Surviving (Nay, Enjoying!) AWP

The cold gray months of winter are finally almost over, which means that thousands of literary types are preparing to converge upon a cold city for three days of panels, readings, off-site events, and book fair shenanigans at the 2013 Associated Writing Programs annual conference in Boston.

I have attended AWP’s annual conference every year (with the exception of last year) since 2008. And let me tell you, you don’t go to AWP every year without picking up a few lessons along the way. There are things I wish I had known my first year at the conference in NYC (like, don’t order fancy-ass broccoli chicken pizza at the hole in the wall NY-style pizza place – it will only end badly and you’ll miss most of Joyce Carol Oates’s session; also, budget your book fair time). And I have consistently learned more about how to not only survive, but enjoy the AWP conference with each passing year.

So I’m going to throw my hat in the ring with the 48 other pre-AWP survival posts out there. Here’s my view from the ground and some lessons I can pass on.

don’t be shy.

Go ahead and laugh. Shy? Shy! We’re writers for sobbing out loud! As my friend, Rebecca pointed out, most of us are introverts. We’re shy professionally.

Here’s the thing. For years, when I walked through the book fair, if there was a table I wanted to approach – say, a journal I dream of being published in, or a contest I was curious about but felt too inferior to enter – I would do that “single girl in a bar who wants you to ask her out but will never, ever, ever approach you first” thing:  I walked past over and over again. Sometimes, I would get the nerve to make eye contact or smile, but not really be sure if anyone saw me, so I’d walk by again. Once I really got my courage together, I’d approach the table, brush my hands over the pins/stickers/fliers/sample copies/pens/etc., look interested, and if no one talked to me, I would walk away and criticize myself.

I might as well have been peeling labels off a beer bottle and texting.

This is understandable and normal (normal, I say!) behavior. Being a writer is about putting yourself out there, being vulnerable, and yes, taking a lot of rejection. But here’s the thing:  in Denver, I sat on the other side of the table. I represented Barely South Review and the MFA program at Old Dominion University. And I realized that those tables at the book fair are for journals and programs and organizations that want you to show interest. If journals don’t get submissions and subscriptions, they go out of business. If organizations don’t get donations and volunteers, they go out of business. They want you to talk to them.

know your limitations

This particular piece of advice has many incarnations. AWP is a time to reunite with old friends, make new ones, and obviously, it’s a time to have a few drinks, if you’re so inclined. Remember:  safety first. Keep a buddy with you. Know when you’ve had enough. And if you exceed your limits, remember to take an Alka Seltzer before bed, another in the morning, and eat some food.

But there are other limits. I have friends who will go to literally every single panel. All day. They have to be reminded to eat. For them, it’s a three-day literary fever dream, and taking time out for a nap or lunch is just wasting time and money. And it works for them – they bring snacks, they keep their heads down, and they live the experience.

For me, that would work for about four hours and then I’d cry in a corner. But that’s me. So know your limitations:  it’s okay to skip a panel to go take a nap, or sit somewhere quiet, or hang out with a friend and talk about something (anything) not related to writing. It’s also okay to be the marathon panel-attender.

At the conference in Denver, I stayed after and went to Boulder for a few days with friends. We decided to hike the Flat Irons, and that was a terrible idea for me. I wasn’t acclimated to the elevation, and I thought I was going to die. I didn’t listen to my body, and I didn’t accept (or pay attention to) my limitations. Nowadays, I know better. I know what I can do and still have fun, and that’s where I’m comfortable. Go with what works for you – this is your conference experience.

be realistic

Remember that episode of The Big Bang Theory where the boys head to a conference in San Francisco and they travel by train and Sheldon forgets his flash drive? Here’s a clip to jog your memory.

It’s a lovely idea that Sheldon has, but it’s not realistic. People aren’t accepting your submissions at the conference. They can’t tell you the status of your MFA school application. They have no idea what kind of financial aid you can expect. But they can talk to you about writing or books or how to apply. Just be realistic in your expectations.

be real

Likewise, this is not Hipster Thanksgiving. It’s perfectly acceptable to be excited and be a fan and get totally uncool and tell people that you think their work is amazing or that their poetry helped you through troubled times. It’s perfectly fine to thank people for the work they do. Imagine how you would feel if someone told you that your work impacted them. So be real. Be honest about who you are and how you feel.

be nice to yourself

I recently read the interview between Cheryl Strayed and Elissa Bassist in the new issue of Creative Nonfiction. In it, Elissa Bassist asks Cheryl Strayed about jealousy, and Cheryl Strayed says this:

I would say you shouldn’t waste your energy on jealousy. Ever, ever! But especially on people like me. I’ve been writing a lot longer than you have. When I was in my twenties, it never occurred to me to be jealous of writers who were in their forties, writers like Mary Gaitskill and Anne Lamott and Mary Karr, who are all about fifteen years older than I am—the same age difference as between us. They weren’t my competition because I wasn’t in their league. 

At AWP, you can go from feeling exhilarated – like you’re at creative writing summer camp – to feeling low, stupid, worthless, pitiful, bratty, and devoid of talent or industry. The inclination to compare ourselves to writers who have more publications/money/tenure/friends than we do is natural. It’s also destructive and pointless. Don’t bully on yourself all through AWP. That’s not what it’s meant for.

go to an off-site event


What do writers, burlesque dancers, and roller derby girls have in common? They were at the funnest, most awesome off-site AWP event I’ve ever been to. Thirty poets and fiction writers, reading for two minutes apiece, broken up by burlesque performances, and with roller derby girls around to act as bouncers. I put a fake tattoo on my neck and wore a feathery headband. It got fancy and awesome. Find an event you’ll enjoy and go.

So have fun! Make your own rules! Seriously, though, remember to eat and drink water.

Oh, and I’ll be Tweeting my way through the conference, so don’t forget to follow me on Twitter. It’ll be five days without a picture of my cat – you don’t want to miss that kind of stretch to my creativity.

Have some advice for first time (or even veteran) AWP attendees? Post it in the comments section below. 

5 thoughts on “Surviving (Nay, Enjoying!) AWP

  1. See you there! (I’ll be at the Stonecoast MFA table from 2:30-3:30 on Saturday if you want to practice not being shy.)
    After years of AWP attendance I had adopted the following practice:
    At the end of each day I
    1. Dump out overflowing bag of papers, pens, journals, etc. that I have accumulated at the bookfair on my hotel room floor.
    2. Sort through everything and make piles that make sense to me. Mine are usually
    Pile 1- Items I am super interested in and want to follow up on.
    Pile 2- Items I can’t remember why I picked up or and confused about and consider revisiting the booth the next day with questions.
    Pile 3 – Items that I’m not interested in, but other writer friends might want to check out.
    Pile 4 – Awesome free stuff like pens, notepads, etc.
    Pile 5 – Flyers for contests and events happening during the conference.
    3. Get rid of/share the stuff I am not interested in. Keep the rest.
    I have found it’s much better for me to do this at the end of each day, when the experience and people I talked to at the tables are still fresh in my mind, instead of after the conference when I get home and it’s all a whiskey-soaked blur. It helps me to keep track of the info I received and makes me MUCH more likely to actually follow through with submissions and such instead of getting to the end of the conference, zombie-eyed and barely able to think, looking at 3 days-worth of bookmarks and pens and free journals, and never actually reading or doing anything with it.

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