The Association of Writer’s and Writing Programs (AWP) Annual Conference will be held in Minneapolis, MN April 8-11, 2015. In the weeks leading up to the conference, and also during it, we’ll share some perspectives and personal experiences.
The night before my early morning flight to Boston I found myself consumed with anxiety. Between revising my MFA thesis, packing, and pumping breast milk, I hadn’t even had time to look at the schedule and I was starting to wonder why it had been so important to me to go to this thing in the first place. My eleven-month-old daughter had never been without me, and my breasts, for more than a few hours. Tomorrow she would wake up and I would be gone. Her father would be there of course, armed with a stockpile of frozen milk, but I had no idea how she would react to this new situation. I wasn’t sure how I would react either. Of course I had been daydreaming of actually reading a book and relaxing on the flight and getting to sleep in past 5am in my hotel bed, but I hadn’t fully realized how much I’d miss her.
Once in Boston I was shocked to find how physical her absence felt. I was so used to her little body being connected to me in one way or another that I felt unbalanced somehow without her, like I’d misplaced something vital, perhaps a limb. But there was something about bundling myself into my winter coat and marching toward the convention center in the fluttering snow, armed with notebook and pen, that was incredibly liberating. I felt like a writer. Of course there were always my breasts, filling with milk every few hours, to remind me that I was also a mother. I was armed with a portable breast pump too.
Happily, AWP had thoughtfully provided a lactation room, a private hotel room on an upper floor of the Sheraton. This became my refuge. Whenever the crowds and ambition got too much, I would collect the keycard from reception and let the elevator sweep me up into the calm, untouched room. Sometimes there were other women there, pumping too, and it was encouraging to chat with them about their children and their writing. But most of the time I was the only one in that room, with the city far below and the snow swirling outside. I thought of turning on the TV while I pumped, but the quiet seemed so pristine I couldn’t bear to spoil it. Instead I watched the snow and let lines of poetry spiral in my head.
The scale of the AWP conference can be overwhelming, especially to a fledgling writer. I had heard the book fair was a great place to network, but I found myself roaming around, unsure who to talk to and what to say. I imagined there were thousands of us shopping around our unfinished manuscripts and only a small fraction would ever be published. As a new mother, I felt myself to be at a distinct disadvantage. How could I possibly compete with all these young writers who were free to stay up all night writing poems and attend month-long residencies? My writing time was usually confined to my daughter’s naptime, and that was only if she was willing to nap.
I decided to save the book fair for later and stick to the panels and readings. It was an amazing experience to see some of my favorite poets in person and to hear them read their words out loud. It was also fun to hear their stories and anecdotes. I will always be grateful to have seen the great poet Seamus Heaney just a few months before his death. After attending the keynote event, a conversation between Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott, I was convinced they were not only two of the best poets in the world, but also two of the loveliest people I had ever encountered. They talked about community, their important friendships and mentorships with fellow poets, and slowly but surely I began to feel inspired rather than intimidated. I realized I needed to learn from and celebrate the creative accomplishments of my fellow poets, not view them as my competition for the big prize of publication. I understood why it was so important to me to come to this thing in the first place. I needed to remember that I was part of something larger, not just an overtired woman frantically cramming poetry into the cracks of motherhood.
In the day to day grind of child-raising, that larger writing community often feels out of reach, but each time I send my writing out into the world, whether to a contest, magazine, mentor, or friend, I feel more and more confident that I belong to that community. As I prepare to head to Minneapolis, I feel excited to join my people. And though I am no longer nursing and won’t be visiting the lactation room, I will remember to find a little time and space for my own creativity.