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By Rachel Hall
I didn’t do yoga for writers at AWP ’16 in Los Angeles, nor do I know anyone who did, but this offering on the official schedule reveals the tone of the conference this year. Put another, possibly more L.A.-way, I felt the good vibes, man.
Seriously, there was a decidedly holistic approach to the panels I attended—even those about publicity and marketing. I hardly expected that, but was pleasantly surprised. Like a lot of writers, I imagine, I have considered marketing and publicity necessary evils, the icky part of writing. And also somehow embarrassing, for if my book were any good, I wouldn’t need to hawk it, would I? It would sell like a pink-frosted cupcake or feminine protection—something delicious and irresistible or an absolute essential. Though my first book is coming out in the fall, (http://newletters.org/writers-wanted/BkMk-writing-contests), I was initially resistant to the panels on publicity and marketing, pitching and promoting, because much of the advice I’ve received up until now has been overwhelming: Do Twitter! Do Goodreads! Do a newsletter! A blog--You should absolutely blog!
If I hadn’t met Michelle Toth on the shuttle from the LAX, I might have missed the inspiring panel she moderated: “Book Launch Confidential: Marketing Made Smarter, Not Harder.” In the conference schedule, the panel promised to teach writers “to draw on strengths as they align [marketing] activities with values and priorities, becoming advocates for their work while finding energy and joy in the process.” Michelle is a former Grub Street (www.grubstreet.org) Board member; the founder of SixOneSeven, a small press; a novelist; and a human capital professional. She’s also really smart and organized, as were her panelists and Grub Street authors: Lynne Griffin, Michael Blanding, and Eve Bridburg. By posing important questions such as “why do you write? What do you want to accomplish? What brings you joy and energy?”, the panel eased my anxiety, and it was fun—yes, fun! The Grub Street approach encourages writers to be honest about their goals, something I find difficult but that I now see is essential to developing a plan and measuring success. This panel was the opposite of icky. It was illuminating and empowering and thought-provoking. (If you missed it, I understand that the panel was taped for an AWP podcast, so you may be able to listen at some later date.)
Thus inspired and centered, I attended a panel on pitching to bookstores and literary festivals, “Winding Up for the Pitch.” This wasn’t something I had really considered before—but what fun these festivals sound like! Presenting at one would certainly bring me joy, I decided, especially if they have food trucks.
The other panel I attended was a discussion on competition and creativity. The presenters were Lynn Pruett, Lorraine López, Blas Falconer, and Ansel Elkins, all winners of prizes, honors and awards. This panel explored whether competition and success fuel writing or hinder it by making us hyper-aware of audience expectations. The presenters were smart and funny and honest about the ways competition and its attendants--jealousy and envy and anger—can hamper writing. It was a necessary reminder to step back from the noisy competition and get back to the writing, the real work, as well as the real fun. I appreciate the work of VIDA and newer groups such as WWS (Women Who Submit). Obviously women writers should take themselves seriously and should be taken seriously and treated fairly by the gatekeepers, but it was helpful to be reminded that publication isn’t the only reward. It’s one aspect of the writing life, not the whole story.
Besides these panels and the yoga, the wide aisles in the book fair and the expansive conference center made for a mellower AWP, too. And the Southern California sunshine, the mountains in the distance, the blue, blue sky? These pleasures were lovely and fleeting: I returned to Western New York in snow. But back home, I’m still contemplating all I learned about balancing the many aspects of the writing life.
MORE ABOUT RACHEL HALL’S FORTHCOMING BOOK OF STORIES:
Heirlooms is an exquisite and thrilling collection. In fearless and incandescent prose, Rachel Hall traces the fragile resilience and quiet horrors of those displaced by war. She happens to be writing about the Second World War, but these are stories that speak to the essential human experiences of exile and loss and survival. Heirlooms captures what it is to be a refugee, and an immigrant, with a delicacy and precision that delights and haunts.
Read an excerpt from Heirlooms.
Rachel Hall is the author of Heirlooms, selected by Marge Piercy for the 2015 BkMk Press G.S. Sharat Chandra book prize. It will be published in September 2016. Her stories and essays have been published in a number of journals, most recently in Midwestern Gothic, Lilith and Fifth Wednesday. She writes, teaches, and attempts to tweet in Western New York. Follow her @Rach_H_writer or on www.rachelhall.org