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My Panel Discussion Highlights & Conference Recap from AWP’s 2023 Conference

I’ve just returned from an Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Seattle, Washington! It was a joy to attend—and I also got to speak as part of a panel titled “Different, Disabled, Diverse? Exploring the Liminal Space Between Identities.” In this blog, I’ll talk about my highlights from the conference and recap some of what I talked about in our panel.

This year’s conference was held at the brand-new Seattle Convention Center on Pine Street, a few blocks uphill from the Seattle Westin Hotel where I stayed. According to AWP’s press materials, over 9,000 people had registered for this event! It was an amazing experience, and I loved connecting with so many wonderful people.

Among the attendees were writers, publishers, students, university reps, journalists, poets, agents, administrators, editors, and not-for-profit advocates. Presenters filled over 350 events for attendees to navigate

and engage with. Over 250 off-site events were held throughout Seattle as well. These details I learned from board member Regina Brooks. AWP was originally established as a nonprofit organization in 1967 by fifteen writers representing thirteen creative writing programs. Now they’ve grown into a larger advocacy and community group for writers.

Disabilities and Accommodations at AWP23

I was happy to see that accommodations were high on the priority list for AWP. My friend and fellow panelist Leticia Garcia Bradford was equipped with an electric scooter. This helped her navigate the five floors of the conference center. Each room had a designated area reserved for wheelchairs and scooters. It was nice to see many of the attendees benefiting from this.

Front-row seats were available to accommodate other disabilities and provide space for Deaf patrons to be situated in front of the interpreters.

The thing about disabilities is, I believe we all have one, visible or not. Two women on our panel suffered from multiple sclerosis. Panelist Tamara Sellman, author of Intention Tremor, said, "My leg tremors when I stand up to speak. It creates a huge distraction—my brain focuses on the movement when it should be focused on my speaking, as I have word-finding and speech issues due to MS. If I focus on my jittery leg, I lose my words.” For Tamara, the simple offer of a stool from an event organizer can offer inclusivity for those with physical needs.

Through slurred speech, the practice of stage presentation, and oral training, panelist Leticia Garcia Bradford commanded the articulation of her thoughts, unapologetically grasping the attention of the audience—and they loved her.

Later on, I’ll discuss Jim Kwik, but I often think about his sentiments on our brains’ amazing adaptive abilities. These women contended with medical challenges—and overcame them using techniques they’d learned and practiced. I find this inspiring for myself and others with disabilities.

Disabilities come in all shapes and sizes, leaving no one out. Panelist Dianne Bilyak has an older sister with Down syndrome, and she shared their personal experiences in her novel Nothing Special: The Mostly True, Sometimes Funny Tales of Two Sisters. I think of the people with Down syndrome who I've met. Dianne said to me, "They connect equally to all people, and are often unashamed, adding value to the full spectrum of humanity, and what we take for granted.” Dianne joined our discussion from her home, where she cares for her adult sibling and advocates for the disabled. Through her role as an advocate and caregiver, she is learning how entrenched systemic ableism is, and how often employees, who get paid to support folks living with disabilities, don’t even know what ableism is.

Making New Connections

I am so happy I challenged my fears and attended this event. This was my first time at an AWP conference. While waiting in line to register and receive my name tag, I met Dr. Carla Caglioti and Scott Sullivan from Stony Brook University and The Southhampton Review, who threw out the name Lou Ann Walker! I thought, I know that name! She’s currently the editor of the Stony Brook’s literary journal. I was introduced to her work while earning my B.A. in Deaf Community Studies at Madonna University.

Lou Ann is a CODA, a Child of a Deaf Adult. Her 1986 book, A Loss for Words: The Story of Deafness in a Family, was required reading at Madonna. Lou Ann shares that by writing this book she unveiled the unspoken secrets of her heart. She revealed truths never spoken about or written about before—at that time there were no books that discussed Deafness the way she did. The writing process was therapeutic for her, and she learned that Deaf people, CODAs, and hearing individuals can all relate to the experience of isolation caused by feeling different. She, like so many authors, found the courage to speak from the heart to heal all the broken places. Her story could be ours too. This moment—meeting others who knew about Lou Ann—set the tone for my conference experience—I felt excited to meet new people in my field who shared my passion!

I attended a panel on a topic so many wanted to know about, “Book Promotion by the Numbers: A Transparent Discussion of Costs and Benefits.” This was all about how authors and writers can earn a good living, and even more importantly, get their messages out into the world. The room was overfilled to the point that security requested that thirty-two people leave to avoid having to shut down the event. This was the moment I saw an interpreter signing and a seat opening in the front row, which I quickly scurried to. When the talk was finished, I had the pleasure

of meeting Peter M. Quint, a thirty-year teacher for Deaf children and a debut author. His brand-new novel is called Resilient Silence: A Deaf-Experience Suspense Novel.

Peter’s story is far too familiar in our world. Although he was deafened at age two from meningitis, life didn’t change for those around him. No one searched for a solution or encouraged Sign Language—not until age twenty-five when Peter learned ASL to teach Deaf students. He writes about an experience that no child should have to endure, but it’s an age-old story.

Redemption Press, which published Peter’s book, is also publishing

Rachael Zemach’s memoir, The Butterfly Cage, which recounts her experience as a Deaf teacher in a California public school. Rachael holds nothing back—she says this book will open the eyes of those unfamiliar with Deaf children. It will be a valuable resource. I’m looking forward to reading this hot-off-the-press book and speaking with her about it.

Inspiring Stories I Brought to Our Panel Discussion

In our panel discussion, I shared about a few of the many inspiring people who have brought visibility to the Deaf community. The following are a few highlights with links to websites, books, and resources.

