How can you survive the experience and live to tell the tale? Read on for my own conference survival tips, based on my past AWP experiences:
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 directed at you. 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. (Any resulting bad karma will be worth it.)
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 an appropriate 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 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.
There are zillions of panels: When you pick up your registration badge, you’ll get a massive tome with information about all of them, and—if last year is an indication—also a shorter schedule that’s easy to carry around. Take some time right away to read through the tome and circle the panels you want to attend on your master schedule. Then ditch the tome. Better yet, go to the AWP website now and read through the 328 pages of the tome and decide now where you want to be when. (Use the planner to print off pages with your preferred panels marked.) No point waking up early on Friday if there’s nothing you want to attend. I checkmark panels I might go to if nothing better is going on and star those that I will make a supreme effort to attend.
Someone will always ask a 20-minute 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. 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 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 those 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 one 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 of The Georgia Review gaze on.
Pre-arrange some get-togethers with friends/teachers/grad student buddies, but don’t over-schedule. You’ll run into people, or meet people, or be invited to a party, or find an amazing off-the-beaten-track bar. Save some time for spontaneity! (Yes, I realize that I’m saying “plan” for spontaneity.)
Don’t laugh at this, but bring along Purell and USE IT often. For weeks after, post-AWP Facebook status updates are filled with writers bemoaning the deathly cold/sore throat/lingering and mysterious illness they picked up at AWP. We’re a sniffly, sneezy, wheezy, germy bunch, and the thought of 10,000 of us packed together breathing on each other, shaking hands, and giving fake hugs of glee gives the CDC nightmares.
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.
Finally, take a deep breath. You’re just as much of a writer as the other 9,999 people around you. Don’t let them get to you.