My First AWP: A Beginner’s Experience Navigating This Important Conference
In addition to being a writer I’m also an academic. Academics attend conferences. In my field, my colleagues often attend the annual MLA conference. I’ve done this once, when the conference was hosted in Philly, which made it easy (and cheap) to attend. Since most of my academic work is steeped in creative writing, I felt a bit disconnected from the various panels at this massive annual conference. Basically, I was not inspired to attend every year—or ever again, actually. In addition, I’m not on the job market, which is another big reason to attend MLA.
Because I was somewhat soured on attending conferences, I never gave the other large conference, AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs), much thought. I have several friends and colleagues that attend yearly—and they had lots of fun stories to share. But I’m not the most outgoing person in situations with large numbers of people—I’m not the type to enter a room and start introducing myself. I also wasn’t sure what I would get out of the experience, other than enjoying the readings (and drinking) that apparently took place every night. But then my novel (The Intersection) came out last year and I felt that attending the conference at least once was important.
Thankfully, I received a lot of useful advice about how to get the most out of my first AWP conference.
There are two main parts to the conference: the many panels and the book fair. The panel schedule starts at 9 and runs until 5:45—broken into six slots, of an hour and fifteen a piece. There are 29 panels running during any given time slot, so you can imagine that there’s something for everyone at any given time over the three days. When I first perused the schedule, I felt compelled to attend a panel for each slot: I was there, so I might as well dive in.
The few people I mentioned this strategy to graciously chuckled and offered counter advice: don’t. It’s overwhelming and you’ll attend a lot of talks that won’t appeal to you.
So, heeding this advice, I selected two panels each day I knew for sure would be of interest (as opposed to just sort of)—and this did curb just how exhausted I was. But what the heck was I going to do with the rest of my time? Well, there’s the book fair, which, according to the AWP website, is “an annual showcase of over 800 exhibitors, AWP’s bookfair is the nation’s largest marketplace for independent literary presses and journals.” So yes, this is the place to spend your time if you’re an author. For a person (me) who would rather get teeth filled than enter a large room and mingle with strangers, this proved a challenge.
With my first free chunk of time, I entered the massive convention hall and walked the eight long aisles. After my initial circuit, I told myself that I was just getting the lay of the land, scoping out who I would work up talking to later—was there another publisher who might be interested in my works in progress? How about a journal receptive to one of my ready-to-submit short stories? I was okay waiting for those answers tomorrow, as I stopped at none of the booths. In the meantime, I set up my computer and wrote. As it turns out, being around a bunch of writers inspires.
Normally I would have headed home—why pretend I’m going to work up the gumption to ‘put myself out there’? But I was pushing myself—albeit slowly—out of my comfort zone, and that meant aligning myself with a group that might serve one of the key functions of attending: making worthwhile connections. In my case, this meant the LGBT Caucus, which was meeting at 6 that night.
I was curious about what the LGBT Caucus did and I was looking forward to meeting other LGBT writers. I had hoped that entering a room with a smaller gathering of people would also better enable me to meet people. Knowing what our common link was—independent of being writers, I hoped conversation would be less anxiety inducing. That night, I learned that the Caucus helps LGBT writers come together, gain help on shaping panels for inclusion in future AWP conferences, and serves as a support system for one another. I’d found my base, and I also had—albeit brief—conversations with nice people.
Feeling a connection to people at the conference, I volunteered at the Caucus table in the book fair for the next day. This allowed me to be part of the fair without wandering aimlessly. I found that I talked easily to people who stopped by the table, and since they were coming to the table, I was more responding than approaching—which is easier for me, as I am good at joining a conversation, not starting one. I also got to talk more with fellow Caucus members and even talk up my novel to those who asked about my work.
Feeling emboldened, I now walked slower through the fair and stopped to chat with tables, asking about what types of books they look to publish and even bought some books—which, as a writer, I absolutely needed to do more of here. This allowed me to interact with publishers and put ones with which I was unfamiliar on my radar for my next book project.
This confidence also carried over into the last two panels I attended, on the conference’s last day. For the first time, I raised my hand at each of the two panels and asked questions, which folded me into the conversations rather than being a passive participant.
When I arrived home, exhausted but inspired, on Sunday, I made of list of people to follow-up with, added new friends on Facebook, and posted a note on the LGBT Caucus’ Facebook page. My first AWP conference was a success, and I was already gathering ideas on how to have an even more productive experience at next year’s conference in Tampa.