Thursday, March 25, 2010

Work in Progress: Tips for Surviving AWP

The AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference is fast approaching. This year the circus will be descending upon Denver, and I doubt that city has ever seen so many angsty writers roaming around.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the spectacle that is the AWP conference, the official definition seems rather bland in comparison to the reality:

“Each year, AWP holds its Annual Conference in a different region of North America in order to celebrate the outstanding authors, teachers, writing programs, literary centers, and small press publishers of that region. The Annual Conference typically features 350 presentations: readings, lectures, panel discussions, and Forums plus hundreds of book signings, receptions, dances, and informal gatherings. The conference attracts more than 8,000 attendees and more than 500 publishers. It’s one of the biggest and liveliest literary gatherings in North America.”

In reality, it’s a world onto itself, and to help the uninitiated and even the old pros, here are my suggestions for survival in this unique environment:

Wear comfortable shoes, at least most of the day. There’s lots of traipsing around long hallways and the long (sometimes uncarpeted) aisles of the book fair. It’s also inevitable that the one panel you really, really, really want to see will be in a teeny-tiny room and you’ll have to stand in the back…or sit on the floor; see the following tip:

Wear comfortable clothes, preferably taking a layer approach. Wherever you go, you will end up either in A) an incredibly stuffy room that will make you melt, or B) a room with an arctic blast headed. Bulk up and strip down as needed. Also, as noted above, the AWP conference staff has a knack for consistently misjudging the size of room required for a subject matter/speakers (i.e. Famous Writer in room with 30 chairs; grad student panel on Use of Dashes in Obscure Ancient Greek Poet in room with 300 chairs), so you may find yourself scrunched into a 2’x2’ square on the carpet; see the following tip:

To avoid being stuck sitting on the floor, arrive early to panels you really, really want to attend. If you are stuck on the floor, hold your ground with a big bag and/or coat to get yourself some extra space. Whatever you do, do not be nice and squeeze over…those panels can seem VERY LONG when someone’s knee is wedged in your ribs.

If a panel is bad, ditch it. Yes, it’s rude. Yes, everyone does it. (Be better than the rest by at least waiting for a break, but if you must go mid-word, GO.) I can’t tell you the high caliber of presenters that I have walked out on, but think Very High. Remember that there are a thousand other options, and you have choices. The only time you you have to stick it out is if A) the dull panel participant is your personal friend or B) the dull panel participant is/was your teacher or C) the dull panel participant is your editor/publisher. Those people will notice (and remember) that you abandoned them mid-drone and punish you accordingly (i.e. your glowing letters of rec will instead incinerate). Undoubtedly this is why I have never been published in Unnamed Very High Caliber Magazine, having walked out on the editor’s panel.

Someone will always ask a 20-minute long question that is not so much a question but a way of showing off their own (imagined) immense knowledge of the subject and an attempt to erase the (endlessly lingering) sting of bitterness about having their panel on the same topic rejected. Don’t be that person. Keep your question succinct and relevant. Maybe even write it down first, before you start to endlessly ramble, because, you know, you’re a writer. And yes, if you are “that person,” everyone will mimic your annoying question to their friends in the bookfair aisle, and your career is over.

Don’t ever say anything gossipy on the elevator, unless you want the whole (literary) world to know it. Do listen up to the conversations of others on the elevator, and tell your friends what you’ve overheard over your offsite dinner, embellishing as necessary.

Same advice above exactly applies to the overpriced hotel bar.

Support the publications at the bookfair. Set a budget for yourself in advance, and spend some money on literary journals and books and subscriptions, being sure to break your budget. Do this, and then you won’t feel bad picking up the stuff that’s been heavily discounted or now being given away free on the last day of the conference. But, please, do spend some money!

Just because something is free, you don’t have to take it. Unless you drove, you’ll have to find a way to bring home all these heavy books/journals on an airplane. Or you’ll have to wait in line at the hotel’s business center to ship them home. So, be as discerning as you can when you see that magic markered “free” sign on top of a pile of sad looking journals, abandoned by the grad students with hangovers who didn’t feel like dealing with their university's bookfair table.

It may be too late for some of you, but it’s inevitable that you will see every writer you’ve ever met in the aisle of the bookfair at some AWP or another…so I hope you were nice to all of them and never screwed anyone over. Because, yes, they will remember, and it’s not fun reliving all that drama as the editors to The Georgia Review gaze on.

Escape! Whether it’s offsite dinners/drinks/museums/walks through park/mindless shopping or whatever, do leave at some point. You will implode if you don’t. Have fun, everybody!

More tips? Send them here.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.