The Writing Life: Notes from an AWP Virgin by mensah demary

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More than 10,000 literary folks will flock to the windy city for the sold-out AWP Conference.

The so-called “writing life” will sweep me toward Chicago as the 2012 AWP Conference and Book Fair draws near. This is my first time attending the event; I don’t know what to expect beyond the advice and wisdom espoused by AWP veterans. There will be books and panels and laughs and booze–and God knows what else–but I’m an introvert. Shy. My gregarious online persona belies the awkward nature of my IRL personality.

Therefore, nothing about the actual conference worries me. But it is the people–approximately 10,000 expected to attend, plus an unknown number who didn’t register, but will enjoy the nightlife and loud off-site readings Chicago will offer up–this bothers me, more than I care to admit.

If you’ll allow me, I’d like to offer up a brief list of physiological responses I experience when surrounded by too many people:

  1. Sweating – you’d think this wouldn’t be a problem in Chicago–notorious for its ruthless winter winds–but my sweat is impervious to freezing temperatures. I sweat because I’m nervous, I sweat because you’re in my space, I sweat because I’m a large man and large men tend to sweat. I’m not proud of this, but I have accepted it and I hope you won’t point it out while I dab my bald head with napkin during your five minute reading.
  2. Silence – when I’m comfortable, I’m quiet; when I’m uncomfortable, I’m silent. There is a difference: quiet people can laugh at a few jokes here and there, make small banter about the state of small presses and whether 2012 is, finally, the year when the novel dies; silent people–i.e. me–say nothing. You will get nothing out of me. There will be silence. No laughs, no small talk. I must say, however, that I’m comfortable in my silence, even if the situation makes me uneasy. So if you see a large, sweaty, bald black man hovering over your table, thumbing through your chapbooks or literary magazines, please–shhh.
  3. Incessant smoking – on a normal day, I’m a pack-a-day smoker. I chain smoke. Smokesmokesmoke. This only gets worse when I’m nervous and the only way you’ll commiserate with me is if you too are a smoker–but not just any smoker. You must be silent and puff away while we both cool off and get high on nicotine. No small talk. NONE!
  4. Gastrointestinal issues – No further explanation required.

 * * *

 I have a name. A small name. In lowercase letters, yes, but I mean in terms of reputation. I write for and was recently published by PANK (BUY PANK 6!), I write for The Lit Pub, I write for Hippocampus–obviously–and I’ve published work in some reputable indie magazines. I am editor in chief of a fledgling literary magazine, Specter. All in all, I’m an active member of the small literary community. And this is fine for me because I conduct most of my work online–that is, I have no physical contact with other writers and editors. For the most part, I like it this way.

At AWP, however, I will place faces and handshakes to names. Some people will hug me and some people will want to know my schedule so I can show up to a reading or a party or a bar where an impromptu social affair will rise from the asphalt.

Some people will ask me for a business card with my magazine’s name and my email address on it, and I’ll look sheepish because I figured why would I, of all people, need business cards for, essentially, a four-day networking extravaganza.

Some people will want to discuss literary theory and, perhaps, ask me why I tend to write in all lowercase letters–this too will cause a sheepish look on my face.

And I’m afraid I won’t get to meet everyone I want to meet and I’ll curse myself as I ride the CTA to where I’ll lay my head for the night, because I’m blowing the opportunity to build my “brand” and then I’ll wonder, “Why the hell do I care about my ‘brand’?” and I’ll want to reach for a cigarette but the CTA doesn’t permit smoking. Sadly.

My solution to all of this seems both obvious and fool-proof: earbuds. I have bass-heavy, noise-canceling earbuds and an iPhone loaded with all of my music. I will listen to this music and tweet on my iPhone while the wonder and splendor of AWP plays out in sync to Dark Side of The Moon. This is how you’ll find me on Wednesday when the festivities begin: sweaty and silent and gassy and chain-smoking and buried in the music played from my beloved iDevice.

My hope–my only hope–is, by Thursday, I’ll find it safe to climb out of my cocoon to have a damn good time with my peers.

Thomas DeMarymensah demary, whose prose has appeared or is forthcoming in various publications, is co-founder & editor-in-chief of Specter Literary Magazine. A regular contributor for PANK Magazine’s blog, Art Faccia, and Peripheral Surveys, mensah currently writes in Camden, New Jersey with his wife & writing partner, Athena. For more information, visit or on Twitter @mensahdemary.

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