I spent this past Thursday through Saturday at AWP17, the 50th annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. It attracts 12,000 or so people every year, and there were probably more this year because it was the 50th anniversary, and it was in D.C., which means any writer living between the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast could hop on a bus or train and be there within a few hours.
At a conference that big, two things are guaranteed: there is an overwhelming cornucopia of choices, and you’re going to miss something. At previous AWPs, regret or second-guessing has been my third certainty. There’s always that panel or reading I show up to that’s whack, that doesn’t unfold quite the way it was described, and that makes me wish I had attended one of the other eight sessions I’d had in mind to attend at that time. Surely whatever I chose not to attend was better, more interesting, more applicable to my present writing needs or reading aesthetic. Surely I’m cursed to always make the wrong choice, to waste time, to not be in the room where I would’ve head that thing that or met that person who would change my writing life forever.
Not this year. This year, I planned as carefully as I have in years past; I spent the entire ride to D.C. on my phone reading descriptions of each session for each day and adding everything I was interested in to “My Conference Schedule” on my AWP account. But I also decided I ultimately would attend whatever spoke to me at the moment. Once I arrived at the conference center, I approached AWP with the belief that wherever I went, however long I stayed, even if I darted from room to room every fifteen minutes because there were just too many good choices to pass up, whatever choice I made, I would take from that session whatever I was meant to take from it, and I would not second-guess, I would not wonder what if, I would not think if only.
And indeed, sometimes in as little as fifteen minutes, I walked away with the quote I’ll likely use as an epigraph in my memoir; new insight into how my parents may have navigated their dual existences as parents and artists after my birth; a question I hadn’t considered before about the field of black studies; validation on my approach to structuring my memoir; Jacqueline Woodson’s signature on her book’s title page; the reassurance that a pretty smile can get a woman a table next to an outlet in a busy restaurant when she’s not ordering a thing; a reminder to take care of myself; enough digital storytelling ideas for a proposal due next month; confirmation of the lasting power of the written word, via the words of Adrienne Rich; wisdom from Rita Dove; a brief conversation with Tracy K. Smith; a stirring of my ears as black feminist poets spat peace; a word from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that I could pass along a few hours later to a friend in need of it; a gentle nudging to savor delicious observations as (via a sampling of little essays Ross Gay calls “delights”). I heard Sonia Sanchez live again, reunited with the writing communities I was inducted into over the summer, met an editor interested in my memoir, and—just by stopping at a bench to rearrange my bags—I met the editor of a journal that takes submissions from students and young adults ages 14-24, which means I can encourage my ArtWell students to submit their work for publication. Yes, I hit a few panels that were whack, but even there, I got what I needed from them, left when I felt it was appropriate, and didn’t worry about it.
I want to live life this way—accepting and even happy that the options before me are vast (even now, in the unfathomable state of the world), pursuing my interests with careful planning while still able to follow what moves me at the moment, believing that where I am is where I’m meant to be, appreciating something about every interaction, and not wondering, not regretting, not second-guessing.
I don’t live life this way. I could write volumes about my regrets, my indecisiveness, my careful plans seemingly undone by unforeseen and disagreeable results.
I don’t know how to live life the way I want to live it. I offer no reason or excuses in this essay as to why that is (I’ve explored the topic here in 2015 with regard to spiritual perfectionism and here in 2011 with regard to being young, black, female, and living in a time full of opportunity). I’m also not sure it’s entirely possible. The difference between a conference with a massive amount of choices and a life, interests, and skill set that can open many doors is that the conference lays all the options out before you clearly, with their times clearly marked. You receive a schedule allowing you to see into the future. Cancellations happen, but it’s not like life. In life, plan all you want; you have the present.
What I can do is be more observant of the present moment, more open to accepting the moment’s lessons, opportunities, and even changes. And hopefully, years later, when I’m writing in detail about whatever that moment was because I was so focused on the present that I observed carefully as a writer should, I can look back without wondering what if.
Author’s note: This essay is part of the #52Essays2017 series. Every week in 2016, Vanessa Mártir published one essay on her blog. After a phenomenal year of challenges and growth as a writer, she invited other writers in various communities she’s a part of to join her as she endeavors to write weekly, relentlessly, again in 2017. I’m in on the challenge because I saw how very little space I gave personal reflection in 2016. This is my thesis semester, and I expect some challenges and growth as I write it. The weekly essay challenge provides a space to document that growth (though I’m already thinking I might screw with the genre a little).