A lifetime ago – pre-husband and kids — when I was a graduate student in the humanities, I attended the Modern Language Association convention when it met for three days between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Search committees interview job candidates at this convention, graduate students and faculty present their research, and university presses display their books. For me, it was always an anxious conference and the person I saw outside the convention hotel, conference badge askew, chugging Pepto-Bismal straight from the bottle, perfectly summed up my feelings about it.
While I was ambivalent about leaving the academy after my first son was born, I never missed the MLA convention, and so it was fun, after my anthology Mama, PhD was published, to return as a reporter for Inside Higher Ed and write about the support offered to parents attending the conference with their children. I enjoyed viewing the conference as an outsider, with nothing to prove at the conference.
The AWP conference also involves job interviews, graduate students and faculty presenting their work, and a massive bookfair where book and magazine editors display their publications, but it has only ever been fun for me, never stressful. It is the one time every year that I meet up with Literary Mamas and spend three days fully and happily immersed in conversations about writing and mothering. This year, my third time attending the conference, I heard Kate Hopper, Jill Christman, Hope Edelman, Bonnie Rough, Katy Read, Rebecca Skloot, Christina Katz, Jane Friedman and many others give terrific talks about different aspects of writing and publishing. I heard Margaret Atwood give a drily funny keynote speech about the craft of writing (a talk she claimed to be unqualified to give, as writing wasn’t taught when she was a student). I heard my AWP roommate and LM column editor, Nicole Stellon O’Donnell, read from her new poetry collection, Steam Laundry, on a panel with other Alaskan writers. I met the fabulous M. M. DeVoe, a writer and the executive director of Pen Parentis, a literary salon and networking site for parent writers.
To bring it all full circle, I ran into my graduate school housemate, whom I hadn’t seen since our graduation twelve years ago. She’s stayed in academia, teaching American literature and poetry at a small liberal arts college, while I’ve moved far away from that life. Though here we both were at the conference, soaking up talks on craft and enjoying readings from a wide variety of work. The conference offers something for anyone interested in the writing life, and I can’t wait till AWP Boston in March, 2013.