The program booklet for AWP’s annual conference and bookfair was 322 pages thick – no kidding. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) has been “fostering literary talent and achievement” since 1967, but this is the first year they’ve done so in the West.
What happens at AWP? Keynotes. Dozens of featured readings. Dozens of panels. And at least half a dozen off-site parties every night. It’s a virtual who's who of the literary world, with special emphasis on MFA students, programs, and instructors. If you’re a serious writer, this is the place to be. I say that a bit tongue-in-cheek, because I know there are a lot of serious writers in the West who have perhaps never heard of AWP.

Here’s what I loved about the conference (besides the famous Blue Bear sculpture outside Denver's Convention Center peering in at all of us)….

Lots of friends from the West’s writing community were there. Teresa Jordan. Laura Pritchett. LeAnne Howe. Kent Myers. Laurie Wagner Buyer. Julene Bair. Lisa Jones. David Romtvedt. Chris Ransick. Maria Martinez. Deirdre McNamer, Lee Ann Roripaugh. So many more! And Denver’s own Lighthouse Writers was a prominent sponsor.

Presenting on a panel with William Kittredge for the forthcoming anthology In the Manner of Country: Living and Writing the American West (title taken from a quote by Mary Austin in Land of Little Rain) was an honor. As was meeting the anthology’s editors Lynn Stegner and Russell Rowland after months of email communications. Kittredge's comments on Western mythology reminded me that I need to re-read his classic memoir, Hole in the Sky, and read for the first time The Best Short Stories of William Kittredge (Greywolf Press). 

Robert Wilder and Pam Houston (with Summer Wood and Uma Krishnaswami) had the audience laughing out loud during the panel, “Writing the West: The Transplanted Writer as Literary Outsider.” Pam and I have presented together a couple of times and it was good to be again in the presence of her wit.  Rob (author of Daddy Needs a Drink) is a writer with that rare gift of both humor and wisdom.  Here are a few of their more serious comments (not verbatim):

“Any work of art needs an insider, and an outsider,” said Rob. “What the insider knows intuitively is a difficult way to create art. I feel lucky because I don’t take the West for granted.”

“I love the West exactly the way someone from New Jersey loves the West,” said Pam. “What happened to me in the western landscape? The Colorado Plateau was big enough that it made me feel like IT knew more than I did. My first job was JUST TO TRY TO GET IT DOWN.”

She didn't mean Get down the feelings.  She meant GET DOWN THE PLACE and let the details of the landscape lead you organically to the story.  "If I can get down those physical chunks of stuff, the story happens."

Ron Carlson (who spoke at the "Tribute to William Kittredge" event along with Terry Tempest Williams and Rick Bass) gives similar advice in his book Ron Carlson Writes a Story"Solve your problems through the physical world," he advises writers.  Terry gave me similar advice over fifteen years ago at a workshop in Wyoming.  She challenged all of us to know the names of at least 10 plants, 10 trees, and 10 creatures that share our landscape. 

During the "Writing the West" panel, Summer Wood (winner of the $50,000 AROHO Gift of Freedom Award) gave this advice:  "Understand how STORY SITS IN LANDSCAPE." 

In my essay, "A Shape-Shifting Land" (included in the forthcoming anthology In the Manner of the Country), I write: "Writing personal stories about the landscapes we love is a radical act. A protective act.  A celebratory act.  Even an act of desperation.  It is also an intimate and sensual act.  Sometimes I crave the western earth like food, or breath, or sex, or water."

What do you crave in your writing?  How do your stories sit in landscape?

More AWP inspiration to follow, so stay-tuned.


j.lee said…
Hi Page. It was great to share a burger and salad--and to see you again. The land--ahhh, the land. I am in transition returning to my home territory in the lake country of northern Minnesota. I've lived in western SD for the past thirty plus years and last summer we began building a straw bale cabin on old family land in northern MN. I will be so curious to see how this affects my writer over the next few years. From Lakota country to Ojibwe country. Our ten acres are actually on the Leech Lake Reservation and the watery, forested lands have haunted me throughout my writing career. Curious . . . we shall see.
Page Lambert said…
Jamie, yes, it was great seeing you! You have such an adventurous spirit! Returning to the land that you love after so much time in Lakota country...yes, it will be fun to see how those forested lands feed your writing. Stay in touch!
Gail Storey said…
Page, it was indeed a great conference, and you captured it beautifully! Thanks for reminding us of some high points. I went to a great panel by Phillip Lopate, Sapphire, and Marie Ponsot, and another on travel memoir, and so many other equally inspiring ones. What an embarrassment of riches, though, choosing which panel to go to out of eight or so going on at the same time!
sibylle said…
I missed this conference - too bad, it sounds like it was a good one!
Page Lambert said…
Hi Gail. Yes, the multi-tracking format made choosing difficult - but with 8000+ attendees, at least we were fairly well spread out. I would've loved hearing Marie Ponsot!
The 2011 AWP conference will be in Washington, D.C. - not quite as accessible as Denver for many of us!
jbair said…
Good recap of a conference that was sometimes overwhelming, but always inspiring, Page. I really enjoyed Pam & Rob's panel too. My favorite panel was "Landscape and the Imagination." Maurice Manning read an incredible essay that quoted Coleridge and Wordsworth to good effect, but also eloquently described his own family's rift with their Kentucky land. And one of my favorite quotes came from Pattiann Rogers speaking on that panel: "Musical language is in the earth. The earth in all its aspect and musical language are one." Thanks, Page, for reminding us that landscape writers rock, and not just when they're writing about boulders. -Julene Bair
Page Lambert said…
Julene, I was sorry to miss the panel with Pattiann Rogers. Her quote is fabulous - what a fabulous pairing of the nonmaterial with the material - I'd never thought of musical as being "organic" in the same way that as the earth, but of course, it is!

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