It’s baaaa-aaaack! AWP23 is about to descend upon Seattle, Washington…and since I started thinking about restaurants and where I’m going to eat, I guess it’s time to post my AWP survival tips, honed after (yikes!) 20ish years of attending AWP conferences. "Survival guide" takes on a different feel in what is being called a "post-pandemic world," so my main point is to do what you need to feel safe personally and to take actions to protect the safety of others. For me, the risk of eating in a restaurant might feel personally worth it, but then how hard is it to sit quietly in a large room, listening to other people speak and wear a mask? My main tip here is to be thoughtful with regard to mask etiquette.
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, despite their best efforts, 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). I suppose it’s hard to determine who is “famous” and so on…in any event, you don’t want to find yourself scrunched into a 2’x2’ square on the carpet, and so see the following tip:
To avoid being stuck sitting on the floor, arrive early to panels you really, really want to attend. And, in fact, official AWP does not sanction sitting on the floor because it’s a fire hazard and you’ll be creating a barrier to those who have accessibility needs. Not sure how they feel about standing in a herd in the back? The point is, don’t sit on the floor—be mindful of others if there’s a herd of standees, and arrive early.
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 flicker and fade). Undoubtedly this is why I have never been published in Unnamed Very High Caliber Magazine, having walked out on that editor’s panel.
There are zillions of panels. And there's an app. Sadly for me, I dislike apps and I miss the massive tome of information and the smaller printed guide. BUT! Time marches on. If you're not an app person, and maybe even if you are, I suggest taking the time NOW to go to AWP’s website and scroll through the schedule and select EVERY panel that sounds even moderately interesting, and load those into the “my schedule” feature. Keep that stored on your favorite technology (mine is a sheaf of printed paper…which may be smart since I often forget how/where to re-access “my schedule,” which requires logging in and somehow finding “my account”; I assume app people are more adept than I am). Anyway…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. Give yourself a couple of options at each time slot so that if a room is too crowded, you have an interesting alternative.
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. Also, everyone is groaning inwardly anytime someone says, “I have a question and a comment” or anytime someone starts out by saying, “Well, in my work-in-progress, the main character is….”
Don’t 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 absolutely everything you’ve overheard during your offsite dinner.
Same advice above exactly applies to the overpriced hotel bar. Also, if you happen to get a chair at the bar, or, goodness, EVEN A REAL LIVE TABLE, hang on to it!! People will join you if they see you’ve got a spot! Famous people! I mean it: the only reason to ever give up a table in the hotel bar is because the bar has shut down, you’ve consumed every bit of liquid in the clutter of glasses, and a beefy bouncer is headed your way. (Also, here’s a fun fact: AWP alcohol consumption often breaks sales records at hotels.)
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, definitely do spend some money! These journals and presses rely on OUR support.
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 or the UPS store at the convention 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. Even before Covid, post-AWP Facebook status updates and tweets 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 12,000 of us packed together breathing on each other, shaking hands, and giving fake hugs of glee gives what’s left of the CDC nightmares.
Finally, take a deep breath. You’re just as much of a writer as the other 11,999 people around you. Don’t let them get to you.