Last year’s AWP in Tampa was the first time I attended the LGBTQ Writers Caucus mixer. I was in a weird personal space. I was feeling discouraged about my writing. The book I’d worked so hard to complete had received yet another rejection, many of my friends who usually attended AWP had decided not to go, and without my usual people to meet for meals or wander the bookfair with, I felt unmoored.
As many probably know, being unmoored at AWP is not easy. Everyone seems to know everyone. There’s this bizarre pressure to “network” and make connections, to sell yourself. People print business cards. They pass them out like they’ve gotten MBAs from Harvard. (And everyone you run into seems to be doing better than you!) For me, when I am with friends, it’s easy to have perspective, but being alone made me feel like I didn’t belong. Or like I wasn’t good enough. Maybe this is a familiar feeling for you (I hope not!), but the entire thing made me want to stay in my hotel room and let the entire conference pass me by.
Luckily, I didn’t do that. I was on the LGBTQ Caucus. I had to attend our annual meeting. And then, afterwards, I had to go to the LGBTQ Writer’s Caucus Mixer.
First, an aside. I spent almost a decade living in the SF Bay Area (before its current era of weird gentrification and hetero-ization). From there, I moved to Albquerque, New Mexico, a place I still consider home (even though I’ve since moved back to California). I loved Albuquerque, but it didn’t have the diversity of the Bay. I remember walking into a gay bar for the first time in months and feeling a weight drop from my shoulders. Like I had been carrying an invisible load with me as I went through my days being a graduate student, teaching my first classes, taking coursework of my own, and that weight said (very quietly), “you are not like them, you are not like them, you are not like them.” And then, two steps into a gay bar, the weight fell away. It was like I’d gone home. I didn’t know anyone there. I’d never been in the bar before, but I knew immediately that I belonged.
That’s how it felt to go to the mixer. Like it no longer mattered that I didn’t know anyone else in the room. Like I didn’t have to be anyone but who I was. Plus, the free drinks helped.
Afterwards – and this is the real reason I’ve been writing this – I returned to my loner status. I went to the hotel restaurant right outside the mixer space. I sat alone. I felt more like myself, someone who didn’t mind being alone in the first place. Across the restaurant, I watched a young writer I recognized from earlier. They were alone. Everytime someone walked passed, they watched them, looking as I had been looking, for some sort of connection. When they looked my way, I waved. I invited them to sit with me. We shared a meal, and I learned that they had come to this conference by themself. For the first time. They were only 18. Their friend was supposed to come as well, but decided last minute not to. They went anyway. That unexpected meal was my favorite part of the conference.
I guess you could say that I had an epiphanic moment reminiscent of a James Joyce story. For I saw in that moment, myelf “as a creature driven and derided by vanity.” I’ve been actively engaging as a Writer (capital “W”) for the last decade, and I recognized that I’d wanted to somehow feel as if I’d leveled up. I was out searching for me, me, me, and forgot that there are many ways to build connections – one is to pass out business cards. Another is to remember that we are all humans existing as humans. To share a table, a drink, a conversation. To keep each other from feeling disconnected.
So yes, it’s a mixer. It is a chance to get some free drinks at a gay bar. And maybe you make career connections. Maybe you meet someone who will publish your novel or your story or poem, or someone who will help such things come to pass. But the mixer is much more than that. It’s a landing zone. A reminded that we have a space, somewhere to go. And that all we need to do to belong is inhabit that space together.
Right now, we’ve only raised $95 out of the $500 needed to hold this event at what is being reported as being the BIGGEST AWP conference ever. Holding this space is more important than ever. Please take a moment to help make this happen. Any donation will help, whether it is $5, $100, or more.
Samantha Tetangco, LGBTQ Writer’s Caucus President