scarfing down as much pho, sushi, and Salt & Straw ice cream as possible, and choking up with tears on the Powell’s staircase. Before heading into the city, I asked my wine-hoarding dad if he had a bottle I could bring along with me. “I want something kind of special to open with my friends,” I said. I was expecting, I don’t know, a smooth Oregon pinot or one of his culty cabs. Not an exclusive Sea Smoke chardonnay you have to be a wine club member who purchases their entire allocation (close to $1,000 worth of wine for most people) to receive. After my acceptance and before heading to the offsite reading we were participating in, we toasted to all of the amazing feats we’ve accomplished in the two years since commencement: agents, manuscripts, yes’s, a few nods from our idols–and in that moment above my favorite city, every no and frustration and stretch of madness wafted out to sea. And we ruled.
Reading at Pike Brewing
Thursday night, all of my conference nerves eased as the offsite Pike Brewing reading we (Spilt Infinitive and PDXX Collective) were hosting went off splendidly. I hosted without too much mess, the readings were heartfelt and hilarious in just the right batches, and things to drink kept appearing in my hand without me even asking. One of my oldest, dearest friends who supported me from the time I was practically doodling words came by, and my piece got a laugh or two. Then it was mercifully over, and I could relax (as much as a neurotic woman rattled with constant social anxiety can relax, which in the case of the conference, was a shocking lot).
The Great Room Crash of 2014
I don’t want to type too much away here because it’s definitely my next Wordstalker column, but after the reading and Sheraton bar and AWP dance party (free beer?! How is that a thing!!?), the time was 1 am-ish and I was drunkity drunk drunk. I stumbled back into the room and put on my pajamas, but then I heard laughter and ruckus from the room next door. That sounds fun, I thought. I should be over there. Without a single pesky inhibition, I marched next door and snuck in between two guys leaving. “Hi there,” I announced to the giant luxury suite. “I’m your neighbor, and I heard you, and I thought hey! They sound way more fun!” The luxury suite belonged to one of the conference’s headlining writers, who turned out to be the most generous, friendly, approachable human beings you can imagine. Hilarity and drama ensued until 3 am, when I went back to our room and passed out on the bathroom floor (because it seemed more cozy than the bed).
And with that, I was an AWP virgin no more.
Realizing I wasn’t the biggest creepo in the Jess Walter ballroom
The next day, I got my massively hungover ass back to the conference center to see Jess Walter, editor Cal Morgan, Chuck Pahauliak, and Monica Drake talk about writer/editor and writer/writing group relationships. I have a sordid history of lurking around poor Mr. Walker, and I was afraid I’d stick out like a sore restraining order-qualifying thumb by attending the panel.
But I HAD to attend the panel! It was Jess Walter!!!
However, what I didn’t realize was it was also Chuck Pahauliak, who has a Rocky Horror Picture Show level of cult following. The guy in front of me started shouting odd stuff at him pre-panel, and held up a sign in some kind of Dead Poet’s Society tribute. I heard him ask the girl next to him if she was totally into heroin at Western in Bellingham.
And just like that, I breathed the most therapeutic sigh of relief. I am SO not the weirdest person here.
After watching the lovely chat and abstaining from waving my hand around for a question-not-question of Jess worship, I made a graceful photo request and book signature. I even got to chat with his editor a bit, who had read the Barrelhouse essay I wrote about his writer, and gave me a much-needed publishing industry pep talk. It was the perfect note to go out on.
Except that I kept SEEING HIM AGAIN! In the lobby, the bar, the elevator… the universe was hungry to see me faceplant in front of my idol. My heart wanted to loiter, but my brain knew better. When it comes to your favorite writers, brevity is your oldest, most trusted BFF.
Falling in love with women at VIDA
On Friday night, another dear old friend (from-the-memoir Christian!) went along to the Hugo House reading with me. The theme was Mad Housewife Dresswear, which I’d been planning for weeks (you can’t just pick ANY frilly apron from the closet for eveningwear, after all). We went to see headliners like Cheryl Strayed, Pam Houston, and Nick Flynn, but I fell head-over-heels in love with Melissa Febos and Natalie Diaz. Their readings were the most captivating, sensual, unforgettable words I heard spoken aloud during the entire trip. I wanted to follow them around forever, which is one of the best parts of AWP. You never know who your next hardcore fangirl crush will be on.
The best conversation and laughing my ass off at Top Pot Donuts
A fellow Hobart contributor invited me and another columnist to the original Top Pot to discuss a panel proposal for 2015. I’d only known the guys in the Twitterverse, a random and intimidating place where you have to barge in on other people’s conversations and prove that you’re clever. Thankfully, we all hit it off right away, and cackled to delerium over proposed steampunk aliases and battle stories from panel Q&A sessions. Granted, the jelly donut the size of my head didn’t help my stomach, but having people you suspect could be pretty cool turn out even better in person is worth every instance of trying to talk with a journal editor and getting a distracted answer and blank stare imploring you to scoot along.
Sitting on the 27th floor windowsill on an unseasonably clear Seattle day with two of my favorite MFA people I haven’t seen in 2 years, trying to sort out the amazingness
We went over the lessons we’d learned, our dreams for our writing lives between now and Minneapolis, and as we stuffed all of the new books and journals and ideas into our suitcases I couldn’t stop staring at the city, trying to impress the memory of its expanse and all it had held. Don’t forget a second, I willed myself. So many hellos to friends and random little interactions and glimmers of hope and inspiration that I can’t (and won’t, for your sake), continue to go over.
You get a chance, every few years or so, to be swept up and fall in love with your craft again. To feel strong and talented and supported again. To feel as though yes, you’re doing the right work in your life. I’m grateful to everyone, known and new, who made Seattle AWP that powerful for me. I scarcely know what to do with all of this joy.
Here, at the keyboard, is a good place to start.