As we learned from deaf poet Raymond Antrobus's story, hearing loss is not a disability. Raymond’s family and teachers thought he had a learning disability. At six years of age, it was discovered he could not hear the words being spoken. Although there were many gaps in what he heard, Raymond had heard laughter from his peers, and shouting in frustration and disappointment from his parents.

It wasn’t until Raymond was an adult and stopped trying to hide his hearing difficulties that his heart spoke clearly with a visual language, Sign Language, and his world changed. His passion, his exposed truth, was embraced and shared with the world through his poetry. In Raymond Antrobus’s picture book, Raymond shares his childhood story through a book he wished was available when he was growing up deaf and misunderstood in a hearing world.

Sara Novic is another individual I spoke about. She spent hours alone, silently connecting with the world through books as she confronted her Deaf identity. The library is where she found a place to belong exactly as she was. Her heart earnestly sought to be heard and give voice to the silent. Sara’s desire to write kept her reading and learning, and eventually helped her earn her MFA in writing.

"Books have always provided me with a sense of solace and companionship when I found the hearing world overwhelming. Growing up, I filled notebooks with the things I was afraid to say aloud. Libraries, too, seem designed for me – a place where one isn't supposed to talk, equality under the rule of silence."

—Sara Novic (The Guardian)

It wasn't until Sara accepted her Deafness—and embraced Sign Language—that her award-winning authorship evolved. She says, "Even when I was unwittingly fighting against it: I would not have become a writer without ASL” (The Guardian). Deafness in itself is not a disability. Together Peter, Raymond, Sara, and so many other authors and writers are working to change the narrative for the next generations.

Jim Kwik, known as the kid with a broken brain, also experienced discrimination, isolation, and misdiagnosis. Due to brain trauma as a child, thinking and understanding were challenging for him. Today Jim is an authority on learning and the brain. He wrote a book called Limitless: Upgrade Your Brain, Learn Anything Faster, and Unlock Your Exceptional Life. This book—his debut book—became a New York Times bestseller.

The voice of Morgan Freeman opens Jim’s podcast with the words, "Just imagine if we could access 100 percent of our brain's capacity." I’ve always found this inspiring. What if we all experienced silence to find the truth about ourselves and those around us? That’s the message I have about ASL: Sign Language is an untapped resource with limitless potential, just waiting for us to unlock its possibilities beyond what’s been thus far imagined.

I also discussed Dr. Carolyn Leaf, a Christian neuroscientist who often discusses the brain's ability to rewire itself. In another blog of mine, The Brain's Ability to Hear in Different Ways, we learn specifically how the brain uses the auditory nerve to translate flashes of light and touch to communicate messages to the brain of a deaf individual. Dr. Leaf’s work ties in with this adaptive ability.

Evelyn Glennie is another Deaf role model who discovered her brain’s capabilities not through the controlled environment of a science lab but through life experience. She was born into a musical family and loved playing music with them. However, she began to lose her hearing around age eleven. She and her family challenged the threat of being excluded from her heart’s passion, music. To her good fortune, a teacher sent Evelyn home with a snare drum (without the drumsticks) to explore.

Evelyn was given the space to explore sound through her body. She touched the drum, and the movements, however slight, could be felt through touch by her auditory nerve. In this way, the music was translated to her and whoever listened to her music. Music notes on the page and in the air send vibrations that both she and the world of hearing musicians could share. I love to recommend Shannon Stocker’s beautiful book, Listen: How Evelyn Glennie, A Deaf Girl, Changed Percussion. This book has a powerful message and story for everyone.

My Own Personal Takeaways and Wrapping up AWP23

Fellow panelist Leticia Escalera inspired me with her story of perseverance with mental and psychological trauma. She is a shining star example of overcoming challenges with a positive attitude. She shared about having faith to simply believe she could, regardless of naysayers. She aspires to inspire. Growing up, it was the faith of her mother that encouraged Leticia that she could do anything. She now believes she can, and she helps others with unwavering kindness and gentleness. She believes you can too. Leticia has an upcoming book called A Journey to Begin in Life. In this memoir, she will share her experience with a learning disability and encouragement for others with disabilities. Stay tuned for this amazing book!

After our panel discussion, a woman came to our table asking for help. “What do you do? How can I help my son? He has a neurological disability. He feels isolated and alone.” Like Lou Ann, Sara, Raymond, Jim, and Peter, this little boy wants only to fit in and belong like everyone else. There is no easy answer. Like the authors I mentioned, I think there comes a moment when you find the courage to face fears and unveil the truth, shed light on it, and recognize that you are not alone—different perhaps, but never alone. Writing can do that, whether in a journal where you unload your inner soul to yourself, or publicly as these authors have, sharing your thoughts with the world.

At the end of the conference, I felt energized and emboldened by my time at AWP. Learning more about the potential for writers was enlightening. Finding and meeting Peter and Rachael was a pleasure. I’m glad I met them in a sea of tables hosted by presses, authors, editors, and guides who covered a city block in the lower level of the conference center. Meeting many other amazing, talented, and gracious people was the highlight of my experience at my first AWP conference. While we are all diverse and different, the message at AWP was loud and clear: you are valued, you are loved, and you have something worth saying, so WRITE! I am proud to say I share the same message.

Thank you to Cristina Deptula, my publicist, for putting together our panel. Cristina is the founder of Authors, Large and Small Literary Publicity Agency as well as editor of Synchronized Chaos Magazine and a content writer formerly with UC Davis's College of Engineering.

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