AWP

Give It a Name: Mental Health and the Writing Life (2020 AWP Panel)

I’ll be presenting at two panels at the 2020 AWP Conference in San Antonio, both of which I conceived and put together. Both cover topics that are important to me, and they’re the first AWP panels that I’ll be a part of, which ticks off an item on my bucket list.

The first is scheduled for Thursday, March 5 at 12:10 PM in Room 006C, River Level at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, and it’s the subject of this post.

Give It a Name: Mental Health and the Writing Life

The writing life is one of solitude and struggle, and for some writers who deal with mental illness it can seem insurmountable. Panelists will discuss how identifying and naming their mental health concerns informs their work and opens avenues to successfully navigating the challenging paths towards publication and participating in literary culture. From cultivating a consistent writing practice through marketing and publicity, panelists will share their experiences with coping while working.

I’ll be joined by Bruce Owens Grimm and Sarah Fawn Montgomery. Below are the initial remarks that I’ve included in the event outline:

Managing my depression, anxiety, and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) while pursuing publishing success as a writer requires vigilance, informed life decisions and practices, and balance through outside interests. The first step towards management was to give my particular struggles their proper names. Once I was able to identify them, I was able, through certain interventions, to find balance. Writing is difficult for all writers and often lonely; writing while trying to manage mental health sometimes seems impossible. What strategies work best for handling the solitude that writing requires, the constant rejection, the pressures of networking and fitting in, etc. are as unique as our individual writing voices, but general practices through therapies such as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) have proven helpful, and I’m here to witness this. I’ve also found that avoiding loading so much of my identity into my writing has helped with perspective and coping. Alongside writing, I’ve found that fitness, bibliotherapy, music, and working with my hands have provided a crucial foundation from which I send my work out to be picked apart, rejected, and sometimes accepted.

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This event is also important for me because it’ll be the first time I’ll publicly speak about my mental health, and I recognize that it’s a crucial first step if I’m going to pursue memoir/essay writing that explores my personal history.

I want to be open to all possibilities, and I want to open myself to others so that I might be able to offer help or an empathetic ear. I’ve also been planning on pursuing a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling, and I’d like to explore my own experiences as a means with which to prepare. Ultimately, I’d like to serve under-served clients with personality disorder diagnoses, if possible.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The panel comes first, and so if you or someone you know is attending the conference and may be interested in our topic, please consider coming or encourage that someone to attend. At last year’s conference in Portland, I noticed that mental health is under-represented itself on the list of panels. There were a few about trauma and writing, and writing about trauma, and they’re definitely necessary, but there’s so much more that needs the space for discussion. (To be fair, mental health topics are much better represented at this year’s conference, so cheers to the selection committee. This is a great step forward!) I also believe that there’s a need and room for an AWP mental health caucus, but that’s a topic for another day.

So You’re Attending the AWP Conference for the First Time

Yes, this is another blog post offering advice on how to get the most out of your AWP Conference experience. No, I don’t consider myself an expert. In fact, the 2020 edition will only be my fourth, but since I’m always anxious to maximize my time and money investments (and since I really enjoy reading AWP advice blogs myself), I thought I’d go ahead and add my thoughts to the discussion.

Be Prepared

Before you go:

Practice due diligence. Read the blogs. Ask anyone who’s attended even once. Read and reread the schedule, and consider downloading the app instead of relying on the printed version. I’m the kind of writer who still loves hard copies of almost anything, but the app has proven to be a big help for me for the previous two conferences I attended.  Feel free to double book hours, then enjoy the exquisite pain when you have to decide between them, or ditch both to go to lunch with friends or for another visit to the book fair.

Take some time to honestly assess your needs, at this time, as a writer. My book was published just before my second AWP conference, and aside from planned events like an author signing, I wanted to attend panels on book promotion and marketing, and anything else related to the business aspects of writing. I also looked into agent panels with my eye to future manuscripts. At the book fair, I focused on gracious networking and finding ways to bridge between my book and publisher and other presses. I took the time before I traveled, to brainstorm and commit to my then current needs.  I assess my current needs as honestly as I can ever since, and I find that I’m rewarded with a successful conference, although there are inevitable audibles called.

When You’re There

Trust your planning, but be open to the changing flow of the conference. If you hit 75% of your goals (and so much of what comes from that after is out of your control), then you’ve done well. Make sure you have everything you need for the intense days of business, then set all of that aside and enjoy the off-site events or parties or both at night. Blow off steam, rest, then get ready for another wave the next day.

I’m an introvert, but I love the energy of the conference, and finding the energy deep inside is rewarding. Remember that you’re surrounded by people who totally understand your struggles, concerns, successes, and goals. It’s such a rare thing, really, so take the time to enjoy it. When you feel overwhelmed, find some space to reset. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. Don’t feel like you’re missing out if you have to go back to your room for a couple of hours.

