A Post-AWP Q&A

I returned – a little bit tired – from AWP last night. I had intended to write something for this blog on the train from Boston to Philly – about impressions, about friends, and also write something about the sessions perhaps. A ridiculous idea, given the noise levels in the Loud Car on the train, given my fatigue. When I got home and checked email last night, however, I found this lovely note from someone who had heard me say a few things during our panel on navigating the writing world without having an MFA. What she asked, these questions that plague so many of us no matter where we are in this story, and my response, I feel, could stand in for a lot of what I would have written about the conference. So here it is. For what it is worth. (That – in the picture – is Cathy Chung, author of Forgotten Country, getting five books signed by Anne Carson by the way)

Ru Freeman,

After the AWP conference, where I took one of your cards, I went to your website. That feeling that had developed after spending the day there, that sensation of being lost in a confusing world when the path once seemed so clear vanished. I was so impressed not just by the overall aesthetic of the site itself, but by the amount of work you put into your writing career – blogging, tweeting, writing essays, poems, fiction, non-fiction – so that it’s just that: your career.

When you handed out your card, I felt it was because you really wanted to hear from young aspiring authors (I say author because I already consider myself a writer, though largely unpublished). I felt the need to contact someone because I’m overwhelmed. By what, you might ask? Yesterday I listened to a panel of writer discuss how the publishing field is drastically changing. I learned just by being at the conference the sheer number of writers competing for different retreats, MFA programs, publications, and more. I’m overwhelmed because what I’ve considered my goal career for so long seems that much further away. But maybe it always has been? Now, after viewing your website, I feel I should contact you not only to tell you my admiration, but also to ask you some questions.

Did you start tweeting and blogging before your book? Was this self-promotion something you decided to do by yourself alone or was it introduced by your editor or agent? How do you keep up such a schedule of tweeting and blogging so often? How do you schedule yourself to so many events (I looked on your events page)? How do you finance trips to different places or are they in fact financed by your publisher/editor/agent?

I hope it isn’t presumptuous of me to ask you so many questions, nor to write you in the first place. I really enjoyed your talk on the panel “Master of None.” I thought you were so well-spoken and not just that, but so inspirational. I was indeed feeling bad after listening to so many writers list their qualifications when I have none. It was highly encouraging to hear that even today a writer can get by based solely on their talent and gifts. I also loved your advice, especially on getting references.

In any case, I hope this email reaches you happy and well. I hope that you can find the time to reply, whenever is convenient for you.

Thank you for your time and understanding,

Dear JW-

Thanks for this note. I will share with you that my first AWP was in NYC in 2008. I looked around at the 10,000 people there (the record until Boston, 2013), and thought I just cannot do this, there are too many people doing it, I should just give up and go home. I fell miserably ill, I hated most of it. And yet, five years and four AWPs later, I have learned that AWP – like everything else – is about making connections and being kind to people. It is no more than that. We cannot speak to all 11,000 people and we cannot be influenced/disheartened by whatever is going on with those 11,000 people either. So first, take heart, it will get better.

I have always been on FB – “always” since the earliest days I guess – though I didn’t use twitter as much until about a year before my first novel came out. I don’t see either as self-promotion however. I see it as being engaged with the world outside my own life and aspirations. It feeds my creativity and my political interests and I feel that, in return, I am able to offer some commentary on it. I wrote a piece for the Huff Po once about FB etiquette for authors – I think it might help to read it, to think about the ways in which the more we support other people, the better our own lives become. Here is the link:


With regard to travel – the tours are usually handled by the publisher, sometimes the costs are shared. Some of the time the events are by invitation from an organization or group or university in which case they are paid for by the host.

Lastly, I don’t know that I am where I am right now solely because of innate talent – I may have some gifts, but I don’t think they are the whole story. I think you have to work hard, and you have to place yourself in the light somehow – whether it is at readings, by writing online, by submissions, by reaching out to people as you have just done – and if you stand there long enough and nicely enough (i.e. as part of a bigger picture, not as the star of your own show!), then good things do happen. I have many many friends who are far more talented than I am who are still struggling to be recognized, and others who are perhaps not as good who are very successful. None of us can let the truth of that get in the way of continuing to do what we love to do.

I don’t know how old you are or what your circumstances are, but there is a belief among medical practitioners that a woman’s body will not permit a pregnancy if the physical and emotional composition of the body is toxic to an embryo. Similarly, I feel that we cannot create good work if we are emotionally drained or stressed out by getting caught up in the drama that surrounds writers sometimes – who is winning which prize, which one has an MFA, why did that person go to that retreat and so forth. It is impossible to resist completely, but it is vital to try.

I will close with another memory. I remember walking down a hallway to a meeting with an editor – Alane Salierno Mason – at Bread Loaf. I was supposed to pitch my novel to her. All of a sudden just before I got into that room I had a clear sense that it did not matter whether I impressed her that day or not, my novel would, in its time, find its place among other books. And just like that the meeting became just another moment in a journey, not the end of it. Alane did not become my editor, but by keeping in touch over the years, we are now working together on a project for Words Without Borders.

It is how the world works – good luck making your way through it. And thank you for writing.

All best – ru.

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