BY TABITHA BLANKENBILLER
Let’s be real. Not everyone spends twelve months counting down to the AWP conference. In the year preceding my first-ever trip to the mad literary clusterfuck, I heard enough gripes and horror story think pieces to drive a less entrenched girl to cancel her flight. The event was too big, they said. Too cliquey. The panels were terrible, the off-site events were worse, and you left more disillusioned about the publishing industry than you ever could have become alone in your apartment on Writer Island.
I didn’t listen, though. I couldn’t. I needed AWP; its promise was the carrot I tossed out into the horizon, a consolation prize for agreeing to move out of my perfect literary nest in Portland, Oregon to Tucson, Arizona. You can do this, I forced myself to believe. And in a year, you can see everyone and everything again at AWP.
I boarded the plane with my registration info clutched like a hall pass, my Get Out of Literary Purgatory Free card. As I stepped out of my friend’s Subaru into the Sheraton’s loading zone, teeming with freshly claimed ’14 Seattle book bags, Write Like a Motherfucker coffee tumblers and infinity scarves, that I wouldn’t waste a fraction of a second. Be unafraid, my heart demanded my brain. Be crazy. Boring awaits you in 72 hours.
Thursday morning. All was boding well; me and my two fellow Pacific grad roommates came off our travel and we’re-back bar stint with enough time for a decent night’s sleep. The lines for Starbucks and No-Name Convention Center Coffee Stand stretched beyond my patience-to-caffeine-addiction quotient, but a Twitter-friend-turned-real-life-acquaintance snuck me out for a secret latte stop at Monorail Coffee, where some of the city’s best beans were ground without a line. The 9 a.m. panel I arrived at wasn’t only tolerable, it was illuminating. I microblogged my satisfaction, followed a few new favorite writers, and rode my endorphins across the sky bridge to the book fair behemoth.
Wandering from table to table, I spotted a journal that had, in its Submittable possession, my latest essay. The journal I really, really, really wanted to pick it up. How amazeballs would it be, I thought, if I just walked up there and they saw my nametag and were all, ‘OMG Tabitha Blankenbiller! We love your essay! Can we have it, oh please?’
Because my inner dreamscape translates so well into reality, I sauntered up to the 8’x8’ space and let my nametag dangle, leaning to leave my information on the email list.
“Tabitha… Tabitha Blankenbiller!” The editor exclaimed, “wow, I am so glad that you’re here? Do you have a minute?” She stood to give what she christened her “first in-person acceptance.”
I don’t know who was throwing a voodoo charm my direction, but sealing my big publishing coup with a hug, I took off running. I introduced myself to the writer/editor who has rejected me a cumulative 13 times (she was so freaking nice!). I made plans with new friends for a 2015 panel proposal. I chatted in the hall until I almost passed out with hunger, and then almost peed my pants because I met another new, fascinating person on the way to the bathroom. I herded a respectable crowd of friends and classmates into a Pike Street bar for our offsite reading, and the management comped our microphone fee and food minimum because they’d stuck us in the wrong room. Drinks kept magically appearing in my hand wherever we went, from the Sheraton bar up to the Awkward White People dance party. By 1 am, after the ballroom staff finally turned on the lights and whisked the free beer carts away, I was giddier, more satisfied, and drunker than I’d been since grad school.
“I should go to bed,” I announced, stumbling to the elevator in what felt like the most Lara Croft graceful leap achieved by non-pixeled kind.
In my room, on the 27th floor of the hotel, one of my roommates was already sleeping. The other separated from me at the dance party; her night culminated in hanging with Alaskan poets and sampling whale blubber. Putting on my pajamas, I could hear noises filtering through the walls. Laughter, conversations, a steady pulse of music. A party, yo. A party was happening on the other side of that wall.
I need to be there.
I grabbed my purse and room key and slid outside our door. I didn’t even need to knock; two guys were leaving just as I approached. “Going in?” One asked, holding the door ajar.