Talk to the writer. Chances are, they’ll be more than happy to give you a little of their time. Don’t take too much of it, though. If they turn out to be not so gracious, well, remember they’re human, too. Walk away and don’t let it get to you.

Remember that, although an event like this speaks of privilege in certain ways, it doesn’t mean that you don’t belong there. You do. Trust your talents. If you see a lack of space for certain populations of writers, find a way to help expand your presence. Find the caucus that speaks to your lived experience and help out.

What to Take

  • comfortable shoes
  • a backpack (your body will thank you!)
  • a notebook
  • business cards*
  • some cash (generally useful in an emergency, even in the days of Uber)
  • a sense of adventure (go out and learn about San Antonio and its lit scene!)
  • room for your book and swag haul in your luggage

*Consider whether you’re ready for the sort of networking that requires a business card. And, let me tell you, you’re probably underestimating yourself here. If you’re working with a lit mag, a press, an organization, or if you’re serious about placing your work or yourself somewhere, even if you’re currently a first-year MFA student, then you need  business cards.

Final Suggestions

  • Register on Wednesday, if you can. Avoid the crush and rush of Thursday morning registration.
  • Schedule in some self-care. You’re going to feel overwhelmed. Plan carefully.
  • Consider buying a book at a featured author signing event. They’ll be very appreciative, and you’ll experience one of the things that makes the book fair so special.
  • For that matter, consider buying a book from an author whose background is different from yours and from those of the authors you typically read. The goodwill of the conference is a good chance to expand your worldview.
  • And don’t avoid the book fair! It’s the biggest of its kind you’re probably ever going to experience.
  • Learn about programs that AWP offers, such as the Writer-to-Writer Mentorship Program and the Writer-to-Agent Program. I’ll be serving my third season as a mentor with the former, and if you have any questions, feel free to ask.
  • Meet a few new people every day of the conference. I’m not used to pushing myself out of my comfort zone, but I’ve found it rewarding to talk to people I’ve never met before at the conference. Remember, there are about 12,000 people who have a good idea what it’s like to be a writer these days.
  • When the conference is winding down on Saturday night, start figuring out what you might like to do for KC in 2021. That deadline for panel submissions is coming up faster than you think.

Year-end Thanks

My book, The Dead Will Rise and Save Us, has been out for just about a year now, and since it was the first year of my first book, it was a special one.  I want to thank everyone who bought, read, and shared it.  I was hoping that it would do well, and since it has already seen a second print run, I can say that I’m more than pleased with its success.  The best things about the publication side of the writing life are the people you meet and the conversations you have.

The AWP conference in LA this year was a great time and taught me a lot about the business end of this.  I met or reconnected with a number of passionate writers, editors, and publishers, people whose passion advances the culture of literature.  (See an earlier post for more on the conference, including pics.)

2017, for me, will be exciting.  I’ll be relocating to El Paso, TX (my hometown) and hoping to finish my first novel.  There will be more readings/events coming up, including a big one in February that I’m dying to announce.  I’m excited about what’s to come.

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NMSU Reading and AWP Pics & Notes

I’ll be reading on the New Mexico State campus this Friday, April 8 at 7:30 PM in the Health and Social Sciences 101A auditorium.  Below is info from the Facebook event page.

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Like to hear a good story? How about two? Please make room on Friday for this very special night of story-telling. Paul Pedroza will read from his collection, The Dead Will Rise And Save Us, and MFA candidate Savannah Johnston will share her fiction from her thesis. It’s going to be such a treat! One that you want to share with friends, family, and acquaintances you want to impress.

NMSU Reading

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The AWP16 conference was good times.  Not only did I get to spend a lot of time with writers and friends and writer friends, but I also enjoyed a successful book signing and a fortifying session at the AWP Writer-to-Writer Mentorship Program table.  As a mentor, I enjoyed answering questions from writers who are a little hesitant about applying for MFA programs and are exploring their options, but I also learned a lot about the challenge of balancing full lives with writing dreams.

Upcoming Appearances, AWP, and Release Party Photos

If you’re heading to Los Angeles next week for the AWP Conference, stop by the Veliz Books table (#2039) at the book fair on Thursday, March 31 from 2-3 PM.  I’ll be signing copies of my story collection, The Dead Will Rise and Save Us.

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I’ll be reading on the New Mexico State campus in Las Cruces on April 8.  The event starts at 7:30 PM in the Health and Social Services auditorium, room 101A.  Details about the reading series can be found here.

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On February 19, my book was officially released at a special event held at the 501 Bar & Bistro in downtown El Paso.

The turnout was great, and it was a special night that I won’t soon forget.  Below are some pics from the event.  (Photo credits: Veliz Books, Laura Caldera-Marquez, Carol Fonseca)