This is the time of year when my editor’s letter for Under the Gum Tree's newest issue reflects on our collective experience at the annual conference put on by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). Is it cliché because every one else who attended does the same thing? (And this year there were 13,000 of us in Seattle.) Maybe. But it’s also the perfect milestone for a little indie lit mag like Under the Gum Tree to measure its progress. Last year’s AWP conference in Boston was our first time as a vendor at the book fair. We had six issues behind us and our table was at the end of the last row in the corner of the exhibition hall. Probably not the best spot for organic foot traffic. Also? I definitely tried to do too much: sell subscriptions, sell back issues, get people to sign up for our email list, connect with writers interested in submitting.
This year I changed my strategy. I had two main goals: get people to sign up for our email list by giving away buttons and host a reading with previous contributors from all over the world. Check and check. If you were there and you missed our buttons, they were a huge hit. (Not to worry, you can still get one if you’re interested in supporting us in a small way.) If you were there and missed our reading, that was also a huge hit. We hosted a fast and furious nonfiction reading where twelve of our previous contributors read five minutes of their work, and no less than sixty people came out to Caffe Ladro on Pine Street (the most perfect spot for the event, just one block over from the convention center).
Here's a video recording of the reading. Readers (in order of appearance) are Renee D'Aoust, Sheryl St. Germain, Susan Pope, Georgann Turner, Jacqueline Doyle, David Gardner, Jacqueline Alnes, Linda Silver, Mare Biddle, Mandy Len, Erin Ashenhurst and Robert D. Vivian.
Beyond those two successes, here are some highlights of the three-day conference:
Connecting with other journals of creative nonfiction.
One of the great things about a conference like AWP is that it's a rare occasion for all of these people to be in the same place at the same time, and it's a great opportunity to connect with peers--folks who are doing similar things--and learn from each other. We had the chance to do just that with other journals that also publish creative nonfiction such as Brevity, River Teeth, Fourth Genre and Creative Nonfiction.
Connecting with previous contributors.
When I put out a call to our contributors to find out who would be at AWP, I got emails back from no less than twenty-five people. Of those twenty-five, twelve were featured readers at Under the Gum Tree's first ever AWP reading (and, as I mentioned, you can see we had quite the crowd). But I still got to connect with at least twenty-five previous contributors who were all in Seattle for the conference. Some of them stopped by our table to introduce themselves and others came to the reading. And each time I met one of them, I got to personally hear their reaction to the magazine and what we are doing--they thank me for publishing their work, when really I should be thanking them (and I do!) for letting us share their work.
Connecting with folks who we follow online.
We have regular interactions online via Facebook and Twitter, mostly, with folks like Ruminate Magazine and Meghan Ward, both of whom we got to meet at AWP (and Meghan even gave us a shout out in her own #AWP14 wrap-up blog post). When you've only known people online and you have a chance to meet them face-to-face, it completely changes the relationship and brings it to a new, deeper, more memorable level. I got to put hard copies of Under the Gum Tree into the hands of people who will now hopefully remember the magazine because they remember meeting me.
Connecting with nonfiction book publishers.
Last year at the book fair we were neighbors with Excelsior College's press, Hudson Whitman, a small press that publishes nonfiction. This year we reconnected and I learned about their newest book The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease, by Thomas Larson. Not only did I learn about the new book, but also I learned that they are actively seeking nonfiction manuscripts in the select categories of health, alternative education, military, business and technology. (Hint: if you write nonfiction in those categories, check these guys out & send them your book manuscript!)
Connecting with movers and shakers in the nonfiction genre.
Not only did we have a chance to connect with other journals, previous contributors, our online friends, and nonfiction book publishers, but also we connected with bigger names in the nonfiction genre like Judith Kitchen, Sheryl St. Germain (also a previous contributor), Dinah Lenny, Brenda Miller (another previous contributor), and Ira Sukrungruang.
During a rare slow moment while I was working our table, a woman stopped, picked up a copy of Under the Gum Tree, and started flipping through the pages. Her name badge was at my eye level and I recognized it right away. "Sue Silverman," I said, "I just read your book." The book is Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir, which I had just finished a few weeks earlier. We chatted for a few minutes about nonfiction and the power of sharing personal stories. She told me that I was doing important work and before she continued on her way she asked if she could give me a hug.
Where else can all this happen except at AWP?
A better question for us is: When else can all this happen except after three years and ten issues?
See, sometimes stories take time. The story that I had after my first year at AWP as a publisher of a lit mag was not the story I wanted to be telling. The story I had after last year’s conference was a little better, but still not quite the story I wanted to be telling. The story I’m telling now? The one where Under the Gum Tree has published nearly 100 writers; the one where I have met about forty of those writers face-to-face; the one where another thirty of those writers have read their work in front of an audience; the one where our staff is now double the size it was when we started? Yeah—that’s the story I want to be telling. And by this time next year I’ll be telling the story of how Under the Gum Tree has fifteen issues (gulp!) behind us--a feat I wouldn't be able to accomplish without that staff I mentioned. (HUGE thanks to Kate Asche, associate editor & Robin Martin, senior editor, pictured here with me after our reading at AWP14 in Seattle.)
Our story wouldn’t be what it is without you—readers and writers who believe in what we are doing, who support us in our work of finding and sharing stories. Thank you for that. We intend to continue doing that important work.