The Best Writing Tips from AWP 2016
Updated: Oct 23, 2022
15,000 writers gathered at the Los Angeles Convention Center last weekend, sporting their quirky outfits and thick glasses and carrying canvas tote bags for the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. Every one of them had a story to tell, and all their voices begged to be heard. With all the information, noise, and networking (actually, to be honest, among all these Enneagram 4s, there was little networking going on), it took me a while to process everything I'd seen, learned, and heard. I've narrowed it all down to these ten best tips:
1. Write for different lengths of time. I often only give myself permission to write when I know I'll be able to ease into it, but many of the writers at the conference spoke about writing in tiny bursts, like 17-minute intervals. This was supported by cognitive evidence at the panel "The Science of Story: Creative Nonfiction and Cognitive Science," and purported by Andre Dubus III at "The Imperfect Writing Life," who said he wrote House of Sand and Fog 18 minutes at a time.
2. "Write your obsession." One of the most succinct and best pieces of writing advice I heard all weekend came from Leigh Stein at the panel on "Self as Protagonist." If you feel a certain story constantly creeping into your writing, follow it. Stein said her obsession with a trip to New Mexico eventually became her book: Land of Enchantment.
3. Make lists and draw maps. At one of the best panels I attended, "Old Neighborhoods, New Locales: How Place Shapes Our Writing and Our Literary Identities," Renee D'Aoust spoke about the discrepancies between our memories and actual places. She encouraged us to make lists of sensory details about different places we love and compare them, and to draw a map and see how the events we remember conflict with the actual landscape. The writing comes naturally out of these differences.
4. Your mentor is a myth. This was an important lesson for me, one I'm still learning, and a lesson others at the panel "A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors" were still coming to understand. My writing mentor, the late Dr. Peter Liotta, changed my writing life so much for the better that I cradle the lessons he taught me and allow them to loom large over my writing. But I still need to be my own writer. I can't write him back to life, but I can use his legacy to allow me to grow and move forward.
5. The MFA is not the secret key. MFAs loom large over the writing community. Who has one, where they went, and who they worked with are all-important to the writing resume. But many of the writers who spoke at the conference didn't have an MFA, and many who did--particularly among the audience at "The Imperfect Writing Life"--were resentful of the thousands of dollars they spent on their degrees. Either way, all the most successful writers had one thing in common: they write, consistently, all the time. This was the only "secret."
6. Get off the Internet. Many writers talked about the importance of platform, and the online following you need to get a book deal. But when it came to real writing, the Internet was left behind. In all different capacities, writers talked about unplugging as the way to generate good ideas and good writing. Take a trip, sit in a concrete room with no windows, block everything out, and make the space in your head big enough to stretch out and write.
7. YOU are allowed to write and submit your work. Honestly, before going to AWP, it had never dawned on me that you can just write something and then start emailing it around--I thought you needed special permission from some outside, third-party literary agency to ordain you as "good enough." But all you do is write it, and send it! Sure, you'll want to research the place you're submitting to make sure your piece is the right fit, but even YOU can submit it. Just get writing!
8. Travel writing isn't dead. A great panel, "Does Travel Writing Have a Place in the Age of Instagram and Google Earth?" introduced the idea that traveling isn't the same "as it used to be." Less research and more story-telling is demanded of the traveler, but the heart of travel writing is the same. If you love to travel, there's still a whole world to amaze you, and every pair of eyes will see things differently. If it's a good story and well-written, there's a place for it. Ah, I do love to travel.
9. "Today doesn't count." One of the noticeable themes of this conference was the idea that writing should be "fun," "playful," and you should "allow yourself" to enjoy your writing (the conference took place in California, after all). Don't let the academy sit on your shoulder while you write. Imagine your audience, but pretend that it "doesn't count." Don't put pressure on yourself to write perfectly, every day. Just write. You can't edit nothing.
10. Write well. One of the hardest things for me at AWP was feeling like I didn't belong. I don't have an MFA; I'm an organic dairy farmer; I live in a remote and rural part of the country. I was grateful for people who still encouraged that the only thing that matters is good writing. Even the Directors of MFA programs insisted, "It's all about the writing sample." Write well. That's your key; that's your secret. Easier said than done, right?
I've always heard that writers have to struggle to survive and that there's almost no way in hell you'll ever write a book. But in a world of content-marketing, good writers are sought after and even in high demand. There are certainly some writers who feel that their art and craft is theirs alone, and who pigeonhole themselves into a niche of artistic writers, where the field is more saturated and difficult to break into. Still, there's plenty of room for a writer to make a living in the world, and to live on writing alone--who would have thought? All you need is to be a good writer. Ah, now if only I could follow all this good advice!
Did you learn some good stuff at AWP or have a writing tip to share? I'd love to hear it. Let's start the conversation.