The room next door wasn’t a room. It was a fucking suite. Five of our two-double-bed standards could have nested in the stadium living room and master bed. The wall was nothing but tall windows claiming a huge slice of darkened cityscape, with the skyscraper flickers lending the grace of civilization to this witching hour. An exclusively Asian crowd shifted their gaze from the man on the center couch up to me, a sudden platinum blonde apparition in yoga pants.
“Hi!” I said, bright as a basket case. “I’m Tabitha, your next door neighbor. I could hear a party going on, so I thought I’d come by.”
Everyone in the room’s bewildered stares cracked into smiles as they raised their glasses to the coup—we’ve been crashed! Everyone except Angry Girl. A guest hovering beside me, whose eyebrows narrowed as the grip around her glass tightened. “Well aren’t you the lucky one,” she said in a tone that could slash tires. “You stumbled into the suite of Cheng-rae Lee.”
The guy on the center couch grinned and waved me over. I recognized the name from the prestigious color photo mosaic of Featured Presenters, but I didn’t know Lee’s laundry list of acclaimed novels, lofty awards or teaching resume of wonder. And thank god, because if I did, I would have crapped my yoga pants instead of hearing Lee say, “come on over! Can I get you a drink? Let’s see,” he said, surveying the coffee table bar, “we’ve got some tequila, more tequila, bourbon…”
“Bourbon’s good for me!” Was the first time those words came out of my mouth.
For a tipsy hour, maybe two, I sat on the couch shooting the shit with Chang-rae Lee and his friends, writers and professors from around the country. I vented about the tedium of having my book out for submissions, found common ground in our Oregon connections, chewed over essay topics. “This is my first conference,” I admitted at some point.
“Your first AWP!? How’s it treating you?” He had an extraordinary ability to appear engaged and invested in every question he asked; to focus and nod and respond to all comments as if they made sense and were interesting. I must have been rambling, but his kind, unassuming air (and the bourbon) put me at a rare ease.
“It’s been incredible, actually, which I wasn’t sure it would be because you hear so many shitty things from people about the conference,” I babbled. I bragged up my acceptance, the reading, the rocking dance moves.
“And now here you are, doing it right, crashing parties,” he said. “Cheers!”
Though I was chatting with one of the friendliest writers I’d ever met, Angry Girl flittered around relentlessly, jabbing at every opportunity. “We don’t even know her. She could be anyone,” she bemoaned to the room at large, and through the Vaseline lens of drunken confusion, I felt the insatiable need to please her.
“She’s cool,” Lee said in my defense.
“I am cool! I write for Barrelhouse!” As if this was some sort of badge of party worthiness; that it was those River Teeth asshats you had to worry about. Apparently she wasn’t a fan of Patrick Swayze poems, and she kept circling. I leaned down to make sure my purse was still on the floor, as even in my most blacked-out levels of drunkenness I’m attune to the dangers of identity theft.
“NO photos, and NO Tweeting!” she snapped, and I jolted back up, confused. This wasn’t a hookers-and-blow, Ken Kesey freakout. Booze and conversation could be found in every room of the 14,000 Seattle guests. What wasn’t I supposed to chronicle, that I, unworthy prole, was lucky enough to be in an incredible writer’s presence? Did my attendance somehow diminish hers?
While I listened to Lee and his friends chat about Brooklyn versus Berkeley, a vodka-cran/IPA/house chardonnay/bourbon thought occurred to me: my entire writing life is in this room. I could dismiss it as a nonsense mind mumble in the middle of the night, one shot from falling over, but it came back to me on the plane back home. In the sobering glare of tight seats and stale pretzels, it all made perfect sense. I walked into the world stupid, uninvited and unprepared, having no idea what I was in for. And Angry Girl was all of the negativity circling around my head: the Internet comments section, the agents slamming doors, the journal editors who just changed my submission status to “declined” without bothering to send an actual form rejection. An senseless amoeba of NO trying to keep me from sitting and doing something marvelous—sitting on the couch with one of our generation’s great novelists, contributing to the true literary conversation. If I could just focus on what kept me there, instead of what tried to make me leave, life felt like a dream. The wild fantasyscape in my head, spun into reality.
Against all rational thought and odds, here I was. So fuck the haters. It’s my writing life. I’ll be the goddamn queen.
Photo credit: The Korea Herald